While my therapeutic massage is very effective at helping heal injuries, reduce pain, and restore range of motion, not everyone needs it — and if you’re used to getting therapeutic massage, sometimes it’s nice to just try something new. A good relaxation massage feels quite a bit different. Its focus is not on stretching tissues, but on releasing the mind and quieting the body, while providing a full sensory experience.
The style I learned in my Vancouver school, which they called Deep Flow, is a more free-flowing, energetic, liberating style of massage than one often experiences in a spa. Influenced by one teacher’s extensive travels through Central America and surfing the Pacific coast, it has what I can only describe as a West Coast vibe. It is most similar to another West Coast style of massage developed at Esalen, an oceanside spiritual retreat just south of San Francisco. Two of the most influential massage researchers of the 20th century, Ida Rolf and Milton Trager, also taught here.
Besides including breath work, stretches, and gentle rocking motions, the key difference between Esalen massage and traditional spa massage is that spa massage treats only one small portion of your body at a time, e.g. the back of one leg, then the back of the other leg, etc. Esalen is known for long strokes that can start at the feet and end at the head or or even fingers. Long strokes follow the body’s natural musculature and nervous system, so they simply “feel right.” After receiving the long-stroke full-body style of Esalen, a normal relaxation massage feels choppy and incomplete. In this sense it is like Lomi Lomi — save that Lomi Lomi is an even more complete, immersive experience.
There do not seem to be many articles online explaining Esalen Massage, and esalen.org does not say much, so I’ve compiled four sources below:
1. Wikipedia.org defines Esalen:
Esalen Massage was developed at the Esalen Institute based on a combination of many massage and bodywork techniques. The two main influences were Swedish massage and the Sensory Awareness work of Charlotte Selver. Esalen Massage works with gentle rocking of the body, passive joint exercises and deep structural work on the muscles and joints, together with an energetic balancing of the body.
2. Massagetherapy.com describes Esalen:
Developed in the 1960s at Esalen Institute on the California Coast, this approach melded classic Swedish massage with sensory awareness practice and slow, flowing t’ai chi. The practitioner works with the receiver, rather than on the client. Today the Esalen massage signature flow is punctuated with deep tissue detail, joint mobilizing, stretches, and energy work. Tension melts away and yields to a state of harmony.
3. Massage Magazine has a short article (undated, anonymous):
“The Spirit of Esalen”
Known worldwide, Esalen massage is a unique, holistic style of bodywork which focuses on the whole person. People who have experienced Esalen Massage agree that it is an extraordinary form of bodywork. This unique style of massage integrates the whole body with long strokes, blending wisdom and techniques from other cultures, and weaves new concepts of subtle energy with bodywork. Esalen massage evolved from the contributions of early teachers at this center for experimental education and it continues to expand and grow as present-day practitioners add to the whole…
The most important aspect style wise or technique wise is not technique at all, but the quality of the touch. This refers to the presence of the practitioner and the ability of this person to tune into the client, to be sensitive, and to pick up messages. Esalen encourages talking to all clients before working on them, but it is just as important to be able to sense in, and to be present enough to hear the messages that come through the body….
4. See an overview of the Institute and its history in the article Esalen Bares Its Soul.
5. The most in-depth coverage is an old article “Esalen Massage: Bodywork with a Place in History” by Brita Ostrom et al., in Massage Magazine (March/April 1997), which has been preserved on archive.org:
Esalen Massage: Bodywork with a Place in History
It is not the technique of the move that is foreground; it is rather the interplay between the practitioner opening, stretching and rolling, and the client breathing, letting go. “I can’t say if it was the touch of the air on my skin, the sound of the ocean waves in my ear, the long sure stroke of the practitioner’s hand gliding along my spine, or the sense I had that every move matched my response. Whatever it was, I’ve never experienced anything like this before.” With these words, the lucky recipient stretched, stood up, and gazed over the rail at the sea beyond. “I feel like I’m all connected up again.”
