In case you’ve been living under a rock, Amma is an Indian woman who travels around the world giving out hugs. She’s hugged millions and millions of people and in the process collected a large following who claim she’s a saint and has special healing powers. She’s on a U.S. tour now, and happened to be nearby, so I made the trip up to her local ashram with some friends to check it out. I was told that her appearances generate a crazy carnival vibe and I like carnivals. Plus, I really needed a f—ing hug.
Our little motorcade was led through the maze of the ‘shram parking lots by a succession of Amma followers – all wearing white clothing and a somewhat blank expression. As our cars passed, each one put a hand to their heart in a sort of love salute which sounds way creepier than it actually was.
After walking up a small road dotted with various Amma-related businesses, such as the Amma Chai House and the Amma Thrift Store (which wasn’t open yet, dammit), we came to the ashram doors where we were greeted by yet another white-garbed Amma follower. I got my hug ticket and went in scope out the scene and sit in a metal folding chair to patiently wait my turn.
The ashram was full of people waiting. Waiting and shopping. Everywhere you looked, there was stuff to buy. Bindis, Amma headshots, Amma keychains, Amma-blessed malas, Amma’s perfume line, stuffed Jesus dolls (?), books, DVDs – you name it. Jeez, I say it like it’s a badthing. I bought the most adorbs Ganesha scarf, evar. Yes I did. And the lady who sold it to me was wearing a brooch that contained a good-sized chunk of Amma’s wiry black hair. That was pretty gross, but not as disturbing as the case of used jewelry and watches which, apparently had been “donated” on the fly to fund Amma projects – I had my eye on a 1980’s Rolex Datejust, but the thought of picking up something from an obvious karma pawn shop sorta gave me bad vibes.
Finally, after what felt like 5 hours of watching Amma videos, Amma herself entered the building. Everyone stood up and a few people started to cry. She made her way up to the stage and assumed the lotus position on a big stack of pillows. I watched with great interest as she did this, because my friend Paul has a theory that in order to sit for up to 22 hours at a stretch handing out hugs, Amma must be sitting on a camouflaged potty chair. [More on this later.] Some dudes chanted for a while and then Amma’s right hand man, who looked like a marine biologist doing an impression of a guru doing a sarcastic imitation of a swami, held the mic way too close to his lips and led us in a meditation:
Amma hopped off her nest and the followers scurried about, building what looked like a pillow fort with an embedded chair – which actually might lend some credibility to Paul’s theory about the secret potty seat. Anyway, once she was in the chair it was go-time on the hugs, which brought the peripheral shopping frenzy to a screeching halt. As a hug virgin, watching the people approaching her be shoved down to their knees to have their faces smashed into Amma’s bosom, I started to feel a wee bit of panic about having a last-minute freakout and tumbling headfirst into her pee bucket, so I decided to eat a Valium. Then decided I should take another one, you know, in case the first one didn’t work. Unfortunately for me, both of them worked.
Despite the sweet buffering action of my emotion-dampening chemical crutch, watching other people get their hugs was choking me up. Mind you, these weren’t just hippie idiots or bored East Bay soccer moms in the queue – there were elderly people and people with obvious disabilities. Many, many people cried during their hugs. I wondered what really brought them there. The off-chance of a miraculous healing or a simply a straight up, no-strings, heartfelt hug? When was the last time a total stranger gave you a long-ass hug for no reason? Finding yourself in an embrace like that, you’d probably cry, too.
My turn came. Someone pushed me down on to my knees. Someone else shoved me toward her, and I landed face-down in her white cotton robes, enveloped in a cloud of her very affordable signature scent. The hug lasted about 15 seconds, and it was a doozy. Then, she turned my head and whispered into my ear, “My daughter, my daughter.” It was a nice thing to hear, even though she says the same thing to all the girls.
Reeling from the hug, or the Valium, but probably both, I stumbled out into the sunshine and the first thing I noticed was that Amma’s Chai Hut was finally open for business.
I don’t know if Amma’s hug was healing, but I will most definitely testify to the curative powers of a strong green tea latte.