Gary Nash was feeling just a tad out of touch when he decided to attend his first cuddle party.
Nash, a New Jersey native who now works in the world of New York finance, walked into a yoga studio in Manhattan six weeks ago to attend his first cuddle party.
He felt a little nervous but also more than a little curious.
"It was very nerve-wracking because I didn't know what to expect," he said. "It just seemed like some type of weird psychedelic type of thing, but I said, "Eh, let's give it a try.'"
Nash's experience was overwhelmingly positive, and he has since become a cuddle-party regular or "cuddle monster."
"By going to one, it validated why I think something like that is needed," Nash said.
Nash is one of more than an estimated 5,000 people who have been cuddled in the last three years, thanks to the growing phenomenon of cuddle parties.
From New York to Los Angeles and from Australia to London, cuddle parties seem to be taking the world by storm.
Founded in New York in 2004 by two relationship coaches, Reid Mihalko and Marcia Baczynski, cuddle parties are defined on the official Cuddle Party Web site, www.cuddleparty.com, as "a workshop for people to rediscover non-sexual touch and affection," in a structured and safe environment.
Basically, though, cuddle parties are places where consenting grown-ups, most often strangers, can shake off the armor of adulthood and play.
Whether that includes touching or not is completely up to them.
"It's really an intimacy party," Mihalko said. "But if we called it that, people would never come."
"You learn how to create a safe space for yourself and then you can extend it and invite other people into it," he said. "With cuddle party we've been very successful at finding a great place for people to explore this and get in touch with playing again."
The environment of the 3½- hour cuddle party is a mix between a communications workshop and what Mihalko likes to call "freestyle cuddling," with participants paying a fee of $30 for a 3½- hour session.
The party kicks off with a welcome circle -- a lengthy discussion of the rules by "Cuddle Lifeguards on Duty."
The cuddle lifeguards are certified facilitators trained in "safe touching" at the Cuddle Academy in New York.
After the ground rules are set, the participants are free to spoon, massage, lie, eat cookies, and gurgle as they please -- but all with express verbal permission.
"You have to ask someone, 'Can I touch your shoulder?'" Mihalko said. "It's great practice for learning how to communicate and get over feelings of rejection and guilt associated with saying 'no' to people."
Every cuddle party ends with the "puppy pile," in which all participants lie down on top of one another and relax.
For Birgitte Philippides, finding the cuddle party 2½ years ago changed her life.
Now a cuddle-party facilitator, the New York artist has lost 30 pounds since she attended the inaugural session, something she says was an unexpected -- but not uncommon -- byproduct.
"At a gathering of facilitators in San Francisco, and we were all sharing personal experiences and we discovered that together we'd lost over 250 pounds total -- without dieting and without an increase in exercise," Philippides said.