Touch Base

Touch Base

I n the 1960s, psychologist Sidney Jourard did a little anecdotal research. Sitting in various cafes at various times in various parts of the world, he counted the number of times two people sharing coffee would touch one another during the course of an hour. In Paris, France, he counted to 110. In San Juan, Puerto Rico, 180. In Gainesville, Florida, the pair he observed touched only twice.

Admittedly, the Gainesville duo did better than the one in London, England, where the observed touch count was zero, but the contrast to France and Puerto Rico—though, again, anecdotal—seems to jibe with the prevailing American experience. And that should give us pause, especially when combined with research suggesting that touch reduces blood pressure, increases immune function, aids childhood development and generally bolsters mood.

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Amanda Anatra sees a need for a space in New Haven where adults can safely learn about and practice how to be intimate, platonically or romantically, with one another. So, in November, Anatra launched Experience Ananda—“ananda” means “bliss” in Sanskrit—to create “a space where people feel safe. … An area where sexuality and spirituality can meet and play. An alternative to adult fun at a bar.”

That translates in practice to a variety of touch-centric and, when appropriate, sex-positive events and workshops from a “Poly High Tea”—a discussion group based around polyamory and tea—to workshops on the basics of safe rope play. Anatra herself offers Reiki sessions, runs introductory Tantra workshops and hosts two-hour cuddle parties, which are pretty much exactly what they sound like.

Cuddling, a low-stakes form of affectionate touch, is good for breaking down our barriers to touch more generally and building up habits of consensual contact. The cuddle parties happen about twice a month, for a suggested donation of $20 per person, and each is preceded by a 45- to 60-minute workshop covering the ground rules.

Firstly, everyone must wear PJs, and those PJs must stay on the whole time. No exceptions. Secondly, there’s no obligation to cuddle. If you show up and decide you don’t feel comfortable with it, that’s fine. Third: ask permission and wait for verbal consent before cuddling with someone. This encourages people to vocalize their intent. The fourth—if you’re a “Yes,” say “Yes,” and if you’re a “No,” say “No”—emphasizes the importance of responding honestly.

“We often say ‘yes’ to things we don’t want to do,” Anatra says, whether out of a misplaced sense of obligation or a fear of disappointing someone else. In her workshops, she encourages people to “check the intention of the moment”—or in other words, to assess what they’re feeling and honor it.

This leads naturally to the last rule: it’s okay to change your mind. Once people have consented to something they often feel obligated to continue the interaction even when circumstances or comfort levels change. Instead, Anatra encourages participants to “honor what comes up in the moment.” If you suddenly feel uncomfortable, say so. You have every right to stop the interaction. On the other hand, “liking someone is acceptable,” Anatra says, “and getting aroused is fine.” It just can’t be acted on, at least not during the party.

Having your voice heard and your desires respected can be a new experience for people, she says. Cuddling can be a way to work through long-standing sensory defensiveness or even serious trauma. And for those that want or need more personal care, Anatra offers one-on-one professional cuddling sessions, by appointment.

Other popular events at Experience Ananda include the aforementioned Tantra workshops. They happen about twice a month like the cuddle parties, but—perhaps surprisingly, given the word’s reputation—involve a good deal less physical contact.

In Western pop culture, the spiritual pleasure that Tantra offers is often reduced to sexual or orgasmic pleasure. While sexuality is a part of the tradition, it’s not the whole. “White Tantra” tends to be a non-sexual practice. “Red Tantra” goes the other way. “Pink Tantra” is a combination of the two and gradually builds from white into red.

Anatra practices Pink Tantra in the “Ipsalu” path, which blends techniques from different practices such as Buddhism, Taoism, Kriya and others. $15 introductory workshops give people a taste of what Ipsalu Tantra is about, with Anatra guiding the group through a mixture of meditation, dance, visualization, conversation and eye-gazing. Bringing partners is fine though not necessary, and the level of connection participants feel probably depends a great deal on their openness to the process.

What Experience Ananda amounts to is a sort of comprehensive Sex Ed for adults, where intimacy’s elements are re-examined from the most basic building blocks of touching and moving with someone else to higher—emotional and spiritual—orders of connection. The business makes a bold claim in a country with a heavy puritanical streak: that learning how to happily and safely connect with others doesn’t stop in middle school.

Experience Ananda
900 Grand Ave, 2nd Fl, New Haven (map)
(203) 530-4273
Website | Facebook | Schedule of Events

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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