We recently spoke with Aviva Mohilner the founder of HELD, a guided practice using human connection and nurturing touch to help participants relax and open up.
Aviva will be leading a mini-HELD at 7 pm at our upcoming Mad Hatter Kindraval on April 6th. All ticket holders are invited to attend.
What inspired you to start your program?
HELD came as a lighting download when I was in a pretty dark place. I had been trying to make a dream happen for years and wasn’t getting anywhere, losing my sense of purpose and beating myself up for all I hadn’t done.
I reached a point last June where I fully broke down and surrendered. I was lying on the floor in a breathwork class, praying and ugly-crying, “God, you need to show me what to do. I need to know how to use my gifts and who I uniquely am in the world to impact people’s lives. I can’t figure it out - I’m done!”
It flashed into my brain in an instant almost verbatim, “It’s called HELD. It’s about creating a safe space for human connection through guided physical touch.” I saw eye gazing, deep hugs, and cozy, nurturing holding. I came out and said, “Guys, I have to do this thing.” It took me awhile to organized, and I did the first one in September.
Until then, I associated my identity with being a brand strategist, was working with conscious companies to do good in the world. I really didn’t want to be known as the “hug girl” or “touch girl”. It felt like the idea wasn’t big enough, or that it was weird. I’ve been working on to shedding my ego and attachment to how my life is “supposed” to look, and am embracing my new mission around connection and compassion.
After I did the first HELD in September, it caught on and got a momentum of its own. People started telling me how much of an impact it had on them during the exercises and how it affected their lives afterward. It’s been really affirming and inspiring.
What do you hope people gain from a HELD experience?
I hope people benefit in three main ways:
They feel better afterward.
They take what they learned out into the world to spread and impact others.
We change the conversation globally by relating to each other with more compassion and empathy.
Touch is really healing on an individual level. Studies have shown A LOT of benefits, like lowering stress levels (cortisol), increasing feel-good brain chemicals (especially oxytocin), improving sleep, and even strengthening the immune system.
But on a personal level, people get to feel more connected and nurtured. The experience is made up of guided exercises where you get to hold long hugs, be seen and listened to deeply, and have your needs for connection and touch be met in ways that rarely - if ever - happen in real life. This kind of presence and connection is more than a lot of people get. I’ve definitely seen tears shed.
The bigger purpose though is really about creating more connection and compassion in the world. During sessions, we acknowledge that we’re all going through challenges in life. And I try to keep coming back to us being a little kinder, softer, and more forgiving with each other. I want LA folks who get cut off in traffic to think, “It’s okay - I don’t know what they’re going through.”
We can bring this empathy into relationships, whether they’re romantic, professional, or with friends and family.
Who do you feel needs to participate in a HELD experience?
HELD can be great for anyone, but is especially beneficial for people when they have that, “I need a hug” feeling. A lot of us don’t even realize how malnourished we are in terms of connection and nurturing, non-sexual touch. We need it to fully thrive as humans, but don’t know where to go or how to ask for it, especially in our touch-deprived American culture.
Participants get the most out of it if they’re open-minded and interested in connection and growth. They may be a little bit nervous at first, but we pride ourselves on creating a safe space where they can ease in. Once they go through the whole experience, a lot of them fall in love with it and want to come back with friends and dates.
Do you offer a romantic version of HELD?
I haven’t had one for couples yet, although I think it’s a great date activity. We move around a lot and I usually encourage people to do exercises with people they don’t know well so they get used to connecting with another human regardless of gender, race, or physical attraction.
However… I recently decided to start giving people the opportunity to do certain exercises with a friend, family member, partner or date so they can connect more deeply in this really unique environment.
What are some of the practices in a HELD experience?
We have exercises that enable you to ask for what you want and give another person what makes them happiest in that moment. We also practice a type of prolonged, super oxytocin-inducing hug. We have an exercise in presence that allows people to really express what’s going on and to be fully seen and heard without judgement, advice, or feedback. There is a more detailed description on the website.
It’s also important to know that everything we do begins with communication and consent. It’s our goal to not have people feel like they’re rejecting someone or being rejected. We spend time in the beginning creating a safe container founded on honest communication and not taking things personally.
For some people, connection and touch is super comfortable - like a jacuzzi at the end of the day that they’re excited to get in it. We recognize that for others, they’re just dipping their toes in the water for the first time. So we aim to create an experience of us starting at the shallow end of the pool and becoming comfortable all swimming together.
What do you hope changes in the world because of HELD?
I want to see true, deep connection becoming more of the norm. Something that feels natural, not aspirational. I want a sense of our common humanity to be what powers the world, and for the decisions we make and the actions we take to be considered through a lens of compassion. (This especially applies to world leaders.)
On a more personal level, my hope is for us to be more kind to one another. For us to feel less alone, more loved, and more worthy. And to make all those that we touch feel the same.
I see HELD as an entry point into those larger conversations.
If you’d like to stay up-to-date on the latest HELD offerings, sign up on our website.
Aviva is leading a mini HELD from 7-8pm during our Kindraval on April 6. Spaces are limited, and doors close at 7:10pm.