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Esalen Massage: Deep Connections

by Lucia Appleby(more info)

listed in massage, originally published in issue 85 - February 2003

The Esalen Institute and Its Work

For 35 years, the Esalen Institute in California has been the incubator for mind-body-spirit techniques and has consistently remained at the forefront of new developments and discoveries in the fields of psychology and bodywork. Today, about 10,000 people a year visit from around the world to sample the Esalen Experience.

Founded in 1962 by Michael Murphy and Richard Price as an educational centre for the exploration of unrealized human potential, the Institute soon became known for its blend of East/West philosophies, experiential workshops,its steady influx of philosophers, psychologists, artists and religious thinkers, and its spectacular 27-acre grounds - blessed with natural hot springs and once home to a Native American tribe known as the Esselen.

Esalen massage practitioners David Streeter and Vicki Topp in the Esalen Baths
Esalen massage practitioners David Streeter
and Vicki Topp in the Esalen Baths

The Institute wears many faces: as well as being a spiritual retreat and healing spa, it offers an eclectic range of workshops and lectures - ranging from massage to gestalt, transpersonal psychology and, most recently. sustainable environments. The most popular courses are those focusing on body awareness and bodywork, and numerous new techniques have been developed at Esalen before being introduced to the rest of the world.

Esalen's physical environment is often described as 'magical', and plays a large part in the understanding of sensory awareness Esalen guests take home with them. Nestled on 27 acres of the Big Sur's Pacific Ocean coastline, the view from the Institute is awe-inspiring.

Even the most hardened soul can't fail to be moved by the sight of monarch butterflies fluttering through the air and grey whales migrating past the shore, or by the sound of the waves rolling in and integrating themselves with the signature long strokes of Esalen massage.

Esalen Massage

The massage team at the Institute believe anyone can learn the fundamentals of a good, basic massage by practicing certain key elements. Key elements that even qualified massage practitioners often omit from their practice - from learning to listen to the client's breath to seeing the massage as a personal educational journey rather than a quick fix.

Esalen massage is rooted in the various explorations of sensory awareness that have taken place at the Institute - a smorgasbord of Swedish massage, martial arts, yoga, tai chi, chi gong, kinesiology, somatic arts, subtle energy theories, polarity, cranial-sacral work and native healing rituals. If you broke down the segments of Esalen massage, you would probably see a lot of tai-chi movements and yoga postures. However, what is so unique about this method is that it includes intuition, and every massage is given differently because the practitioner is intuitively sensing their client's physical and non-physical clues.

According to Ellen Watson, a senior member of the massage team: "The trick is to not analyse your learn to sense what is needed in each moment. Whenever you lose sight of that, simply breathe and ground again." She also believes that massage is "a blend of art and science", as it becomes medicine without having any intention of fixing anything.

Characterized by long sweeping strokes integrated with more specific work, Esalen massage creates a personal connection with the client to induce a state of awareness, relaxation, and deep body-mind connection. It can be seen as a kind of moving meditation, where the practitioner takes the client on a journey through a series of dance-like, free-flowing, well-supported and nurturing strokes along the whole length of the body - often starting at the bottom of the feet and continuing to the top of the head.

Deane Juhan, a former Esalen practitioner, explains this approach in his book Job's Body: "The bodyworker is not attacking a localized problem; he is carefully generating a flow of sensory information to the mind of the is the mind of the client that does the fixing."[1]

People who have experienced Esalen massage often say they feel as if their bodies were able to let go for the first time because they were so unobtrusively yet emotionally supported. And that they never knew massage could release a host of feelings - from sadness to euphoria.

Much has been written about the way major psychological and emotional events in our lives can imprint themselves in a corresponding place in our tissues and nervous system. At times when the area which has stored this information is touched, images associated with that event surface, often in a sudden and startling fashion (for example, in a marked shift in breathing, facial colour/expression or movement). The Esalen practitioner listens carefully to these signs and tries to meet the client where they are, letting emotions rise to the surface and out of the body, and allowing whatever needs to occur to play out. Suspended in a deep state of relaxation, the client can be taken to a subconscious, pre-verbal space where, undisturbed, they can engage with the associated emotions arising from this journey.

The practitioner remains in contact during this process, acting as an 'anchor' to the client. If a sudden change or movement is felt, the massage can be continued at a slower, softer pace, or the practitioner can ground the client by holding their feet lightly, or placing their hands gently over the chakra areas or head. The client can indicate whether they want to talk about what they've just experienced, although usually the massage continues without verbal exchange or explanations. Another element of the technique is giving the client a chance to pause and digest the massage (by literally pausing, while keeping touch contact).

