Esalen Massage®: The Power of Mindful Touch

by Robin Fann-Costanzo

This article originally appeared in the Florida State Massage Therapy Magazine, Massage Message.

Imagine yourself sitting on the cliffs of the Santa Lucia Mountain range in Big Sur, California looking out at the Pacific Ocean.  You hear the crash of the ocean waves below and a sea otter as it floats on its back cracking shells. You see an occasional condor soaring above.  The sun is shining, the air is filled with the smell of sea water and sulphur from the hot springs.  The hot water bubbles up from under the earth and pours into the large bath tubs.  

People from all over the world, and all walks of life, gather to bathe in these pools of healing waters and experience the beauty of nature and the magic of the place.  This sacred ground, the Esalen Institute, once home to the Esselen Indians, is the birthplace of Esalen massage.  

History of Esalen Massage

Originating in the mid-1960’s, Esalen massage birthed out of the human potential movement.  In those early days students made the pilgrimage to this remote location to study with masters, philosophers and psychotherapist such as Aldous Huxley, Fritz Perls, George Leonard, Joseph Campbell and Alan Watts.   Today, people continue to travel from all over the world to study with thought leaders and spiritual teachers such as Peter Levine, Shiva Rae, Amory Lovins, Brother David Steindl-Rast, Byron Katie, Starhawk, Alanis Morisette and many more.

The originators of Esalen massage were dancers, yogis and young people interested in expanding their consciousness.  They were curious about the relationship between mind, body and awareness.  The beginnings of Esalen massage were attributed to Bernard Gunther and Molly Shackman who created a new style of massage that reflected the east/west teachings at the Esalen Institute.  Esalen massage has roots in Swedish massage, and was greatly influenced by many great bodyworkers of our time who taught at Esalen; Ida Rolf, Milton Trager, Moshe Feldenkrais and Charlotte Selver.  The teachings of Fritz Perls and gestalt therapy also influenced Esalen massage.

Foundational Principles: The Esalen Approach

Esalen practitioners approach massage as a moving meditation practice. An opportunity for the practitioner to drop into presence and deeply listen to the client and to oneself.  Asking themselves silently and frequently, “what am I aware of now?”

When I approach the massage table I think of it very much like I am approaching my meditation cushion.  I pause, take a deep breath, relax my body, clear my mind, and then listen.  Each move I make is inspired by my client’s breath and response, as well as my own breath and inspiration.

While there are specific styles and techniques attributed to Esalen massage, no two Esalen massages will ever look the same.  That’s because each practitioner, each client and each moment has a special uniqueness. To practice Esalen massage is to be open to subtle changes, to allow yourself to listen wholeheartedly to your client and yourself and to be fully present with every touch.

Esalen Philosophy

“Esalen massage is about relationships,” says Brita Ostrom, one of the founders of Esalen massage.  Each massage I do is a unique nonverbal conversation.   As the practitioner, my goal in this relationship is to listen; not to fix, heal or change my client.  Rather, it is to develop a relationship of trust and support so the client can become more aware of themselves, and explore new possibilities in their body.

Listening to each client presents a variety of possibilities for me as well.  For example, if a client comes to me with tight shoulders, listening helps me decide how to approach those shoulders.  This prevents me from getting stuck  in a routine.  I may need to approach indirectly, easing my way towards their shoulders with a gentle touch to help them feel safe and comfortable. Or I may need to use a stronger, more direct and commanding touch that communicates, “I’ve got you, you can let go now.”   I’m listening to changes in their breath, muscle tone, temperature, and heart rate, as well as to my own internal experience.   With each touch I invite more awareness, more breath, more possibilities for movement and letting go.  Then I return to my own breath, my own mind, and my own body mechanics. I let go.  I allow my attention to natural shift back and forth.  This is the dance of Esalen massage.  

At the Esalen Institute, the 75-minute massages are conducted at the clothing optional bath house.  A client is retrieved from soaking in the hot springs and handed a towel to dry off.  Draping during the massage is often minimal due to the open culture at Esalen.  When I listen closely to my client’s verbal and nonverbal cues I understand how to drape in a way to ensure they feel safe and comfortable.  In addition to listening, it’s important to also follow local draping laws and customs. The comfort and safety of the client is of the utmost importance.

The Techniques

One of my students said to me a few years ago, “Esalen massage is like the tool belt for all my tools.”  What she meant was that she could freely include massage techniques from other modalities into an Esalen massage.  Esalen massage is known for its long slow integrative strokes, mimicking the  movement of the ocean waves.  Over the years, Esalen massage has evolved to include a variety of techniques and continues to do so.  The foundational Esalen techniques include long strokes, pauses, passive joint movement (Moshe Feldenkrais), rocking (Milton Trager), compression and stretching.  A practitioner can incorporate many additional techniques including deep tissue, myofacial release, trigger point therapy, acupressure, kneading, stripping, or energy work.  The approach, mindfulness, mind/body awareness and listening, ties it all together.

Self Care

In Esalen massage there is a big emphasis on listening to your body to support good body mechanics.  I am always seeking ways to find comfort and ease in my own body.  I move slowly enough to make subtle adjustments to create more ease.  What I love about Esalen massage is that it is an invitation for the practitioner to practice self care while giving a massage, and it goes well with having a self care practice.  I personally like to support my massage practice with yoga and meditation, so that I can arrive to work feeling the best I can feel in my own body. I believe this is why the founders of Esalen massage have all been practicing free of injuries, for nearly 50 years.    

Tips for working mindfully

  • Grounding and Centering. Before your client arrives give yourself a few minutes to ground and center. Feel your own body and breath. Set the intention to be present during the massage.

  • Give yourself plenty of time. Arrive to your session early, be prepared to greet your client calmly, and leave space between sessions so that you never feel rushed. I leave 30 minutes between sessions and schedule a lunch break in the day.

  • Work at a slow and steady pace throughout the massage. Whether you have 30 minutes or 2 hours, move as if you have all the time in the world. This will create a feeling of timelessness.

  • Pause. Throughout the massage take a few seconds to pause at the hands, head or feet to reconnect with your breath and the moment. This also gives your client time to integrate their experience.

  • Shift your attention. Let your attention naturally drift from your client, back to your own body and breath, and to the environment around you. Giving yourself permission to do this will foster awareness.

  • Breathe! When you catch yourself thinking or getting distracted, return to your own breath.

  • Self Care. Make sure you take care of all your personal needs. Drink enough water, eat, sleep and get massages. Taking care of your most essential needs will help you show up for your clients.

Why practice Esalen massage?

Over my 24 years of practicing Esalen massage I have heard over and over again, “that was the best massage I’ve ever received.” Why?  I believe that when I show up mindfully and really listen and respond my clients needs, as well as my own, it is deeply satisfying on many levels.  Like many other mindfulness practices, I walk away from each session feeling relaxed, open and energized, just like my clients often do.  Just like a great conversation, or a walk through the forest, my work then becomes very enjoyable and nurturing to me.

Touching with mindfulness, curiosity, and love is our natural instinct.  Like the mother who scoops up her child when they fall and rocks them gently into a calm state.  Esalen massage feels like an nurturing embrace, rocking away all our cares, and then inviting us to open to ourselves and new possibilities.