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Five Pillars Yoga

Jai Amma!

The Famous Hugging Saint Is in NYC July 1 - 3

Amma is in town this weekend as part of her annual North American tour. If you’re thinking about going to the Javits Center, here are some tips:

  • Arrive early.
  • Be prepared to stay late.
  • Go with the proverbial flow.
  • Be present! Your hug with Amma won’t last forever.
  • If someone is making dosas in the food hall, eat one.
  • Take it all in. If you’ve never been to India, the contained chaos of an Amma event is almost like being there.

So, why go? Here’s my story:

A few years ago I spent several months traveling through India. I had a very open itinerary (read: no plans), a flexible schedule (no return ticket) and an emergency stash of antibiotics in case things got messy (they did).

I had heard of Amma before I arrived. Several studios in New York had her picture on their altars, and I knew friends who had stayed at the Javits Center until sunrise to receive a hug from her when she was in town. But I was skeptical. Who was this woman people showered with so much devotion? The whole thing smelled culty to me, so I kept a polite distance.

Still, I was curious. When the friend I was traveling with saw that Amma was at her ashram and would be there for the duration of an intensive yoga training that started that week, we took it as a sign. We registered that night and arrived in the steamy southern state of Kerala a few days later.

Amma’s ashram looks like a bright pink wedding cake and is as close to a convent or a monastery as a New York bodega. In fact, there’s a lot of stuff for sale: Amma’s signature rose perfume in the gift shop, fresh juice from the fruit stand, and crunchy spirulina from the wellness shop.

The ashram is home to over 3,000 people, a number that shifts and expands with short and longterm guests, and operates like a small village. It is a dynamic, fascinating and confounding place.

Now I was even more curious. Who was this woman?

Born Mata Amritanandamayi in Kerala in 1953,  Amma had, by all accounts, a rough childhood. Pulled from school to help run the household, she often gave her family’s meager food scraps to those with less, resulting in punishments and beatings from her family. She persisted and soon coupled her generosity with spontaneous hugs — a physical gesture from a young girl that, then and now, was essentially verboten.

Mata’s acts of generosity and affection grew, earning her the name Amma, or Mother. The number of people clamoring for her compassion grew too. Soon, she had a following.

AMMA2

Now Amma is famous for her hugs. She gives them, usually for hours at a time, as darshan. Darshan is one of those Sanskrit words and concepts that is difficult to define. It is a blessing, a vision, a glimpse of the divine. The way I see it, Amma’s work is the giving of love and tenderness without condition. Her divine nature is revealed in those moments of connection, making it a gift and an offering both.

It is also a feat of physical and spiritual endurance. Amma won’t stop until everyone in line gets a hug, and her hugging marathons have lasted over 24 hours. She has hugged upwards of 33 million people. She is always fresh, always present. The ions in her air space feel a little but more charged.

I received darshan three times over the course of my stay at Amma’s ashram. By the end, I was in. I wasn’t about to sell my belongings and move to Kerala, but any cynicism or doubt I’d had about Amma’s work had evaporated. The simplicity of her offering made it seem like there must be something else to it, but it is simply profound.

That’s my experience with Amma. If you’re curious, catch her on tour this summer and see what comes up for you. And, if you go, do yourself a favor and get a dosa.

To learn more about Amma, her charitable works, her current tour and her story, visit amma.org.