Esalen massage practitioner Vicki Topp stresses the importance of journeying with the client, and respecting the fact that you're working with someone. She believes a vital aspect of the technique is "the quality of presence and sensitivity it offers...everybody appreciates being seen or felt for their essential self, and that communicates with Esalen."

She points out that you can't touch somebody if you've never been touched yourself, and that the Esalen practitioner needs to do their own work, to bring that quality of work to the massages they give - through, for example, meditation and movement sessions and developing breath awareness, quality of contact and a sense of presence. Many Esalen students go on to integrate Feldenkrais or Rolfing into their work.

Key aspects of the Esalen technique of interest to practitioners include:

a) Grounding yourself before giving a massage;
b) Waiting and listening to the client's breath before making initial contact;
c) Gentle rocking to help the body let go of rigidity;
d) Creating a unified and whole massage defined by long, lengthening strokes;
e) Making small circular movements around joints to encourage release;
f) Bringing the whole body weight into the movement;
g) A little unpredictability to ease away holding patterns (e.g. allowing the fingers to go deeper under the scapula;
h) Allowing time to pause;
i) Understanding that massage goes beyond the physical self;
j) Remembering that everybody loves to be touched and everybody wants to be touched deep down inside.

How to Bring Esalen Into Your Practice

(Brita Ostrom - Esalen massage practitioner)

1. Start with nothing. Before your sessions begin, find that still, quiet, clear point of attention within through meditation;
2. Just say Hi. Use the introductory time to build of sense of personal easiness between the two of you;
3. Slow down. Start your session with a gentle connecting touch, conclude every segment with integration strokes, add pauses throughout. Add 15 minutes extra time to every session;
4. Pay attention - to muscle knots, breath constrictions and the soft sighs of relaxation, which will wake up awareness. Let good feelings count more than pain;
5. Keep it natural. Use plants, fresh air, soft lights and sounds to create your own biosphere;
6. Dare to be you. Use your voice, your yoga, your art, whatever keeps you inspired.

A-Z of the Principle Body-Mind Practices That Have Evolved From the Esalen Institute.


Judith Aston, the developer of Aston-Patterning, trained under Ida Rolf at Esalen in 1968 and assisted her with classes in the early '70s. She presented her first Aston Structural Patterning course in 1971, and taught at the Institute until 1974.

Aston Patterning is a muscle manipulation system of deep tissue release that aims to re-educate muscle movement, and is often sought by people who have found traditional techniques ineffective. It also takes into account the mind-body-spirit relationship of the patient.

Before treatment, the client's normal range of body movements is examined, along with muscle tightness and structural (skeletal) formation. This gives the practitioner an overview of how their body moves, and what the causes of deviation from normal movement are. As long-term relief requires the muscles to be retrained, clients are taught to be more self-aware of their movements and to work on new patterns of exercise, posture and behaviour. Aston patterning is frequently used in combination with massage.

Cranial-sacral work

Cranialsacral therapy developed from cranial osteopathy, which was founded by Andrew Taylor Still and dates back to the 1890s. Distraught over the death of his wife and two children from meningitis, Still began an intensive study of anatomy and non-pharmaceutical methods of healing. His star student, William Sutherland, became intrigued by the idea that the skull bones were structured to allow for movement.

In 1970, after studying Sutherland's work, John Upledger scientifically confirmed the mobility of the cranial bones and determined that the central nervous system interconnects with the tissue surrounding the brain, which in turn interconnects with all other bodily structures.

He devised a system where, through gentle touch, cranio-sacral practitioners could find restrictions in the body's system and so determine how they affected other areas of the body. Practitioners believe the technique also breaks down emotional and energetic blocks.


Moshe Feldenkrais presented a formative Esalen workshop on awareness through movement at the Institute in 1971. Although Feldenkrais had already taught on the East Coast in the '50s, his classes at the Esalen Institute introduced his work to a new generation, and led to the development of his Feldenkrais training programme.

The Feldenkrais Method is an approach for improving physical and mental functioning through the exploration of body movement patterns and the use of attention, for problems ranging from chronic pain to learning difficulties. A typical Feldenkrais practitioner might ask the client to rise to their feet and then ask: "Do you observe that a different placement of your feet influences your ability to stand? Slowly start to stand as you look down. As you slowly get up, look up. Then get up looking right. Next get up looking left. Can you sense that the different placement of your eyes affects how you come to stand?" This process of re-training can break the habitual patterns of movement causing physical and mental problems.


