by Nick Lakoff, CMT
Esalen massage was developed at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur California. The institute was founded by Micheal Murphy and Dick Price in 1962. The main objective was to re-examine commonly accepted thoughts and theories in the humanities and sciences and explore new, experimental and ground breaking philosophies in these areas. The estate on which the institute is built is located borders the Pacific Ocean and has amongst its natural and breathtaking beauty, natural hot springs that were used by the Esselen Amerindiens as far back as 2600 BC. Over the last 50 years the Institute has attracted the most forward thinking luminaries, academics, scientists, philosophers, bodyworkers and teachers from around the world.
Esalen massage was developed in the counter-culture era of the 1960’s and evolved through the experimental deconstruction of Swedish massage, the most common massage in existence in the United States at the time. To understand Esalen massage it’s absolutely necessary to understand the context in which it was born. The hot springs and spa that existed on the property was a crucial part of the Esalen spirit of exploration and self introspection. Present at the Institute in the early years were all sorts of philosophies that were complimentary to bodywork such as but not limited to; Sensory Awareness, Meditation, Eastern Medicines, Gestalt, Tai-Chi, Yoga and many more. These currents of thoughts and ideas greatly influenced those who were present at the Institute in this period. At the beginning of Esalen’s evolution it was Swedish massage that was stripped down to the basics and re-engineered. A psycho-somatic element was added following the thought that the body stores emotional pain and stress. Various bodyworkers and massage therapists in such varied disciplines as Anmo, Amma, Ayurvedic massage, Rolfing (aka Structural Integration), Trager, Shiatsu, Swedish (aka Classical) massage, CST (Cranial Sacral Therapy), Reki, Polarity, Therapeutic Touch have all contributed to what Esalen massage is today.
It is not always easy to identify an Esalen massage due to the many influences each practitioner brings to it individually. One thing that helps you to recognize it as such is its slow undulating wave like motion of the movements. Most Esalen participants enjoyed the touch of massage at the spa which is perched above the cliffs of Big Sur. Therefore it is no surprise that the rhythms of the ocean are a great part of what Esalen massage is today. Another is that the movements are not limited to one specific area of the body but often continue the entire length of the body. Nudity being optional at the spa some of the receivers would either only have a towel on their mid section or nothing at all. This allowed for easier full body movements from top to bottom and vice-versa. This lack of rigid rules for Esalen massage in favour of an all encompassing global approach is what makes this massage so distinctive from others. Gentle rocking and cradling of the body is yet another common trait of Essalen massage. Instinct and inspiration guide the Esalen practitioner and making each session essentially their own work of art.
This massage is practiced on a table using massage oils, creams or gels. Generally Esalen massage is slow and gentle in order to unify body and mind and to create a safe nurturing environment where the body can release psycho-somatic tension that may have accumulated within the body, sometimes over a lifetime. It is very common for there not to be any sudden jerky movements or percussions. It is not unusual for this form of massage to evoke intense emotional responses and where the recipient cries without knowing why, either during or following the session. Although very emotional at times, most come away from the experience with a feeling of deep relief and light heartedness. Esalen is a very good massage for those seeking a gentle nurturing massage and for those who have suffered physical and emotional trauma and are looking for a complimentary or alternative treatment.
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.