By Catherine L. Schweig
The restless autumn season—and all her marvelous, transformative mischief—is blowing in.
She announces her entrance with crisp breezes and days that are balanced with equal amounts of darkness and light, inviting us to examine our own relationship with balance, and nature.
For me, autumn is never inconsequential. Instead, it pulls me in all kinds of unexpected and revealing directions, blowing the leaf layers of my—soon naked— identity into the winds of change. Raking old parts of my self into bonfires, I usually ask myself each fall where I fit into this universe, and if my life is in harmony with existence.
The oldest record of how we can enter into a harmonious relationship with life is found in the Vedas, from which the healing Ayurvedic philosophy emerges. For those of us who are most sensitive to the seasonal shifts that happen this time of year, according to Danvantari—the archetypal divine healer in the ancient tradition of Ayurveda—hugs are essential to moving through autumn gracefully.
A healing hug is a nonsexual, physical and energetic exchange between two living beings, which we enter into voluntarily and wholeheartedly, and emerge from feeling soothed and loved.
I’ve always been a physically affectionate person and tend to intuitively initiate more hugs this time of year. Sharing a hug with someone in autumn is especially potent as it serves to ground us amidst the uprooting and scattering effects of this wonderful season of the air—as it’s called in Ayurveda. If your body tends toward a predominately vata constitution—governed by air, you will find hugging especially beneficial during this season.
In Sanskrit, the air element is called vayu and was seen by ancient sages as most closely connected to the life force, or prana, that flows through us all. As prana shifts within us, autumn’s dramatic entrance can make many of us feel like a leaf blown into a whirlwind of inner movement and transformations. These changes, in excess, can manifest as a restlessness, excitement or anxiousness that will keep us from sleep.
The grounding effects of hugs restore the balance required for soothing thoughts and a good night’s rest.
According to Ayurveda, hugging takes advantage of sparsha: a primordial, subtle, unifying force in existence that increases vigor and vitality when two separate energies meet, or touch. When we hug, we engage our sense of touch, which is most intimately connected with the element of air. Air is autumn’s characterizing kinetic element, which then sets into motion all kinds of delightful restorative forces within us; such as an increase of ojas: our primary immune buster.
For a hug to be deeply medicinal, it must last one or more minutes, and ideally—although not essential, our heart chakra should be aligned as much as possible with that of the person whom we are hugging. Our heart chakra, or anahata, corresponds to the element of air and the sense of touch, just like the autumn season does. Within this kind of hug, heartbeats will naturally synchronize, much like the tiny hearts of babies in the womb synchronize with those of their mothers.
In Ayurveda, ojas is one of three vital energies in our bodies that sustains mental and physical health. If we are feeling depleted and stressed, and find our bodies getting sick often, Danvantari recommends more hugging! When we embrace another person, we instantly tap into the body’s natural revitalizing properties, activating the simultaneous release of all kinds of natural, life-enhancing, feel-good chemicals into our blood streams; oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin.
Consistent with marma therapy—which engages the 72,000 channels, or nadis, that run through our bodies—hugging has the potential to regulate the flow of prana through our nadis, restoring a natural rhythm. When the flow of prana is unobstructed, it maximizes our body’s potential to heal itself. Ayurvedic medicine discovered this long before modern scientists, for it highlights our interdependence on each other to thrive, physically and psychologically.
Human life is just not nourished in a vacuum.
At the most fundamental level, nature included in our human experience the need to be held, to be touched, to be hugged. Babies reflect this most unmistakably. Without hugs, we do not grow in healthy ways. Long before mid 20th century theorists like Otto Rank, and modern neuroscientists, asserted the very critical role touch plays in human development, ancient texts from India like the Charaka Samhita, emphasized the importance of physical affection in our lives.
Affection between living beings was also recognized by the ancient Indian sages as essential for the preservation of peace upon the planet. Children, who are held and hugged often, grow up to be healthier adults. Humans who are raised feeling secure and loved, will be more likely to act lovingly toward the world in general. In this context, hugging can become an act of peace, benefiting the health of our whole planet.
Conversely, when we are denied the touch, or the embrace of another person, it could be regarded as an act of violence. In fact, going without human touch is so damaging that certain cultures will use deprivation of touch as a form of punishment.
Medieval India strayed so far from its original Ayurvedic teachings that repressing and denying human touch became an unquestionable part of the culture. Sadly, an entire class of people emerged, referred to as the “untouchables,” whom no one was allowed to touch, much less hug. Governed by the corrupt and selfish politics of religion, instead of true spiritual principles, the Brahmin priests of the era instigated this cruel, social discrimination.
At that time, a Bengali sage named Chaitanya traveled from village to village, inviting the “untouchables” to chant and dance with him. Breaking all kinds of social customs, Chainatya soon became known for hugging them! Narratives abound of the healing effects of Chaitanya’s hugs on those who the rest of society refused to touch, from lifting their spirits to relieving them of pain. Though Chaitanya’s revolutionary defiance of the rules began to erase many of the injustices of India’s cast system, damaging attitudes still remain in India—and around the world—today, that negate our natural need for affection.
Every single day, people deny themselves the healing benefits that come from embracing one another for all kinds of ill-informed, superstitious reasons.
Some believe that “no hugging rules” support spiritual progress, while others reject hugs as a means of protecting themselves from possession or contamination. The latter are commonly noted fearful rationale prominent in some parts of the planet, where menstruating women, women who have recently had a miscarriage, epileptics and the mentally ill—among others, are denied hugs.
Ironically, according to Ayurveda, we do not protect one another by eliminating hugging from our lives. On the contrary, we do ourselves and the world harm by failing to be sensitive to the natural flow of energies in the universe around us, within our own bodies and the harmony between the two: three important aspects of existence that we can energize and honor through something as simple as a hug.
This autumn, as the season delivers mobility, share a hug to reclaim stability. As the fall temperatures drop, create warmth through an embrace. As the air element of the season whips through roughly, find softness in the arms of another person. There, balance will be found as autumn works her transformative magic.
Catherine L. Schweig has practiced yoga in the Bhakti tradition since 1986. Her regular treks into nature, and relationships with others, are a valuable part of her spiritual journey. Passionate about inspiring women to honor their voices, in 2012 Catherine founded the Journey of the Heart: Women’s Spiritual Poetry Blog, through which emerged a trilogy of poetry anthologies, the latest is Poetry as a Spiritual Practice: Embracing the Awakened Woman (Golden Dragonfly Press 2016). Catherine is also the creator of the Vaishnavi Voices Poetry Project. As co-founder of The Secret Yoga Institute, with her life partner, Graham M. Schweig, Ph.D., she designs yoga workshops and publishes in various yoga magazines, and co-authored Yoga in the Gita: Krishna & Patanjali, The Bhakti Dimension, (Golden Dragonfly Press, 2016) with Braja Sorensen. Catherine lives in Virginia with her partner, younger son and cat, where she also makes vegan, Waldorf-style dolls. You may connect with Catherine on Facebook, email her, or visit her website: catherineghosh.com
Editor: Alicia Wozniak