[Podcast] The Power of Touch with Deborah Medow at Esalen

Journey back in time to the beginnings of Esalen Massage with Robin Fann-Costanzo and Deborah Medow,  manager of the Esalen Healing Arts Department and longtime Esalen bodywork practitioner, yoga instructor and workshop leader.


How did you hear about Esalen?

Deborah - It was through an interesting series of events. I was actually going to school at this point in Bloomington Indiana and had my daughter with me who was about 2 or 3 years old. And I suddenly couldn’t figure out what I was doing in school anymore and I was pulling a 4 point which was the highest you could get at that point in time. And I just decided I wanted to quit school and hitchhike to Mexico - with my daughter. It was easier to hitchhike then, but it did freak out my parents. And they said "no, we know this place called Esalen. Why don’t you go there and take a workshop."  So I went (well, I’ve never been further west than Colorado which was on a family driving trip) so sure, alright I’ll go to Esalen and they said they would babysit my daughter. So, I flew out to Monterey and hitchhiked from Monterey to Esalen, to Big Sur. I caught a ride with these wonderful people who were in a Volkswagen Bus and they started driving down the coast from Rio Road. Rio Road is North of Esalen about 30, 32 miles. They kept stopping along the way. I had never seen the ocean before and I totally fell in love with the coast it was so beautiful, it was a beautiful sunny day and the blue ocean and the different kind of blue sky were just amazingly beautiful. The power of nature was really strong and when they dropped me off at Esalen and I walked down that steep hill I felt like I had come home. And I actually got offered a job - things were different then - and i did get offered a job after being in a workshop for 3 days there.

What was the job you were offered?

Deborah - The job I was offered was to be a waitress in the kitchen. At that point in time we had waitresses who wore these long skirts that looked a little bit hippie-ish and the waitresses job was to offer people a vegetarian or a meat, and the vegetarian was usually just a piece of cheese but that was the alternative at that point in time, and to serve coffee or tea. In the meantime, I still had the rest of my workshop and had a month long workshop that I was taking. So I took those workshops and then I flew back to Indiana and got my daughter and we again hitchhiked from Rio Road down to Esalen. We didn’t have housing but these people that were taking - I don’t know how I met them - ...a month long workshop, had an RV and so I stayed in their RV with my daughter while they took the workshop. And I worked in the kitchen, children were not so welcome at that point in time, but Ricki stayed with me and sometimes she would sit in the kitchen while I was waitressing and there were a few other kids around that she also spent time with. In the meantime, my father was an automobile dealer so he outfitted a van for me and then somebody drove the van out and I had a van to live in. At that point in time there wasn’t really staff housing, they were about to build some. There were a lot of trailers in the garden and there were trailers and RV’s. Mine wasn’t really an RV it was a van. And they were on the 3rd level sometimes called Tobacco row, so we lived on Tobacco row for a while in my Dodge van.

What was that first workshop that you took?

Deborah - It was with Claudia. I can’t remember the title but it was with him. Then the next month long that I took was with John Heider and Steve Stroud. I don’t even remember the title of it. It was a very intense workshop and we met with a bunch of people. One of the things that stood out was that they really wanted us to drop inhibitions and wanted us to keep the door open of the bathroom when we went to the bathroom and I’m a girl from the midwest. That was really difficult for me. And that’s how I came, and along the way I started working in the kitchen and took a workshop shortly after with Gabrielle Roth and Joe Kramer, and it was massage, movement, and yoga. I had minored in philosophy in college and I was always interested in yoga, but I was young I was 19 or so. I just got inspired by the workshop and I started intensely doing yoga and learning massage at the same time. So that’s how I got into massage and yoga at the same time, which was great...because I was learning about my own body and learning about massage and I think by so intensely immersing myself in yoga I learned a lot about bodies in general and could apply that to massage

Was there massage happening here when you arrived?

Deborah - There was some massage. And also Gabrielle [Roth] was the head of the massage crew. She’s also the founder of the five rhythms. So she was doing..this was a massage movement and yoga workshop so we were doing - it was actually before she was doing five rhythms as such, but we were doing movement, yoga, and massage.

So there was a massage crew?

Deborah - It was a small massage crew and Gabrielle was running it at the time.

Were they calling it Esalen massage?

Deborah - They were calling it Esalen massage and that time it was kind of based on Bernie Gunther and all of his experiences with Charlotte Selvers work with sensory awareness and another woman named Molly Schackman who brought some Swedish massage. They were kind of, from my understanding, asked to develop something that was more Esalen style. Because remember Esalen was on the ocean and there was all these things that were happening, blending East and Western tradition in philosophical ways, and the body and the mind, and they wanted to bring that together somehow in a massage instead of disconnecting body and mind. Looking at it as whole and massaging the body as a whole and not separate pieces. And that kind of got integrated into Esalen massage instead of having do an arm do a leg, the whole massage had these long integrating strokes that combined everything and integrated everything in transition from one area to another.

