Of all the places for 3,000 people to receive healing energy from a woman many regard as an Indian saint, there are probably few less auspicious than the Hyatt Regency Crystal City.
It's all glass and drab carpet. You have to ride an escalator down to the bowels of the hotel, where enlightenment may be found but there isn't any cell phone reception.
You take off your shoes and you receive a token. If it is early, your number is in the low hundreds, and if it isn't, you didn't get your hug until early yesterday morning.
She is Amma, known as "the hugging saint," and she lives in India but travels the world, offering hugs to blissed-out yoga teachers, massage therapists, Indian families with small children. The tiny babies she clutches to her cheek with special tenderness. People think her arms offer a healing power. They suggest that she is so full of the loving spirit, that you might -- with her perfume filling your nostrils and her hot breath chanting mantras in your ear -- see something less like a basement hotel ballroom and more like God. Some people weep and some people say they feel a great peace.
And if not, the hug is at least free.
Amma, 51, whose nickname means mother and whose full name is Mata Amritanandamayi, grew up poor in a fishing village, a low-caste woman destined for a humble domestic life who instead became a revered figure all over the world.
She is a humanitarian who has built a hospital in India and thousands of houses for the poor. At the moment, her assistants say, she's working on homes for survivors of the tsunami. She spends so many of her days sitting in a low chair, receiving hordes of supplicants on their knees, that she discusses blueprints for charitable homes and gives an interview through a translator while people's heads are pressed to her shoulder.
Amma has been known to offer hug after hug for more than 20 hours straight, according to her followers. Her spokesman says that once in Southern India he watched her give hugs to 45,000 people in one stretch.
Asked how much she sleeps, Amma shrugs and says in Malayalam, "I never think about it." Asked again, she says, "One hour." (A female assistant adds softly, "Sometimes two.")
But if her charitable works are what her followers stress, it's the hugs Amma is known for. This week was her ninth visit to the Washington area. She stopped off for three days, wrapping up yesterday, before continuing her tour in New York. One follower at Crystal City describes Amma's embrace as "true contentment," and another calls it "bliss . . . absolutely pure love." They hand her apples or pears or flowers as they fall into her arms. Some say that afterward, they feel peaceful. Some say they wake up in the middle of the night "feeling a presence." One woman says Amma's hug healed her leg pain. One man says Amma solved his digestive problems by making him regular.
The room is hot with so many people, most sitting on the floor, all raptly watching her. You can buy a chair massage or get a henna painting on your hands. There are Amma books and CDs; you can even buy clothes and jewelry Amma has worn.
Amma sits in a low wooden chair decorated with flowers; there are rose petals by her feet. She is surrounded by female assistants in white, and male swamis in orange. Many of Amma's followers are seekers who consulted other gurus before. There's a middle-aged psychologist from Pittsburgh who once studied to be a Methodist minister. There is a religion professor from Denver who gave up tenure to live on Amma's ashram in Southern India and be Amma's personal videographer.
Amma is nearly always smiling -- the almost goofy smile of a child. She considers herself mother to simply everyone, and when she's asked if the hugs ever become a burden, she says the mother never tires of her child.
She will even hug a reporter. She clasps one's head to her shoulder. Does it last a minute? Longer? (And where does one put one's hands? And how does one forget the whole room is watching?) Her breath is hot in the ear; her voice is gravelly. She says "Daugh-ter, daugh-ter, daugh-ter," and something else, something the huggee cannot understand. It is not like hugging a friend, but it is not like hugging a stranger, either. Then Amma lets go and puts two prasads -- blessed gifts -- into one's hand. Of all things, a Hershey's Kiss, and an apple.
After 2 a.m. yesterday, Amma rises. Her right shoulder is stained with sweat, tears and makeup. Her devotees crowd around the glass elevator and watch her shoot up into the upper reaches of the Hyatt Regency.
A woman comes over to envy the apple Amma bestowed. She rarely sees Amma give anyone an apple. Her name is Leela Dunn, and she is 33, a massage therapist from Tampa. She's been following Amma for three years, ever since she went to India and saw Amma's picture. The closest she has ever come to enlightenment, she says, was in Amma's arms. She's had a difficult year, so this night, in Amma's arms, she sobbed and keened, making a high-pitched and injured sound.
"Today I felt like I used to when I was in love with my ex-husband, before we got divorced," Dunn says.
A cab driver wants to know about this woman everyone has come to see tonight. He says, "I had a passenger who told me she was the one."