The Elements of Esalen Massage

By Brita Ostrom

Sometimes known as “intuitive massage” or “environmental massage”, Esalen massage was birthed in the 1960s at the Esalen Institute located midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles on the beautiful Central Coast of California. The nation’s first so called “Growth Center for the Development of human potential”, Esalen wears many faces: it offers diverse workshops to the public; it is a spiritual retreat for those seeking solace in nature; it is a healing spa with natural sulfur hot springs.

Esalen massage is impossible to separate from its place on the map: a product of the baths and the sea and an expansive vision of the human spirit.

Esalen Massage is characterized by long sweeping oiled strokes punctuated with deep specific work, passive joint movement and personal connection to create a state of awareness and energized relaxation in the receiver. The emphasis is less on stimulating physiological processes than on creating an environment to inwardly sense one’s body with the able guidance of the practitioner. This holistic approach joins body to mind – and to soul. Bodywork has become a personal educational journey rather than a quick fix.

At the vision’s core is a firmly rooted conviction that the source of healing lies within each person and can be activated through full presence and attention. The practitioner adapts his basic Swedish style strokes to the sensory signaling of his client. Following his initial touch he waits for an invitational physical signal before applying the oil; she trains her hands to feel minute changes in the tissue as it softens under her hand; he applies deeper pressure slowly as his client “melts” under his finger tips. She uses pauses as one of the most important elements in the session because she knows this is when the clients’s mind integrates the changes in his body, stimulating a freshened self image to emerge. Esalen Massage puts the source of change in this experienced body rather then in muscle kneading. In turn, release occurs on the energetic and emotional levels as well as in the physical body. The receiver may experience an uplifting change as he moves through of his pain or numbness into a broadened self concept and tunes into a larger whole outside himself.

The practioner works with sensation as he feels it under his fingertips, acknowledging in his strokes, pace and movement the receiver’s full body responses of breath, sighs, eyelid movement, swallowing and temperature change. The result is a session which is highly individualized. The bodyworker offers skills in empathy, awareness and an open presence as well as massage; she “has her feet on the ground”. Massage trainings at Esalen include meditation and centering practices as part of their curriculum.

Detractors call it a “touchy-feely” massage devoid of skill on the part of the practitioner, emphasizing the sensual, rather than “real body work”. To educate one’s senses and to use them as part of one’s intelligence or knowing, as a source for growth and well-being remains a radical motion today. Yet the importance of touch to promote growth as well as humans’s vast capacity for self healing has been well documented in baby developmental studies and immune function data. In fact, Esalen practitioners are thoroughly versed in physical structure; they simply refuse to believe that the body stops there. The work is especially useful for treatment of emotional trauma, as well as for physical well-being.

A typical session includes the elements of 1) contact and intention, 2) integration strokes, 3) deeper work, 4) language, 5) passive joint movement, 6) energetic attainment, 7) closure. Each aspect is detailed below.

Contact is the rapport established between client and practitioner at the onset of the session, long before anyone lies down on the table. The practitioner talks over the client’s expectations of the session, meets his gaze, and begins the session by simply placing her hands on the receiver’s body in a neutral position. He feels the breath, and waits for it to stabilize before applying the oil. The long, slow, full length strokes build this interpersonal contact, as well as encourage the receiver to contact and accept his own body. The practitioner also contacts his own state of being, his breath, his expectations.

The integration stroke builds on the long opening stroke and defines the specific area of the body to be explored. The long stroke grows deeper, defining muscle knots and bony landmarks, and practitioner and receiver become aware of physical and nergetic restrictions. These strokes highlight problem areas and warm and gently work the soft tissue of the body. They also focus the receiver’s attention so he can mentally engage in the process of letting go. The practitioner will return to integration strokes thoughout the massage as a means of mapping the body and to move from one area to another. They allow the practitioner to move seamlessly, creating a whole body field of awareness.

Deeper work addresses bound up muscle or fascia tissue with specific probes into the tissue. Depending on practitioner style, deeper work can include trigger point holds on the muscle, deep kneading or cross friction of precise muscles, deep strokes into larger muscle groups or work into the underlying structure and fascia. Deep work in Esalen Massage is always offered only after the receiver physically gives permission. The practitioner reads the response and moves appropriately. Depth is achieved through the receiver’s opening to it rather than through force. Esalen Massage practitioners believe that pain leaves a negative and strive to avoid it. Deep work is followed by integration strokes, reuniting the freed up area into the rest of the body, capitalizing on the release. The pracitioner is particularly sensitive to the receiver’s emotional state during deeper work so as not to push into areas which the recipient is not ready to release.

Language may accompany this phase to provide images to assist in the release process, to offer or obtain feedback, or to support forgotten pain which may surface. Much of the tension in the body has a corresponding (or overlapping) mental component which may be activated through bodywork. Language may also take the shape of tears, laughter or deep sighs.

Passive joint movement experiments in a systematic way with the movement of the skeletal system as it is encountered in the bodywork session. This might take the form of dangling an arm, gentle rocking along the spine, or a cross body diagonal stretch. Passive body movement re-acquaints the receiver with his movement potential, nudges tight muscles out of habitual holding patterns, and provides a three dimensional perception of the body. The practitioner opens the joint slowly, paying close attention to the end points of motion, and builds one movement upon another. Passive joint movement may be used to begin the loosening process or to enlarge and integrate deeper release work.

Energetic attunement refers to the significance of the combined energetic field of practitioner and receiver and the possibility of clearing and directing energy within the massage. This may take the form of a pause, a distinct light hand touch on belly, heart, forehead, or on the beginning and end of any limb. Esalen Massage incorporates many other energetic bodywork methods, including polarity, cranial-sacral, and accupressure.

Intuition also provides direction. As with physical forms of Esalen Massage, energy work is non-intrusive and with an intention to assist the receiver in his own healing.

Closure is accomplished by a return to full body attntion by means of either long lengthening strokes of varying depth or light energetic attunement. The ending pause is shared by practitioner and receiver, offering an opportunity to experience open attention to a relaxed and enlivened state of being.