- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Six hours is a long time to wait for a hug, but followers of “the hugging saint” say they plan on doing so when she arrives in Alexandria this weekend.

Originally from a fishing village in India, Mata Amritanandamayi, known as Amma by her followers, now hops across continents for 65 percent of the year, embracing people as she goes.

“It’s a feeling of love and unconditional acceptance,” Ken Steben said, describing the squeeze. He estimates being hugged by Ms. Amritanandamayi more than 100 times, and now volunteers for her.

Ms. Amritanandamayi will host four free events on Friday and Saturday. Morning gatherings consist of a hug and personal blessing from Ms. Amritanandamayi. In the evenings, she also speaks.

Spokesman Rob Sidon expects between 7,000 and 10,000 people to attend.

Pulled out of school at age 10 to help her family with chores, Ms. Amritanandamayi explored different streets and took note of the poverty, he said. In an unusual move for a girl, she started to hug her neighbors. Her reputation of compassion and humanitarianism grew from there.

Mr. Sidon estimated she has given more than 32 million hugs.

“It’s part of her general mission to alleviate human suffering,” he said.

Her more institutional approach to easing hardships is her network of volunteer-run charities called Embracing the World. Today, Ms. Amritanandamayi has projects in more than 40 countries.

Her first enterprise was an orphanage in India whose administrators asked her to take over when they could not afford to stay open any longer. Now Embracing the World also consists of 11 types of projects, from disaster relief to empowering women.

This weekend’s programs will be held at the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center Hotel, 5000 Seminary Rd. Friday’s sessions will begin at 10 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday’s sessions will be held at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m.

Upon arrival, participants will be handed tokens with numbers on them, giving them an idea when their turn will be, said Mr. Steben. While waiting, they can explore a bookstore selling snacks and crafts from India, listen to musicians, or leave and return later in the day.

“It’s all really easy. When people get there, there will be people to show them where to go, what to do,” Mr. Steben said.

The wait can be lengthy, but “it’s not like waiting at the post office,” Mr. Sidon said.

Tokens are given out an hour before the program begins, but participants can come a bit earlier if they wish, Mr. Steben said. He suggested visitors arrive two hours before Saturday evening’s event because it is the busiest.

Volunteers keep the 10-stop U.S. tour moving. About 125 people travel across the country with Ms. Amritanandamayi, and another 100 local volunteers will set up before she arrives.

“She encourages volunteerism, but she also encourages people to lead balanced lives, productive lives,” Mr. Sidon said, “You need to keep flesh on the bone. You need to feed your family.”

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