PORTLAND, Maine — “This feels like being held by a mother,” said Wren Withers.
It’s 10:30 a.m. on a Friday and the Portland personal trainer is lying on a bed loaded with pillows in a downtown office building. As sunshine streams through the window, she cuddles intimately with a woman she just met, asking if she can place her head on her stomach. Soon, the 34-year-old assumes the fetal position, closes her eyes and breathes deeply.
There is nothing seedy going on in this Portland office on St. John Street. Far from it.
“As a culture, we don’t snuggle enough,” said Lea Moon, owner of Snuggle You Up, a professional cuddling service.
For the next 30 minutes, Moon, a Reiki master, meditation teacher and conscious dance facilitator, will caress and gently stroke her client in nonsexual, affirmative motions. Over a month ago she launched Snuggle You Up to reconnect people to “a basic human need” — touch.
In one-on-one sessions she spreads the unspoken, healing language of close contact.
“As primates, touch was essential. As we become attached to our digital devices, we become less and less touch-centric,” said Moon, a Portland native with purple-and-pink-streaked hair who has worked with hundreds of people administering various forms of bodywork, hands-on healing and therapeutic touch for 25 years. She also teaches and practices meditation.
“This is a brand new modality that is just coming out. It’s a mindfulness approach. There is a quietness and stillness, deep relaxation. You can feel the room exhale,” said Moon.
Unlike established therapies, snuggling is emerging ahead of certification programs, says Moon. The concept is taking off on the West Coast. The first convention, Cuddle Con, was held in February in Portland, Oregon. The daylong event was packed with educational seminars.
What’s all the fuss?
Studies have shown that tactile stimulation can do everything from relieve childhood trauma to affect levels of the stress hormone cortisol during early development.
“A gentle embrace or shoulder rub given selflessly can rewire the synapse of your brain for healthy resolution,” she said. “There is nothing like that mama love.”
An intense cuddle can also get you over a crushing breakup, which is how Moon came to snuggle for a living. When her partner of five years unexpectedly left her for her best friend, she went into shock.
“My nervous system was deeply impacted,” she said. “I could literally feel myself shaking.”
Her past experience with healing arts told her she needed to be held.
“I called up my friends and asked them to come over and hold me and they were kind of weird about it,” she recalled.
Moon was hesitant to start dating again just to have a hug.
“I didn’t want someone to hold me with an agenda,” said Moon, who meditates several times a day.
She knew the solution was right between her arms. Somewhere between yoga, meditation and massage falls snuggle therapy. The receptive practice, purported to heal depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety and other malaises, seems effortless.
But exactly where snuggle therapy fits in the medical world remains unclear. Several local doctors and psychology professors sidestepped the issue, declining to comment.
An article in January on the Wall Street Journal’s website explored snuggle therapy as a possible front for something risque. The newspaper contacted a half dozen police departments in towns where snuggler businesses operated and discovered all followed the law.
It’s as easy as reaching out and touching someone for a sustained period. A deliberate hug held for three long breaths can deliver a renewed sense of calm, said Moon.
“You have to open yourself up to the moment,” she said.
For $60, clients have a brief discussion with Moon and indulge in 50 minutes of cuddling, spooning and snuggling and do what comes naturally in a relaxing room with plants, colorful art and a generous-sized bed.
The best part for a first-time snuggler?
“Asking someone for what you need without expecting something in return,” said Withers.
Touch, warmth, proximity, vocal tones, all convey affirmative messages to an unbalanced psyche and body.
“Touch makes us stronger, healthier and happier,” said Moon. “Touch makes us more resilient and productive.”
It worked for Withers. Slowly sitting up and putting on her glasses, she felt more open — mentally and physically.
“I feel very mellow, similar to after a massage,” she said following a half-hour cuddle session with Moon where they shared laughter and shifted positions.
Moon’s clients range in age, from 20 to 70. The average age is 42. She has cozied up to 12 customers so far and would like to make inroads with the elderly population.
“People starting in their late 60s can have no touch in their lives,” she said.
When Withers saw Moon on Friday, she knew she was in good hands. “This lady looks very comfy,” she said.
There don’t appear to be any other cuddlers-for-hire in Maine, but there are a few in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, says Moon, pointing to sites like The Snuggle Buddies as a digital directory for hugs on demand.
Moon, who was signing Withers up for a second session, looks forward to seeing the results from multiple sessions.
“It’s about living an embodied life, who we are in all we do, health and happiness,” she said. “My capacity to love can hold them. I care about people. I’m willing to be open and engage them.”