by Nick Lakoff, CMT
Californian massage creation is attributed to an American massage practitioner from San Francisco California named Margaret Elke. Already a Swedish massage practitioner, she had attended the Esalen Institute in Big Sur California in the 60’s to get certified in Esalen massage. During her stay she was particularly drawn to the teachings of Fritz Perls the creator, along with his wife Laura (née Lore Posner), of Gestalt Therapy.
The main goal of Gestalt Therapy is to help individuals re-establish self-awareness once a psychological disorder or trauma sets in. Gestalt influenced the development of Esalen massage but Elke slowly re-introduced elements of Swedish massage that had been discarded in Esalen’s deconstructionist evolution. Together with her husband at the time, Mel Risman a Gestalt practitioner, they created a technique called Sensitive Gestalt Massage (SGM) which centered on the psychotherapeutic effects of touch.
In the 1970’s they started travelling to France and eventually moved there with the idea to teach their technique abroad. There they met Ulla Bandelow and Raoul Bécart both psychotherapists who were converted to this new approach to helping patients to overcome psychological troubles. They were the first in Europe to sponsor the American couples to teach their technique as a part of a healthy lifestyle and for use in psychotherapy. Through their workshops and classes SGM gained great popularity and the name Sensitive Gestalt Massage is widely recognised in Europe today.
There are many stories about how it became to be known as Californian massage, but there is one that is the most prevailing and probably the most accurate. Many came from around the world to take their classes and since Elke and her husband were from California the massage became popularly know as Californian massage. Some of those who came to get certified returned to North America using this name in reference to SGM and it just stuck.
One of the original characteristics and intents of this massage is that the practitioner and receiver be completely naked while performing this massage. During practical phases of her workshops, Elke was completely naked at all times along with her husband, other teachers, students and receivers. She was often quoted as saying, “If you cannot assume your own body, I can’t see how you can take care of another’s.” The historical context here is important since this was the height of the sexual revolution and a global trend towards hedonism. Although today massage therapy has worked hard to separate itself from sexuality, it is interesting to note that this period of exploration into pleasures of the body and touch (I am talking to the non-sexual aspects here), is responsible for the greatest leaps that massage made in the 20th century.
Californian massage or SGM is generally given on a massage table but can be given on the floor atop a mat or padded comforter. Oils, creams and gels are used to allow the therapist to make large body length motions. As mentioned before, originally both practitioner and receiver would be naked but today most therapists are clothed either by preference or by rules governing their work. Clients are usually given a choice to be naked or be partially covered with a towel or sheet. Because of the nature of this massage, it is preferable to not keep underwear on as it would impede on the motion of the massage.
Since in its inception one of Californian massages goals was to solicit a psycho-somatic response, one of the characteristic of this massage is that there is often lots of verbal interaction between the giver and the receiver. Much like a classical psychotherapy session, this interaction serves to guide the receiver to self-awareness and discovery of links between the body and past psychological trauma. This aspect is not always used and the massage can be given in complete silence. In the “Holistic Health Handbook” edited by Berkeley Holistic Health Center, 1978, Elke and Risman describe the practitioner and client as functioning as a “meditative duet” during a Sensitive Gestalt Massage session. Clients are urged to consciously and unconsciously lower their mental and physical barriers and give in to what often is a very sensual, nurturing experience.
During this process clients may discover unconscious tensions, repressed emotions, and memory recalls, in addition to new pleasurable sensations. While shedding these negative leftovers from past experiences clients replace them with new positive ones, further enhancing the therapy. SGM often assists clients in becoming more self-aware, grounded and improve their own body image.
Nick Lakoff is a certified practitioner in the following disciplines: Swedish Massage, Sports Massage, Reflexology, Acupressure, Myo-Fascial Release, Massage for Pregnancy, Swedish Chair Massage, Hot Stone Massage and Reiki.