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.
The positive effects of nonsexual touch and affection are not surprising. When a person feels calm, relaxed or happy, the brain releases oxytocin, a hormone that suppresses appetite.
In addition to the physical health benefits of cuddling, Philippides says that it has dramatically changed her love life and social interactions.
"You learn a lot of powerful communication tools. I was able to let go of a lot of my anger towards men and really move forward with my life," she said.
The change wasn't instantaneous, though.
"I went to the very first one 2.5 years ago," Philippides said. "I was completely petrified and [didn't] want anybody I don't know very well to touch me. I just sat there for two hours and did not move."
After a number of sessions, Philippides "discovered her blind spots." Now, she feels like the activity has helped her with her relationships.
"A lot of women put up a big wall," she said. "But going to a cuddle party made me feel safe and protected and lo and behold, I could let people in in a really good way."
While most of the early press on cuddle parties concentrates on its "orgylike" environment, Mihalko reiterates that it's a nonsexual event.
Behind the cuddle party is the theory that the sense of touch is a basic human need, like food or sleep.
Many people in today's modern world are not getting the recommended daily allowance of welcomed touch and are suffering from "skin hunger" or "touch deprivation," Mihalko said.
According to cuddleparty.com, cuddle parties are designed for all types of people -- from the touchy-huggy type, "who can't wait to be in an environment where that's OK," to those working on boundary issues with the opposite sex, and from touch-phobes, to individuals who simply wish to make new friends and practice their communication skills.
Nevertheless, sexual concerns arise. Potential cuddlers worry about sexual arousal at parties.
"We strive not only to free people of the awkwardness surrounding arousal, but to allow them to develop some real coordination around it," cuddle-party organizers say on their Web site. "Nothing's wrong. Nothing's dirty. Nothing's suspect. And as long as you're not dry-humping anyone. … It's completely OK. Really."
Still, it is not surprising that many Americans find even the idea of cuddle parties "creepy" and "very uncomfortable," as reporter Joel Stein of The Los Angeles Times did.
Even Stein admits that he attended a cuddle party only because his wife thought it would be funny to subject her husband to "a lot of touch from scary strangers."
"I don't like hugging people. I don't even like shaking hands," Stein said. "Certainly, I am not big on cuddling unless I think it's going to get me sex. So three hours of cuddling with people didn't appeal to me at all."
While cuddle-party organizers have received outpourings of gratitude from those who have attended the parties -- and even those who have just read the Web site -- Mihalko admits that "for every 1,000 e-mails there's one hate one."
However, Mihalko and Baczynski say the criticism they receive is outweighed by the services and help they provide.
"The first year we were in existence I got a call at 5 in the morning from a soldier in Iraq," Mihalko said. "A military person calling to ask if we had a cuddle party in St. Louis. For him, it sounded like the perfect thing to do to get back into society after being discharged."
So whether you dig the cuddle party or detest it, one thing is undeniable: It serves as a forum for dealing with many people's fears of rejection and intimacy, and provides them with a secure space to release their inhibitions and decompress.
Cuddle parties may never become mainstream, but for some, cuddling is the panacea to their social and physical insecurities.