‘Hugging saint’ Mata Amritanandamayi embraces the masses in Alexandria

Hugging a saint is not so easy.

First, a devotee must be willing to wait in line for several hours, as hundreds of people did in an Alexandria hotel ballroom Friday morning to make contact with Mata Amritanandamayi, known affectionately as “Amma” or “the Hugging Saint.” The short, round Indian woman in billowing white robes is a deity to her devotees and supposedly able to convey her unconditional love and absolute selflessness in one doughy-soft, flower-scented hug.

By the time the devotee draws close after being helped to the right spot before Amma’s chair, she might collapse in sobs. But then, after the otherworldy embrace, tallied with a ringlike counter on Amma’s finger, comes the payoff.

“Her energy is so powerful you feel like you should look at the ground, but when you do look at her, it’s the energy of your mother. It’s hard to explain,” said Ilsa Mroz, a 16-year-old from Kennett Square, Pa.

“You feel kind of weak at the knees and lightheaded” after the embrace, said Mroz, who was sitting in the late morning in a post-hug recovery lane, marked by tape. Her father was ahead of her, his forehead to the floor in devotion.

Nearby, volunteers knelt to offer the freshly hugged men, women and children chocolate candies and apples.

The hundreds of devotees who started lining up in the lobby of the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center hours before Amma’s appearance at 10 a.m. Friday were among the estimated 30 million people who’ve attended Amma’s spiritual programs around the world.

Her humanitarian organization builds schools, provides free health care, helps poor women start businesses and provides disaster relief — all funded with tens of millions in donations — in about 40 countries.

Washington recently became one of the movement’s seven U.S. hubs after it bought the former Potomac home of Eunice and Sargent Shriver for $7.8 million in 2009.

The estate has weekly meditation classes and programs for children, and it prepares vegetarian meals for the poor and homeless in Rockville and Fairfax.

A feeling that something seismic was about to happen wafted through the air as Amma entered the crowded hotel ballroom Friday. Devotees, many garbed in loose, gauzy pants and saris, fell to the ground as she passed with a phalanx of security and video cameras.

The heat at one time threatened the event, which also included a night program Friday and another full day of hugging planned for Saturday. The hotel lost power for several days earlier in the week, and followers said the only Plan B was “Amma’s grace.”

On Friday, however, the air conditioning was blasting as people meditated, chatted or shopped in a bazaar at the back of the ballroom. Hugs were free, but donation boxes were scattered about and tables were laden with photos of Amma, including 8-by-11-inch options for $15, Amma dolls from $45 to $180, and many DVDs, CDs and books of her talks.

Her devotees, even those who have followed her for years, found it difficult to put Amma’s attraction into words. Many of those interviewed knew little of her basic biography, which includes a miraculous story of being born into extreme poverty and low caste in India and rising to celebrity through the gift of her healing touch.

But those at the hugfest reported experiencing something life-changing in Amma’s embrace, a kind of knowing and acceptance, a feeling of unconditional love.

There’s no dogma, no creed, no detailed moral map here, but there was the stubborn gut faith in the supernatural that any religion ultimately requires.

Kanwal Kher scoffs a little when asked whether he has any other regular spiritual beliefs or practices besides traveling around the country several times a year to see Amma, which he has been doing since the mid-1990s.

Chief of pediatric nephrology at Children’s National Medical Center, Kher, 62, was in his chinos Friday morning, collecting soiled laundry from the 200 or so tour volunteers, which he would take to a laundromat and wash. Much of the tour is staffed by unpaid followers.

“I’ve never been a particularly spiritual person. I don’t have time for that,” he said.

But that takes nothing from his experiences when he sees her, each visit building on the last. “Every time I go, something different happens and I change. I see more depth,” Kher said.

Like others, he cited the seemingly divine energy that fuels Amma’s marathon hug tours. As a hard-charger himself, Kher perceives a profound message in Amma’s willingness to sit for many hours at a time, not eating, barely sleeping, just embracing endlessly.

“She just says: ‘My dear son,’ ” Kher said. “It’s something in the eye.”

Lauree Ostrofsky, 36, has some idea what the “it” is. Something of a hug anthropologist, the Bethesda life coach launched what she called a “hug tour” of her own last year after going through some romantic, professional and health crises. She hadn’t known about Amma at the time, but learned the power of offering people she knew a strings-free embrace.

She was in line by 8:30 a.m. wearing a T-shirt that read “Hug like you mean it!”

“I wouldn’t compare myself to her; I have a smaller mission. But the medium is the same,” said Ostrofsky, who said the power isn’t in the physical hug, but in the seconds just before, when you’re expressing to someone the intention to show them love.

For her, she said, “this is like seeing the Mother Teresa of hugging.”

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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