Joseph Heller left his job as an aerospace engineer for NASA in 1972 to train with Ida Rolf in structural integration at the Esalen Institute. In 1973 he became a Structural Patterner after studying with Judith Aston (creator of Aston-Patterning). He later received advanced training from Dr Brugh Joy, a physician and innovator in the field of preventative medicine and the use of energy as a means of healing.

As a result of this training, Heller synthesized a new form of bodywork based on deep tissue manipulation with the emphasis on re-education. Rather than treating the pain or 'symptom', Hellerwork focuses on rebalancing the entire body, returning it to a more aligned and relaxed state. Heller believed that stress in any one area of the body had an effect on all other areas of the body, and the form of tissue Hellerwork primarily focuses is the fascia - the plastic-like tissue that wraps all muscles. In its optimal state, the fascia is loose and moist, but under continual stress, it becomes rigid and layers begin to stick to one another, creating 'knots' (also connected to habitual patterns of holding and movement). Hellerwork therefore uses deep tissue work to release and alleviate tension, and let the body reach its optimum alignment. By eliminating stress and pain, Hellerwork practitioners believe the body should be able to rid itself of repressed mental memories and physical and emotional traumas.


Dr Ida Rolf studied the flexibility of proteins in connective tissue in the '30s and '40s, and discovered that the shape, elasticity and length of connective tissue could be altered with the application of pressure. She personally conducted training in her Structural Integration Method technique, which later became known as Rolfing, at the Esalen Institute in the '60s.

Rolfing is based on three ideas. The first is that the human body is affected by gravity, and when the body's major segments (head, shoulders, chest, pelvis, legs) are properly aligned, gravity works to lift the body rather than pull it down. Secondly, connective tissue, or the myofascial network of the body, can be moulded and changed. Thirdly, the key to aligning the body in gravity is systematically releasing the connective tissue network, which allows the muscles to return to a more balanced relationship. When the body is properly aligned, physical tension and holding patterns can be released.

Trager Psychophysical Integration

The first public presentation of A Milton Trager's technique, now known as TragerWork, was at Esalen in 1975, and led to a training programme and widespread exposure of the work.

Trager psychophysical integration is a type of bodywork that uses the human ability to feel pleasure and other sensations as the basis for developing and maintaining a healthy body. According to Trager theory, a healthy body is both a container for and a reflection of a healthy mind and spirit. The Trager practitioner uses motion in muscles and joints to produce pleasurable feelings, which enter the nervous system and trigger tissue changes via motor-sensory feedback loops between the mind and the muscles. After several sessions the client learns how to move and use their body to produce the same effect and to hold it in a more beneficial way. Practitioners believe the technique can result in relief from pain, greater freedom of motion and assist in correcting long-standing problematic patterns of posture and movement.


1. Juhan Deane. Job's Body: A Handbook for Bodywork. Barrington. New York. 1987.


Allison Nancy. The Complete Body, Mind, and Spirit. The Rosen Publishing Group. New York. 1999.
Anderson Walter. The Upstart Spring: Esalen and the American Awakening. Addison-Wesley. Reading, Mass. 1982.
Brown George. The Live Classroom: Innovation Through Confluent Education and Gestalt. Viking Press. New York. 1975.
Juhan Deane. Job's Body: A Handbook for Bodywork. Barrington. New York. 1987.
Lederman Janet. Anger and the Rocking Chair. McGraw Hill. New York. 1969.
Maslow Abraham. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York. 1976.
Moshe Feldenkrais. Awareness Through Movement. Harper. New York. 1991.
Murphy Michael. The Future of the Body . Tarcher Penguin. 1972.
Schutz Will. Joy: 20 Years Later: Expanding Human Awareness. Ten Speed Press. Berkeley, Calif. 1989.

Photo Captions

1. Esalen massage practitioners David Streeter and Vicki Topp at the Esalen Institute (for both shots in the stone room overlooking the sea).x Lucia Appleby
2. Esalen massage practitioners Vicki Topp and Ellen Watson in the Esalen Institute hot spring baths (shot to follow).x Lucia Appleby


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About Lucia Appleby

Lucia Appleby is a registered holistic massage practitioner (London College of Massage) and freelance journalist, whose work has appeared in a wide range of newspapers and magazines. She can be reached at:

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