Such comments are not surprising at the Esalen Institute, situated in Big Sur, California, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, sandwiched between the Santa Lucia mountains, and the Pacific Coastline. The nation’s first so-called “growth center” established in 1962, Esalen has many faces: its diverse workshops form an educational springboard to the further reaches of human potential; it is a spiritual retreat where those suffering from burnout seek solace from the trappings of city life; its organic gardens and hot sulfur springs are the heart of a healing spa. This is the home of Esalen massage. It is a massage impossible to separate from its place on the map: a product of the baths and the sea and the expansive vision of the 60’s brought up to date.
Some two dozen practitioners work on the baths deck, each one adding his particular stretch to the traditional long, oiled strokes punctuated with deep specific work, passive joint movement and energetic connection. Some have backgrounds in sports massage, others in Oriental medicine. It is not so much a common technique that unites them as much as a common approach. Later they will teach these stretches to their students in the more general “Massage Intensive” workshops, as well as those studying in the 28-day massage certification program.
Although workshops include specific massage moves and sequences, it is more the “glue between the moves” that defines this approach to bodywork. This glue is found in the contact between the practitioner and receiver from the minute their eyes meet; the way the hands respond to the client’s signals of contraction and release, pain or relaxation; the attention to the whole person rather than a summary of parts; and a shared observation of the innate capacity for self-healing within.
“Together we tune in and go on a journey. A breath, a dance moving and spiraling, energy softly flowing in, radiating at depth; a breath, stretching out, extending and lifting to receive the next wave; a breath, spiraling open, pulsing and glowing from within,” describes practitioner Pamela Espinoza.
This contact precludes the notion that the practitioner is going to fix the client. Instead, the practitioner enables the client to tune into his or her own database of sensation, emotion and mobility. The practitioner is both facilitator and witness to this process; he or she is neither the agent of change nor the healer. Some might call him an educator. Deane Juhan, former Esalen practitioner, writes in “Job’s Body,” “Bodywork, then, is a kind of sensorimotor education, rather than a treatment or a procedure… I must enter into an active relationship with him, feel him out…The bodyworker is not attacking a localized problem; he is carefully generating a flow of sensory information to the mind of the client…It is the mind of the client that does the fixing.” The practitioner delineates the problem, the client clears it up. In the process the client may discover how much energy was expended to maintain the problem in the first place.
The open-air quality of Esalen massage and the interpersonal contact banish the authoritative stance of the more traditional health practitioner, allowing the client an active role in the session. A practitioner may encourage breath, use colorful images to suggest a relaxed state, and bring the client’s attention to holding patterns, rather than simply relying on deep muscle work. Again and again within the sessions comes the reminder: the whole body, the whole person, is involved here. Practitioners pay close attention to their own responses as well, noting the feelings of discomfort or peace they experience during a session as part of the feedback loop. Laurie Schutz muses, “I probably go into a meditative trance. I’m aware of the tissue not only in its physical sense but with an emotional texture to it.” This openness to many levels of incoming data is the bedrock of Esalen massage.
Detractors have called it a “touchy-feely” massage, devoid of skill on the part of the practitioner, emphasizing the sensual, rather than “real” bodywork. In fact, practitioners are highly trained: anatomy and physiology are a part of every class and Annie the skeleton frequently stands available for hands-on exploration of joint articulation. Esalen massage as practiced today includes passive joint movement, multiple stretches, and rhythmic rocking. Esalen practitioner Carl “C.C.” Chase literally rocks, stretches, lifts and rolls clients from face down to face up and back again. As Chase sensitively spirals the client into the stretch, he may move to lengthen it a bit, drawing attention to a specific area. The client becomes aware of a new feeling in a new place, a freshened sense of potential in his or her body, as well as a great deal more freedom throughout his or her whole being. Even in the face of all this activity, it is not the technique of the move that is foreground; it is rather the interplay between the practitioner opening, stretching and rolling, and the client breathing, letting go, sighing deeply at the final half-inch drop to the table that makes the session the success it is.
