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Hollywood's Hug Doctor: Meet The Man Behind The 'Ecstatic Embrace'


Jul. 29 2011, Published 8:30 a.m. ET

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By Neil Woulfe - News Director

Steve Maher just may be the most huggable person in Hollywood.

The Los Angeles man has found something as simple as a prolonged hug -- or as he calls it the "Ecstatic Embrace" -- can do wonders for a person and produce emotions from great joy to cathartic grief.

With that in mind, Steve started his own hugging business -- that's right -- he's a hugger for hire.

Check out's exclusive interview with Steve!

Article continues below advertisement First, what exactly is the "Ecstatic Embrace" and where did the idea come from?

Steve: I had a meditative vision during my morning meditation about 12 years ago…a simple visual image of myself hugging a friend for what seemed a long time. When I tried it with a willing friend, I was blown away by the experience, which lasted over 2 hours. The experience of connection and open-heartedness was life changing. I’ve never gotten over it. Are you a therapist?

Steve: Currently, I’m training for certification as a therapist in Radical Aliveness Core Energetics, a body centered method for freeing up life energy. My own personal journey includes a hybrid of experiences, from traditional religion and psychotherapy to various transformational growth seminars and meditation. I’ve been called a seeker, which offended me originally. But, in fact, it is true.

Article continues below advertisement When people come in for an appointment for the first time, I would imagine they are somewhat nervous. How do you calm them and walk them thru the process?

Steve: Sessions begin with a 20 minute conversational check-in where I ask them about why they have come to do this unusual thing…they often have had an intuitive pull without understanding why. I give them an overview of the whole experience, emphasizing safety and comfort. We begin the hugging process standing, which warms us up and generates a sense of calm. It is pretty easy after that.

Article continues below advertisement You also make it clear from the get-go that this is not a sexual experience, and although it is clearly intimate, you see it as a therapeutic experience. Can you explain how so?

Steve: Hugging is a language of safety and comfort, assuming mutual consent of course. As clients begin to sink more deeply into the experience, feelings surface naturally. I call myself a witness, a safe place for them to be themselves fully without judgment. The process is physically intimate, as most of the session is done lying down, bodies entwined in a fluid variety of positions. Sexual feelings are regarded simply as energy and are not to be shamed in any way. I talk with clients about allowing energy to open and flow throughout the whole body, not to fixate on the sexual arousal if it occurs. The sessions can go deep and be illuminating on a variety of levels. There is an amazing range of experience that occurs, and no session is quite like any other. Clients often report a sense of “afterglow” which can last for hours afterwards.

Article continues below advertisement I would imagine that prolonged hugging can trigger emotional responses. Is that often the case?

Steve: We are taught to control our feelings as adults. In the relaxation and safety of the hugging experience, withheld feelings may surface. A wide range of feelings, from great joy to cathartic grief are possible. There is always a box of tissue handy. Is there a typical client that comes to you?

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Steve: Less so than you might imagine. It is an unconventional experience, but I am surprised at the receptivity of people in general. I have hugged men and women, young and old, gay and straight, of various races and nationalities. I recently had a young female medical student come from Germany who found me from an online search. Is there a different dynamic in sessions involving men vs. women?

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Steve: There are no dramatic differences, though women probably express their vulnerability a bit more quickly than men. Are most of the men who come to you gay, or is that a misconception on my part? I ask this because I would think most straight men would not be as comfortable hugging another man.

Steve: Gay men are more comfortable with the idea of hugging another man, though I do have occasional straight men who long for non-sexual, but physical intimacy with another man, which they probably experienced earlier in life and lost at some point.

Article continues below advertisement What are you and the client wearing, and how long does a session last?

Steve: We both wear loose comfortable clothing, like shorts and a tee shirt. Sessions last 2 hours, which includes a 20 minute check in and 90 minutes of a continuous hugging process. Though it may sound like a long time, clients are surprised by how quickly it seems to pass and don’t want it to end. I would call it an altered state of consciousness.

Article continues below advertisement Is there talking during the session or is it generally quiet?

Steve: It is a meditative event of sorts, so there are periods of silence. There is some conversation as well, usually connected to the experience as it is happening. Both are valuable. I understand that some therapists actually come to you for hugging sessions.

Steve: When I was first developing my hugging practice some years ago, my own therapist at the time predicted that perhaps my work would be a refuge for caretakers to come receive care for themselves. I have found that to be true.

Article continues below advertisement While most of your sessions are one-on-one, you've also started group hugging events. Tell me about that.

Steve: Yes, I’m starting to cultivate the group experience, for both men and women, as well as for couples. The act of prolonged hugging generates positive and deep feelings between all sorts of partners. After my first hugging experience, I remember thinking: How is it everyone doesn’t know about this? So groups may help that to become a reality more quickly.

Article continues below advertisement Finally, in your opinion, what makes a hug so powerful?

Steve: Human beings come out of the womb and, ideally, spend a lot of time lying over the hearts of their caretakers. It is a way we learn that we are safe in the world. Once we become adults, the world of intimate touch is usually seen as sexual and romantic in intent. I believe we still have a great need to comfort and be comforted in a non-sexual way. Our bodies generate a variety of chemicals in hugging contact that promote a sense of connection and relieve stress. “Figuring things out” as a mental exercise is ultimately limited in its ability to give us peace of mind. It seems that we need something more… less mental and more visceral. From the meditative pleasure of the hugging experience comes a deep sense of the goodness of life. That sense of being reconnected is powerful indeed.

A 2 hour session costs $120. To learn more about Steve and the “Ecstatic Embrace”, check out his website!



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