Photo: Peter Klauzner/Keystone/AP
As I remove my shoes and ascend stage left, my heart is racing. Along with several hundred others, I've come for a three-day retreat that promises daily embraces. (The $375 cost covers room and board; except at her seven U.S. retreats, visiting Amma is free.) A hive of rapturous devotees encircles Amma. To her right stands the regal-looking Swami Dayamrita Chaitanya, a former atheist and filmmaker from Kerala who had once planned to out her as a fraud in a documentary—but who, after watching her lick the pus-filled sores of a leper, went instead to live with her on her ashram.
Except with family and close friends, I tend not to be a hugger. It makes me feel vulnerable to just throw my arms around someone, so with work acquaintances, neighborhood friends, and even my sister-in-law, I usually reach out my hand, only to feel awkward when they try to hug me. My knee-jerk froideur is too bad, though. Because underneath hugs' intended meanings—hello, goodbye, I like you, I love you, I missed you, I'm sorry—they also communicate a universal, unspoken sense that another person sees and approves of your deepest core, that some real, essential you has somehow shone through the cracks in the version you present to the world, with its ego and hang-ups and baggage. By hugging so indiscriminately, Amma strips away everything but a profound feeling of validation. She shows you the real, Divine you, say her followers, the one that's just like her: motivated by love. Despite her amiable image, this ruthless ego-crushing is Amma's real goal, according to Swamini Krishnamrita, an Australian who met Amma when they were both in their 20s. "You'll never know who you really are with this shadow saying, 'You're too fat, you're too thin, it's this other person's fault,'" says the swamini. "The ego stops us from seeing the true beauty of life and people."
As I try to consider whether a single hug can subvert my petty human mind, I'm deposited into a chair, then moved into the chair in front of it, advancing closer to Amma until finally someone asks me what language I speak and whisks me gently onto my knees, helpfully placing my elbows on either side of Amma's round frame and all but collapsing me forward onto her thin white robes, which appear to be caked with other people's bronzer. She rocks me while whispering firmly in my ear, "Ma, ma, ma, ma, ma, ma." I feel safe and comfortable squashed against her soft body, but the whole time I am thinking, I am hugging Amma. I am hugging Amma. Eek, everyone is watching. Am I feeling something? What do I feel? Do I look stupid? Is that my ego talking? Her arms are delicate but strong. She has a deep, throaty laugh and smells of rose and sandalwood. When it's over, I'm shooed to the side of the stage, where devotees are permitted to convalesce from their hugs in Amma's presence.
Eventually I stumble off the stage and buy a watermelon cooler at a stand called Amba Juice. The brief exhilaration of my hug fades, and my mind commences its usual pacing. Geez, I'm exhausted. I want a brownie. Am I going to get sick from staying up so late? I miss my kid. Am I too cynical? Though it's almost 1 A.M., no one else seems tired. All around me Indian families, older American couples in khaki pants, and lithe young women who look like they just wandered out of yoga class nibble on dosas and talk animatedly in lilting Indian accents. Who are these people? Don't they have jobs? Exhausted, I book a massage at a "healing" stand for 1:30 A.M.
My soft-spoken therapist, Lisa Levine, first visited Amma in 2007. "I cried right away," she says. "Because I felt disappointment." Two days later she went back for another hug, after which, she says, "I heard a little voice in my head saying, 'This is just the beginning.' And I'm not one who hears voices. At least, I wasn't then." Eventually she felt inspired to close her jewelry business and become a healer. Since then, "I've been getting happier and happier," she says. "It's like a cleansing process." Levine visits Amma several times a year, volunteering her services as a massage therapist. "You're not worshipping this person," she says. "You're worshipping these qualities and calling them out in yourself."
Many of Amma's followers have similar stories. Walt Freese, the affable former CEO of Ben & Jerry's, waits in line for a hug wearing a blue polo shirt and beaded necklace; in a room full of loose linen, he looks like a college track coach. He recalls his first hug, a few years ago, as "a jolt of electricity. Her embrace just felt so unconditionally loving and comforting, with no holding back." Afterward, he was woozy. But Amma wasn't done with him. She directed him to a chair beside her own, where she proceeded to talk to him (through a translator) for an hour about matters as specific as his speedy driving. "She may feel you need something more," explains Freese.
Then there's Dan Marshall, one of Amma's young publicists—he looks more like a Facebook programmer—who knew immediately, when he first visited her at age 9, that she was "the real deal." At 21, unfulfilled by "external things" like the novel he had just published, he dropped out of the Western world to pursue a life of selfless service on her ashram. Now he works late into the night connecting with reporters, coordinating tour logistics, cooking and helping usher devotees to her lap. "I feel like I've won the lottery," he says.
We Hear You!