There is something for everyone in this integral relationship. For former veteran emergency room nurse Sherry Sanders Gallaway, “Massage is a job to help bring someone into their body, to create a space where they can breathe and feel themselves wholly. In that sense, I see Esalen massage as sensual. We strive to be sensual in our work; it is with our senses that we live in the world and are not cut off from those around us.” Gallaway feels included in her client’s release.
A typical session, in the case of myself as massage therapist, begins when I meet a client, Joe. Joe is a guest at the institute and a new-comer to massage. I am careful to make a clear connection with him at the onset, making some eye contact and noting that his body movement seems somewhat constricted, and that his mood seems open and curious. “What is this thing, Esalen massage?” he seems to be wondering. After I ask if he has any injuries or concerns, he responds, “I’m fine, healthy, a little tight through the shoulders maybe.” It is late in the day, so I lead him to one of the massage rooms overlooking the ocean, at this point bathed in the beginning golden hues of a beautiful sunset.
As he lies face down on the table, I carefully drape him with a towel. I open the session with light, two-handed contact mid-back, so I can feel his breath, and through the contact with my hands I can encourage him to do the same. And so he can feel me and respond. For other sessions I might initiate contact at the feet or at the shoulders. I wait until I sense an invitation in his breath or in the micro-movements of his body to begin the long full-bodied strokes, applying a thin film of oil. I intend to bring his awareness into his body, away from his habitual thought mode. The long strokes go deeper and more specific, and my hands begin to define knot-bound muscles and held areas. I follow my co-worker Vicki Topp’s maxim: You rarely hurt anyone by working too deep; you can hurt someone by working too fast.
I draw my focus to Joe’s left shoulder, dangling his arm off the table and shaking it out to give him a sense of looseness. Since many of Esalen’s guests come from abroad, I have learned that this light shaking, accompanied by saying “spaghetti,” evokes a universal response. At one point after a particularly deep sigh, Joe comments, “I feel like I haven’t breathed in months.” I explore his shoulder through movement, using the other hand to probe the knotted tissue, ever deepening my touch as Joe relaxes. When my touch prompts him to release the shoulder, I softly comment, “Good!” and go back to the long flowing strokes, integrating the openness he feels in his shoulder into the rest of his back and hip area. I use these strokes to travel to the next focus of attention. Each area is greeted with strokes growing increasingly deeper, with more specific muscle work and movement.
When I approach Joe’s left leg, I observe tightening and stiffness through the gluteal muscles. I stroke softly, noting the slight change, and then discover a bumpiness near the ankle. When I ask about it, Joe says, “that’s where I broke may ankle in a ski accident three years ago. I guess I’ve been holding onto my leg ever since.” Knowing this is an old injury helps me identify the holding as primarily attitude-based; I use slow, well-supported movement, increasing the range as he lets go, until I am able to rhythmically rock his entire calf and ankle area.
At the conclusion of each segment of work (the left leg, for example) I pause and place my hands very specifically on the ends of the areas involved, sensing into the energy and drawing it right through the field. Deborah Medow, Esalen’s polarity practitioner, suggests, “I use my hands to listen to the energy. I feel with my being a quality – cold, tightness, congestion; there could be more space here. I sense emotional shifts, sometimes with just a knowing.” These pauses also give Joe a chance to integrate the shifts he feels in that newly smoothed-out left ankle, and his image of being slightly crippled and old is replaced by a new clarity, such as “Maybe I’ll hike the back trail in the park tomorrow.”
After Joe rolls over onto his back, I find that much of his holding has found a home in his neck. I lift, roll, work the shoulders, return again, and after Joe finally releases his neck into my cradling hands, he says, “I had no idea I was so unconscious of my body.” More strokes, muscle work, stretches and energy balancing follow, until the massage concludes with Joe breathing slow, deep breaths, completely wrapped in a sheet. All that remains of the sunset is a single strip of color in the sky. One hour and twenty minutes have passed. I check with him later to find a much straighter Joe, one with a sparkle in his eye. “Thanks,” we say to each other.
