Pillow talk with a professional cuddler

Brianna Quijada, 30, is a manager at a vegan restaurant by day and a cuddler by night.
Brianna Quijada, 30, is a manager at a vegan restaurant by day and a cuddler by night.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK • For eager newcomers trying to hustle a life in New York City, there are certain time- honoured means of staying afloat: foaming lattes as a barista, selling books at the Strand or shepherding spaniels as a paid dog walker.

Now, it seems, they can add to that list professional cuddler.

In recent years, cuddling - billed as therapeutic, non-sexual touch on sites such as Snuggle Buddies and Cuddlist - has become the latest thing in wellness, beyond yoga and meditation.

A quasi movement that dates back more than a decade, thanks to snuggle mixers sponsored by the non-profit group Cuddle Party, has morphed into a cuddle-for-hire industry of one-on-one sessions.

For US$79 (S$106), practitioners who sign up for Cuddlist receive about 10 hours of training. Once trained, pro cuddlers promise a physical and psychic salve through spooning, arm tickling and deep embraces. Think of it as a blend of talk therapy, yoga and improvisational bodywork, the free jazz equivalent of massage.

One such practitioner, at US$80 an hour, is Brianna Quijada, 30, from Tempe, Arizona, who moved to New York City in 2008. A manager at a vegan restaurant on the Upper East Side by day, she recently discussed her second career on the Cuddlist network, plying the world's newest profession by night. This interview has been edited and condensed.

How did you first hear about cuddling?

A friend of mine had mentioned it. It was casual: "I think you'd like a cuddle party." I was like, "Do they exist?"

Sounds very swingerish. Is it like a key party?

It's non-sexual, so there's rules in place, like keeping your clothes on the whole time. They're usually held in a yoga-type studio, with yoga mats, pillows, blankets. You come in, take off your shoes, put a name tag on. The first 45 minutes are icebreakers: getting to know each other, going over rules about consent, communication.

What drew you to cuddling?

I just wanted touch. It seemed like a safe way to explore that. It seems weird to think that if I wasn't in a monogamous relationship and wasn't having sex, I wasn't getting that kind of touch.

What is the value of touch?

When I experience consensual touch, I am more in my body, I'm more comfortable. It's like a feeling of being understood. It raises your oxytocin, it calms the fight-or-flight response.

At the same time, there's a feeling of vulnerability, so it's a really interesting way to connect.

What do private clients ask for?

It could be hand-holding, synchronised breathing, eye-gazing. I've done cuddling while sitting, whether it's an embrace, holding hands or their head in my lap, or standing and holding each other. They come to me for relaxation.

Where do you meet them?

I don't host sessions where I live, so I've been renting rooms at Breather (which rents meeting rooms by the hour) in Midtown and Union Square. They're basically small conference rooms with a white board and a futon or couch. I've also gone to people's places and hotel rooms.

Aren't you afraid to go to a hotel room alone?

There's always that little bit of fear. There was more in the beginning. But I screen people really well. There's a safety protocol. I talk to people on the phone or Skype, or meet them at coffee shops. But I don't go into it thinking people are going to be creepy any more.

What was your first session like?

My very first client was a younger man, maybe 19. He was in college. It was sweet. He wanted to hold me. That's what we did for the whole time. We listened to a Jack Johnson playlist and he talked about school.

Why not just get a massage?

For a massage, there's this feeling that you're being worked on and healed. It's not mutual. It's a completely different energy with cuddling. It's a mutual, consensual experience, consensual, not in the sense of, "Sure, I'll do that," but in the sense that both people want what's happening.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2016, with the headline 'Pillow talk with a professional cuddler'. Print Edition | Subscribe