On Sunday, in London, I attended my second cuddle workshop. For some of you these words may conjure up a faintly dodgy image with perhaps sexual connotations. Or perhaps you might think it’s ‘sad’ to pay money to go somewhere where you can get a cuddle. These thoughts have all run through my head at one point. In fact, cuddle workshops are emerging out of an increased awareness of the effects a touch-deprived society has on us as human beings who all need touch to thrive, feel connected, and to belong.

I think this gap is so rarely acknowledged. Those who are not in an intimate relationship – and even some who are – may spend days, weeks, even months without close physical contact with anyone, without having their human skin touched by another human skin. Touch triggers the release of oxytocin which is the ‘feel-good’ factor that creates bonding between mother and newborn baby, between people who are ‘falling in love’, and it helps create a strong sense of belonging and being wanted in any human being.

While I am lucky enough to have a cuddly toddler, it always makes me wince to see adults wheedling, “Please, give Daddy/Mummy a cuddle, come on,” to an unwilling child. We cannot expect our children to meet our needs – we’re here to meet theirs, after all, and anything else is unhealthy and inappropriate. I think we need to be able to experience touch on our own terms and ask for our own needs to be met, and my experience is that cuddle workshops can provide an arena to explore this.

The reality is that in a British culture – and the South African one I grew up in is very much informed by this culture – many of today’s adults have grown up touch-deprived in one way or another. I have heard men share that the ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality has resulted in parents refusing to comfort them physically as little boys, and even girls have shared that their parents did not show them physical affection, particularly past a certain age.

One thing that I realised at the workshop on Sunday is that in adolescence, as sexuality awakens, touch is again ‘on the menu’: but only with a sexual agenda. Is it any wonder teenagers are often so quick to get sexually involved, when it seems to offer them the connection and intimacy they so crave, even if they are not consciously aware of it? After that, unless we were fortunate enough to grow up in a physically affectionate family, touch seems to be forever linked with sex, and we become very wary of touching anyone, and suspicious of anyone touching us.

I was lucky enough to not really have any preconceptions when I attended my first one at Midsummer Camp last Summer Solstice. I was already in such a ‘loved-up’ state from being part of a wonderful setting, sharing food, play, affection and deep soulful talks with some really special people who became like family during that week – some of whom I am still in regular contact with.

So, because I was already feeling very open, it wasn’t much of a stretch for me to do a cuddle workshop: to massage and hug others, and be massaged and hugged, and to end up in a huge ‘cuddle puddle’ at the end of the workshop with everyone there. And yes, everyone remained fully clothed in case you are wondering!

Here are some of the words from the workshop press: “a safely boundaried space in which to connect with others, give and receive quality non-sexual touch and experience the joy and deep relaxation of close physical contact; to discover and let go of hidden agendas around physical contact, and playfully explore your boundaries, enjoyment and challenges around touch. ”

The workshops also promise to help you “gain tools for getting more satisfactory touch in your life and to learn how to say no (and yes) powerfully and comfortably.” As someone who has struggled with boundaries in my life, practising saying ‘no’, and becoming aware of whether or not I really want a particular kind of touch from someone, was challenging but empowering.

At Sunday’s workshop, facilitated by James Lockley and Anna Nathan, it really showed that I had been in a touch-deprived zone for a while. I felt much more vulnerable and nervous than I had at Midsummer Camp, and it took me a while to ‘get into it’. I experienced some very difficult feelings coming up when everyone spontaneously moved into a ‘cuddle puddle’ at the end – I felt a need to protect my own space, but I also wanted to be a part of it. I gave myself space to feel these feelings – there was no pressure to be in contact if one didn’t want to – and eventually, when I felt like reaching out again, I joined in, and was glad that I did.

What I  noticed afterwards as I travelled back to Brighton and dealt with busy Victoria Station and people in various ‘closed-off’ states, was that I continued to feel very present in my own body in a way I normally find difficult to access, often tending to ‘live in my head’. I felt a stronger awareness of my boundaries and less hesitant about moving away from people if they were crowding my space. I also felt a profound compassion for the people I saw, a sense that we were part of a human family that all have the same needs, no matter how much we may try to hide it.

Just as I was wondering how to create more of this touch in my everyday life back in Brighton, I bumped into a friend yesterday who I am just starting to get to know – and she gave me a warm, heartfelt hug. Like many things in my life, I know I can move closer towards this way of being and feeling with others, if I keep holding the intention and remaining open in my heart. In the meantime, practice sessions are always welcome!