Other Esalen practitioners offer highly specialized bodywork. Peggy Horan uses her skills as a midwife to provide ease and education to pregnant women. She credits massage with teaching her sensitivity to touch and the ability to be fully with someone else. Peggy’s hands and easy natural attitude around this important time both educate and ease the overworked muscles of pregnant guests. She encourages women to massage their blossoming bellies and to massage their babies from day one. She finds the attention that bodywork brings to the breath carries over into labor and delivery. Peggy has helped with the births of many babies in the Esalen community, and massage is always a part of this process. In fact, the importance of touch and healthy children is underscored in many aspects of Esalen.
David Streeter’s fascination with anatomy led to his sports massage practice, combining the deep release of trigger point, cross friction and deep muscle work with the internal awareness and focus of the original Esalen approach. “Although I know all the actions of the body, my focus is on the person and their specific needs rather than on the tissue,” he says.
Streeter finds the long strokes of Esalen massage make the work more effective. His martial arts practice brought his attention to the powerful energies that can be called up for self-defense. He now uses that same energy to heal, to penetrate tissue, rather than break bricks. By projecting chi energy through the fingertips his touch can remain light with deep effect. The key to effectiveness in this work, he believes, is to maintain a daily practice, such as t’ai chi or yoga.
Massage at Esalen is a mindfulness exercise; both giver and receiver are called to full presence and attention. Practitioner Kathleen O’Shaughnessey takes an eclectic stance toward valuing diverse “action” meditations. For her, Shamanic trance and drumming, micro-movement, yoga, t’ai chi, all share the “mind-body absolutely in the moment” phenomenon. She states, “The common denominator is the mind’s engagement with an activity of the body now.” While giving a massage she becomes involved with the textures she encounters: the planes, the plump places, striations of the tissues, corners. She uses a tiny corner she locates alongside the shoulder blade to demonstrate, and indeed, as she traced and retraced, her client fell deeper and deeper into a relaxed state.
Her next client complains of whiplash. She responds with cranial micromovement supported by wedge-type handholds under the neck to draw attention inward to the involved joint. She offers manual support and then performs tiny, whisper-like movements, providing random motion to the involved area until slowly the movement returns. Kathleen has patience for infirmities; she has battled an apparently auto-immune disorder for the past several years, and her work with massage has helped her heal. “When you’re that fragile, spirit can actually come through you,” she says. “This certainty of a larger presence has imprinted within me. I can give it through my hands more than before. It feels more than me.” Her clients say they’ve never felt anything like it. Thanks to persistent work and exploration, her health is now returning.
Arthur Munyer sets a similar focus in his work with trigger point massage. He dives beneath his long oiled strokes with punctuating pressure using trigger points to bring him to a feeling of presence and awareness of deep emotions. “It’s like swimming and being able to go under water and allow the deep currents to direct me,” Munyer said. “It is not about pain,” he added. “I don’t have to push someone into more pain than they are already feeling.” Esalen massage provides a nurturing backdrop so that without force the currents he seeks flow forth, revealing the inner depth. In the beginning…none of us knew.
The origins of Esalen massage lie in the origins of Esalen itself; a willingness to explore fresh ideas from Eastern thought and give them new application in the West. Esalen was founded by Michael Murphy, author of “The Future of the Body,” and Richard Price to develop some of these impulses toward inner growth and change within the context of small group seminars in a residential setting which, serendipitously, included a nicely developed sulfur hot springs. Richard’s training with Fritz Perls, M.D., founder of Gestalt Therapy, questioned the artificial separation between the mind and the body and located within each person the potential for his or her own healing. Add to this the other high-powered seminar leaders, notably Charlotte Selver and her studies in sensory re-awakening, and her student, Bernard Gunther, and the seeds for the Esalen-style of bodywork were in place. As Michaeleen Kimmey, a practitioner in 1964, said of her fellow practitioners of that time, “None of us knew. Bernie knew Swedish, and Gia-Fu taught a form of shiatsu and emphasized the chi forces of his flowing t’ai chi chuan. I studied chiropractic and had an intuitive touch for dealing with people. Storm had wonderful hands.”