Robin - So was that the massage staff at the time? Bernie Gunther?

Deborah - I don’t think Bernie was actually on the staff at that time. Gabrielle was the head of the staff. It was really small, there was a guy named Charlie who gave me my first massage which actually got me interested in massage because it was so mindblowing. And there were a few other people, not that many.

Robin - And who asked them to create this style of massage, do you know?

Deborah - I assumed it was Dick, Dick Price, but I don’t really know. Dick loved massage. He was a proponent of combining the mind body disciplines together and he used hiking a lot to help ground people but he got lots of massages from several of us on the crew. And he was really my mentor, he used to come through when I was doing yoga..he would go hiking at 6:30 in the morning and I would be doing yoga in room 23 before it was used for bodywork and I would be doing yoga for about four hours so he would come through when I was doing my headstand thing and one day he came through and said OK it’s time for you to teach a workshop. And that’s how I taught my first, got scheduled to teach my first, massage, movement, and yoga workshop.

Robin - And that was the first one you taught? Massage, Movement, and Yoga?

Deborah - Massage, movement, and yoga, yep.

Who taught you massage?

Deborah - Gabrielle, mostly Gabrielle. But then when she stopped doing massage Dick became the manager and he’s the one who hired me.

Robin - And he was doing massage as well?

Deborah - He was doing massage too, I’m not quite sure at what point he took over but I do know he’s the one that hired me. That was actually before Peggy was here.

Robin - Before Peggy yeah.

Deborah - She came shortly after that.

What was it like, giving massage? You gave massages at the baths still? But the baths were quite different

Deborah - The baths were different, we had one room that...we had room A and B, and we also had a room where the shower eventually was built and it was a tiny room, you could barely move around in the room….and then there was another room and later when Danny V (?) came he actually lived in one of those rooms for a while. During the day it was a massage room and at night it was his room to sleep in. And there was no hot water, no cold, there were no showers. So all there was was a hot water and cold water hose. So you could take a bath with sulphur water but you couldn’t really take a shower so you had to rinse off with a cold hose. It was so different.

Robin - Both extremes, hot or cold.

Deborah - That’s maybe partially why we started doing hot or cold tubs which were great and very stimulating and wonderful. It was a different feeling, it was wilder for sure, just because we didn’t have fences around Esalen either. See that fence there? There weren’t fences. It was much more open in many different ways and it was very inspiring and of course the sound of the ocean definitely influenced the way massage continued to evolve. It didn’t just stay one thing, it still continues to which is part of the beauty of Esalen massage. Influenced by Charlotte Selvers’ sensory awareness, and by the sounds and power of the ocean that happens here and the land that's here and also by the different teachers that came here and influenced us.

Who do you think are some of the most influential teachers that have come through and affected Esalen massage?

Deborah - Well i think, Milton Trager came through..Sensory awareness and Charlotte Selvers definitely influenced all of us

Robin - Was she teaching here at the time?

Deborah - She came through and taught at different times. I did take workshops with her and she was an amazing woman, still teaching into her 90’s. She was an amazing woman and really got people to feel things on a different level of really feeling sensation and not judging it but just feeling it. And feeling it more, I don’t even know how to say..just feeling it more. Paying attention to minute things and that influenced the way we could pay attention to meditation, to the clients we were working with

Robin - Do you recall any sort of exercises you did with her at that time? That stand out?

Deborah - I can’t recall specific exercises. I know that I have incorporated some of that into the exercises I do with people, but I don’t know, I can’t remember what came from her or what came from me or how they blended. It’s been 48 years so..

Robin - So Charlotte Selver….

Deborah - Charlotte Selver definitely influenced the way massage happened here and Milton Trager brought in the rocking. I was influenced a lot by polarity and doctor Stone but I went away from here to learn that and then I brought some of his students over here. I think Moshe Feldenkrais came through and then Ida Rolf was here and I did work with her and she did influence my massage more. She influenced my yoga because she had me be a model for her class and she would tell me how to do an asana. I would do an asana and she would give me some directions and I would re do the asana and it changed...changed the way I approached my body and doing asanas. And she came out saying much, and people didn't really believe it, but Ida said yoga was the best form of physical exercise she knew of when it was done correctly. Of course when it was done correctly meant according to the Rolfing ways and there was some value in that. She did have an idea of the natural alignment of the body. Rolfing and deep tissue work and Al Drucker, who I just heard is in the process of passing right now, he may have already passed, he influenced many of us by teaching us deep tissue work which was based on Rolfing.

