Esalen Massage

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Close up of human hands massaging a person outdoors at the spa.Esalen massage is a gentle, soothing massage capable of inducing deep relaxation in the recipient. Using long, graceful strokes to heighten the client’s awareness of bodily experiences, the practitioner gives attention to the entire body in this approach.

This awareness, rather than any special technique on the part of the practitioner, is what is believed to promote healing: as people become conscious of the various ways they hold tension in their bodies, their minds may be better able to naturally begin the process of letting go.

What Is Esalen Massage?

Esalen massage was developed in the 1960s in Big Sur, California, at the Esalen Institute, which was founded by Michael Murphy and Dick Price as a center dedicated to the exploration of untapped human potential. With its gardens and mineral hot springs, Esalen offered visitors a diverse range of options for spiritual and personal renewal, many of which were unconventional at a time when Eastern concepts were just beginning to become intermingled with Western thought and people were becoming more aware of the connection between mind, body, and spirit.

As news of the transformation occurring at Esalen began to spread, many prominent and influential thinkers came to share their own ideas and innovative techniques. Milton Trager, Moshe Feldenkrais, and Ida Rolf were just a few of the early teachers and bodywork pioneers at Esalen, which soon became a real-life laboratory for experimentation in psychology, spirituality and the healing arts. Eventually, this experimentation led to the development of Esalen massage.

Esalen massage is an eclectic blend of techniques and principles from various disciplines, including Swedish massage, sensory awareness training, craniosacral therapy, applied kinesiology, yoga, tai chi, and Gestalt awareness, among others. Despite its varied roots, Esalen massage can be distinguished by the type of strokes it uses to connect and unify the entire body. Another important aspect of this therapy is the approach taken toward each client as a whole person, not as separate parts to be manipulated. Unlike outcome goals in other forms of massage, the practitioner’s primary goal in this approach is not the removal of localized pain or tension, though this is typically accomplished. Instead, the aim is usually to induce deep relaxation, integrate mind and body, and enhance total body awareness.

Another defining feature of Esalen massage is that it is largely intuitive. The practitioner does not impose a predetermined set of techniques on the recipient but instead tries to sense what is needed in each moment. Rather than working on the client, the practitioner works with the client, listening closely to messages being communicated through the client’s body and responding accordingly. Esalen massage is sometimes described as a “moving meditation,” due in part to the wholehearted, focused displayed by practitioners.

What Happens in an Esalen Massage Session?

Since Esalen massage incorporates techniques from a diverse range of disciplines and is based on the practitioner’s intuition, no two massage sessions will be exactly the same. It is common practice, however, for the massage to be performed with clients in the nude. Much care is taken to ensure that clients are draped appropriately, but those who prefer to be partially clothed are encouraged to express this preference to the practitioner. Sessions last about 90 minutes and are usually performed in a private and serene outdoor setting.

Light oil is typically applied to the client’s skin to reduce friction from the long, full-body strokes. Both sides of the body are worked during the session, but sessions typically begin with the client lying face down on a massage table. The side-lying position is also commonly used.

The practitioner might start by lightly resting a hand or both hands in a neutral position on the client’s body. This not only helps the practitioner to feel and connect with the client’s breath but also directs the client’s attention inward. Once invitation is sensed from the client’s body, the practitioner begins to move, utilizing long, slow, flowing strokes that cover the entire body. These strokes help create a sense of connection and wholeness in the recipient. There are no abrupt transitions, only a stream of seamless, integrated hand movements designed to glide effortlessly over the surface of the body.

The flowing strokes of the practitioner foster a heightened state of awareness, guiding the client’s attention toward the feelings and sensations being experienced in the moment. As the session progresses, these light, gentle strokes occasionally deepen as the practitioner’s hands, fingers, and sometimes forearm or elbow begin to probe and define specific areas of tension, drawing the client’s awareness to these areas as well. Tight muscles are gently coaxed into releasing tension, never forced, and only after it is clear the client is open to this experience. After the completion of deeper, more specific work, the practitioner will return to the long, integrative strokes intended to help clients connect recently worked areas to the rest of the body.

Other common techniques used in Esalen massage include gentle stretching, rhythmic rocking, and passive movement of the joints. Each of these can help increase range of motion, loosen tight muscles, and remind individuals of their potential for movement. Throughout the session, practitioners maintain a state of meditative presence, ever sensitive to the subtle messages being transmitted through the client’s body. Even in moments of deeper work, practitioners strive to convey a sense of care and tenderness, creating a safe environment for clients to feel comfortable relaxing and letting go.

At times during the session, the practitioner will pause, leaving one or both hands resting on the client’s body. These moments of stillness allow the practitioner to sense the natural rhythms of the client’s body and creates space for the client to integrate the new sensations and bodily shifts induced by the massage. A final pause draws attention back toward the breath and leaves the client feeling relaxed, renewed, and whole.

Benefits of Esalen Massage

One unique benefit of Esalen massage is its ability to awaken the senses and enhance total body awareness. The long, gliding strokes allow individuals the chance to connect more deeply with the self and experience a sense of wholeness. The signature strokes also have a calming effect that helps slow down the body and foster a very deep state of relaxation. Since Esalen massage uses light pressure and gentle, nurturing strokes, it is considered an excellent option for infants, the elderly, and other people who would not be able to tolerate deep tissue massage.

Esalen massage can produce a wide array of positive results, such as:

  • Improved circulation
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Increased lymph flow
  • Released tension, reduced pain and stress
  • Improved digestion
  • Increased flexibility and expanded range of motion
  • Improved sleep

Esalen Massage Precautions

As is true of other modalities, Esalen massage is not recommended when clients have open wounds, infectious conditions, or a history of blood clots. Those who have recently undergone surgery are also encouraged to seek the approval of their primary care provider before receiving massage. Women who are pregnant, as well as people who have heart disease or are being treated for cancer, should also consult with a doctor before scheduling a massage. In general, it is considered best practice to seek the approval of one’s physician before beginning massage therapy.

References:

  1. Beck, M. F. (2017). Theory and practice of therapeutic massage (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Milady.
  2. Goldman, M. (2012). The American soul rush: Esalen and the rise of spiritual privilege. New York: New York University Press.
  3. Horan, P. M. (2007). Connecting through touch: The couples’ massage book. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
  4. Jordan, P. (1998). Esalen massage. American Fitness. 16(1), 44-48.
  5. Medow, D. A. (2011). A happy song: Esalen massage. Massage Magazine, 26-31. Retrieved from http://www.esalen.org/sites/default/files/resource_attachments/massage%20article_0.pdf
  6. Walden, K. M. (2007). Perceptions of leisure and complementary and alternative medicine among spa practitioners. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from http://gradworks.umi.com/32/78/3278235.html
  7. Walker, M. J., & Walker, J. D. (2003). Healing massage: A simple approach. Clifton Park, NY: Delmar Learning.