Gunther, in his interpretation of Charlotte’s work, focused on the “feel factor,” on sensation monitored from within, the foundation of self-awareness. The practitioner joined in and listened with his intuition, nervous system to nervous system. Storm Accioli brought a sense of ritual to the massage, which she described as a “cosmic experience,” adding candles, scented oil, incense and grace. Molly Day Shackman joined her. Shackman’s “Massage and Meditation” workshop in September 1968 was the first to offer Esalen-style massage to the public.
Massage defined itself as non-verbal, intuitive, following the flow. Roberta DeLong Miller, a practitioner in the early ’70s, opened her book “Psychic Massage” with, “To touch someone else you must be able to touch yourself.” Peggy Horan’s classes began with hushed silence, followed by a flowing t’ai chi like demonstration of sweeping hands, deeper work on knots, and closing feathery strokes. Deborah Medow blended yoga and massage with drums in the evening, offering participants a chance to get into their bodies. Body, bones energy and spirit.
Yet as practitioners began receiving Rolfing® structural integration (Ida Rolf’s Structural Realignment 10-session series of deep, intense bodywork, which she taught at the institute), they became curious about fascia alignment and deeper work. Vicki Topp and others studied anatomy and Al Drucker’s offshoot, Esalen Deep Tissue Work, uniting intuitive massage with more physiological know-how. A massage class kept the meditative atmosphere but began to include muscle description and discussion on the physiology of breath. Similar refinement occurred in understanding of the energy body, as Bill Liles and Deborah Medow each brought Randolph Stone’s Polarity Therapy System to their classes and work. Bodywork consumers began to have choices to make.
Milton Trager, M.D. presented at Esalen the concept of freeing the body while moving it. His rhythmical rocking replaced strokes, intending, he said, to release the mind from notions of immobility and in so doing release the body, nudging the muscles from holding patterns. Deane Juhan, deeply affected by the work, became a Trager practitioner and studied the interplay of the body’s diverse systems. It was as if rock n’ roll had come to trance-like Esalen Massage. Esalen practitioner George King, known for his work with professional dance companies, evolved a gymnast’s style of massage.
The concept that pain, disease or mental anguish is caused by blockages in the energetic body has appeared in many guises at Esalen. Maria Lucia Sauer Holloman along with fellow Brazilians developed and practiced a spirit guide massage to cleanse the individual’s field. Lioness Parizek teaches chakra balancing, a method of integrating the energy centers through self-education, which she has offered to such diverse audiences as the International Women’s Forum. Dean Marson augments his Trager-style approach with fine-tuned energetic balancing.
Three years ago the Esalen institute cleared a sweat lodge site, and now regularly held ceremonies illuminate the native American emphasis on ancestors, the earth and healing, adding the smudge of burning sage to the potpourri of herbs used at the baths. Ellen Watson sings to her clients while working on them with her numerous scents. Practitioner C. Jay Bradbury continues the t’ai chi chuan principles of grounding and centering with his students.
Many of the practitioners working on the bathhouse deck have innovated and refined this non-invasive approach to the body, which invites a response rather than demands one. They continue to research ways to make their work more effective; for example, Benj Langdon brings his Feldenkrais training to the massage table. Over time, they have seen the wisdom and effectiveness of listening within, of letting the massage create an environment that allows for a return to optimal health, of reaching inside to the impulse toward balance rather than to impose and fix from an external “expert” stance. They have seen lives prolonged, steps become lighter, laughter return as people attain a respect for their bodies and an acknowledgment of the messages and intelligence they contain. Esalen massage today defines itself as a way of exploring, person to person, a matrix of physical, psychological, energetic and spiritual awareness united by the balm of touch.