Robin - So he brought in a deeper element

Deborah - He brought in a deeper element and then we, some of us made it more massage-like and less intrusive because it could be pretty painful and it didn’t have to be painful. So we messed around, some of us, and incorporated parts of it into our massages and made it more massage-like and easier for people to let us in at that depth. A lot of detail was learned from him.

Robin - So it sounds like there was a group of you practicing on the massage staff at that time getting really influenced by these teachers. Who was that?

Deborah - And also influenced by each other. because we worked on the deck at Esalen and somebody would look over and see somebody doing something and then somebody else would take that something and do something else with it, different moves and we all influenced each other.  Then when we taught together, because eventually other people started teaching when we would go away and teach etc. some of “our moves,” so to speak, got taken by other people and then it was really a give and a take and letting go of owning a move and letting it evolve. People that were around, you know, the first ones that really are still here were Vicki, Vicki came shortly before I did, I came about a few months after she did, Breda came before either of us but she wasn’t on the massage crew and she might have come after Vicki but she didn’t come on the massage crew for a while. She worked in the office, she came on after Vicki did so on the massage crew first was Vicki, then I, then Peggy then Breda, and then later on some other people, I don't know, Wendy, Lioness and others came. We four were like the basic four that were there a long time and developed a lot of things and then other people came through and influenced. CC really influenced us with his 3 dimensional work. Which was great...great work. And I think, I’m not thinking of any other strong influences but we influenced each other.

Robin - Well I know just from having been down there, everybody that has come down and worked there has gone off, taken workshops from different people here and other places and tends to come bring those moves back, those techniques back and influence the whole group, I’ve watched that over the years too

Deborah - I think that's true and I also think that the Gestalt awareness practice and the way of paying attention was brought into massage and that quality of attention and presence has really influenced the way we do massage here. I’ve always said and I still say, we can have all the techniques in the world, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have the ability to be really present and have the heart and the touch come through, the heart comes through our hands really and Ive said for a long time about the ability to listen with your fingers and respond and not get into program too much but really listen and respond.

Robin - Yeah, beautiful

Deborah - And like Swiss massage and some other massages really have a protocol where you go from here to here to here, and the only thing I would say with Esalen massage it’s kind of like going from the general, to the specific, back to the general so that we’re doing a long stroke or something that gives the person a sense of wholeness, and then we may work some detail area, and then integrate that into a whole..which leaves lots of space to integrate in other kinds of bodywork, and always open for strong presence and even the dance things that came through here, the five rhythms which are really in a massage, and other kinds of dance, I think influenced our massages  and in a way being present, and it’s exciting. And the beautiful thing about massages, and Esalen massage, is there’s always more to learn. And to know that each person has something different to bring out of me when I’m giving massage, if I'm paying attention and really listening and responding, and not in my head about something else, or where I’m going. If I’m staying right in the moment, listening, miracles can happen. And I think that when people call themselves healers, nay we’re not healers, what we can do as practitioners is provide space, atmosphere, whatever it is. A place where someone can draw deeply into themselves and where their natural healing can help them heal themselves. That is a master practitioner. Also a master practitioner is somebody who can go deeply with a soft hand and a full-hearted presence. In my opinion.

Do you have any stories that might have stood out to you after all these years of doing massage

Deborah - Yes. one jumps out at me. It was actually two but i’ll try to stay with the one. It was a good lesson for me. I had a woman who asked me, we were in a Gabrielle workshop, and she asked me if I would give her massages. She had breast cancer, and she was a young woman she had two children, she was a beautiful young woman, not only physically beautiful but her heart came through her hands and I mean came through her face. She just looked and was a beautiful presence. And so i, she couldn’t lie on her stomach because she had pretty much advanced breast cancer. I worked with her and it was so powerfully moving and I felt really touched by her and also sad because there wasn’t anything I could do. She was really advanced, and then later on she didn’t come to the group in the afternoon and I got worried that maybe I had done something or I don’t know what and then later on one of her friends came to me and said that that was the first time that she had felt some peace in her body and no pain for a little while. And I still am touched by that because later on when I heard that she died it was really painful for me. Why does that story stick with me? Because I was so moved by who she was and what I felt from her and I was happy that I could help provide a moment of rest for her.

Robin - The power of touch

Deborah - The power of touch. I couldn’t help her heal herself but I could at least help her find a space of peace and rest inside herself. and that means that we all can do that for each other and that's part of why we’re here, to do that for each other - whether it's through massage or something else.

Robin - Beautiful. Thank you Deborah. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. We’ll do more.