The Esalen Institute: An Educational Center with Humanity in Mind
by Karen Menehan, Managing Editor
For 35 years the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, has been an incubator of techniques that address the body, mind and spirit. Soon after its founding and up to the present day, Esalen, a self-described nonprofit center for experimental education, became the scene of developments and discoveries in psychology, group encounters and bodywork.
Founded in 1962 by friends Michael Murphy and Richard Price, the institute became the hub of the human potential movement in the 1960s. Today about 10,000 people come from around the world each year to experience Esalen’s eclectic offerings.
The institute offers workshops geared toward spiritual, artistic and psychological development; among the most popular are those that focus on body awareness. Since the institute’s beginning, new bodywork techniques have been developed and supported by the Esalen Institute prior to their introduction to the rest of the world.
Esalen’s physical environment, referred to by many as “magical” provides a backdrop of splendor. Nestled on 27 acres of Big Sur’s Pacific Ocean coastline, the view from the institute is majestic. In the spring, monarch butterflies flutter through the silken air, while gray whales migrate past the shore. A visitor might come upon a waterfall, wander a cliffside path or meditate in a redwood grove.
The natural environment also includes mineral hot springs, known as the baths, adjacent to a massage deck that sits 50 feet above the ocean. It was there, on the deck, that bodywork pioneers came to Esalen and taught their techniques to others. Among them:
Ida Rolf conducted training in her Structural Integration Method at the institute in the late 1960s. It was at Esalen that she personally trained a few people to be instructors of her technique.
Moshe Feldenkrais presented an Esalen workshop on awareness through movement in 1971. Although Feldenkrais had taught on the East Coast in the 1950s, his teaching at the Esalen Institute was the introduction of his work to a new generation of people, and also led to the development of his training program, according to Bonnie Humiston, assistant director of the Feldenkrais Guild.
Although Milton Trager was already applying his technique, now known as TragerWork®, the first public presentation of his work was at Esalen, in 1975 – and led to a training program and widespread exposure of the work.
And several currently prominent practitioners of massage and bodywork point to their time at the Esalen Institute as a profound learning experience.
Deane Juhan, TragerWork practitioner and author of “Job’s Body,” believes that the work done by the Esalen Institute was instrumental in taking some of the better values of the 1960s and ’70s and injecting them into the mainstream.
“Esalen was sort of the Ed Sullivan show of the first emergence of alternative practices in the U.S. in any kind of organized presentation,” Juhan said. “And over the decades it has continued to serve as a forum for whatever’s hot and new.”
Juhan first worked as a night guard at the institute. Then he began learning Esalen-style massage, deep tissue work and acupuncture there; he settled on TragerWork after attending a workshop presented by Trager at Esalen. Juhan trained massage therapists and gave workshops at Esalen until 1990, when he moved; he still gives workshops there about every other year.
The developer of Aston-Patterning®, Judith Aston, trained under Ida Rolf at the institute in 1968, assisted Rolf with classes there in the early 1970s, presented the first Rolfing Aston Structural Patterning course at Esalen in 1971, and taught at the institute through 1974. During the late ’60s and early ’70s, free-form exploration was thriving, Aston said, and two or three different kinds of bodywork were presented at Esalen each week.
Joseph Heller, who developed Hellerwork after being trained in structural integration by Ida Rolf at Esalen, first went to the institute in 1971.
Transformational bodywork practitioner and instructor Dan Menkin trained at Esalen in the late ’60s.
The Esalen Institute is also home to its own brand of bodywork: Esalen-style massage, which draws from both Swedish massage and sensory awareness (a method of teaching people to get in touch with their bodies, especially through breath work).
In addition to its 28-day Massage Practitioner Certification Program, the Esalen Institute offers bodywork workshops on a variety of topics, including Feldenkrais, sports massage, reflexology, Rolfing® structural integration, Rubenfeld Synergy® method, craniosacral therapy, trigger point massage and Zero Balancing® — among many others.