I just returned from a week-long massage workshop and retreat at The Esalen Institute, at Big Sur, California. Esalen has a unique way of approaching massage.Esalen massage is everything that a typical Dallas massage is not. Esalen is warm and nurturing rather than clinical. It is calm, still, and seldom vigorous. Esalen is always gentle, never painful. Esalen massage seeks to soothe the spirit while relaxing the body.
Massage recipients often hold their bodies rigid on the table. If I lift an arm or a leg, it remains raised when I attempt to lower it. If I move a limb, the client unconsciously assists the movement. If I were to rock a limb in a steady rhythm, it might even continue to rock long after I had moved on. We call these involuntary motions “holding patterns.” We have all experienced them, and we all know how difficult it can be to simply let go and allow our bodies to relax.
Esalen massage seeks not to “fix” your body, but to release these holding patterns, thus allowing deep relaxation and giving your body a chance to heal on its own. By combining Esalen style with therapeutic Swedish, Deep Tissue, and Trigger Point massage, we achieve a powerful combination of deep relaxation and deep myotherapy that allows your body to heal naturally.
Esalen massage is not so much a technique as an attitude. The emphasis is on the quality of touch, clarity of focus, and approaching the human body with warmth, reverence, empathy, and respect. There is less professional distance between the client and therapist: no starched uniforms, minimal draping, and even the terms “client” and “therapist” have been replaced by “Giver” and “Receiver.” At Esalen, the therapist does not perform a massage on a client; the Giver and Receiver work together to accomplish the massage.
The techniques used in Esalen massage are too varied to review here, but there are some techniques that stand out, and I’m sure you have noticed them in my style.
- Slow, slow, slow: Esalen massage is slow. Sometimes it looks like the Giver is doing nothing at all, when he is gently treating several muscles at once.
- The Long Strokes: Swedish massage treats one body part at a time. When the therapist is done with that part, he goes on to the next part, and before long you start to feel like a collection of parts. Esalen massage uses long strokes, generally passing at least two joints, sometimes flowing from the foot to the shoulder and back down the arm. This helps the massage feel more continuous and integrated. To perform the long strokes smoothly, the Giver must keep his feet moving, whereas Swedish therapists tend to stand still while working.
- Pauses: The Giver pauses for three breaths or more to allow the receiver’s mind and muscles to assimilate the bodywork. The Receiver will often sink into a deep state of relaxation during these pauses.
- Three-dimensional work: arms, legs, abs, neck, and head are surrounded by hands rather than just receiving pressure from one direction. Limbs are cradled and nurtured.
- Contact: In Swedish massage, therapists usually just grab a body part and start working. Esalen places great importance on how a Giver approaches the Receiver’s body. First contact is slow and gentle, allowing the Receiver to gently make the mental transition between “not being touched” and “being touched by someone.” This is particularly important in American society, where we place great importance on who is allowed to touch us and when. Once contact is made, the Giver pauses to assess and mentally “tune in” to the Receiver’s breathing and heartbeat before beginning the massage. The Giver maintains contact throughout the massage, and when the massage is complete the Giver breaks contact as gently as he first made contact. My clients often tell me they can’t tell when I have removed my hands from their bodies.
- Presence: I think my teacher was channeling Yoda as he scolded young Luke Skywalker: “Always on the future your mind is! Never on where you are. What you are doing!” Esalen massage calls for a Jedi-like clarity of focus, with the Giver’s attention on the Receiver’s mental and physical state. The Giver should not be thinking about what to fix for dinner, or the weekend’s party, or even carrying on a conversation. When such thoughts intrude, the giver gently pushes them aside and returns his focus to the Receiver. This is the same technique used in many meditation practices, so it is not surprising that I often find myself more relaxed and energized after giving a massage.
- Awareness: The Receiver’s mental and physical state can be revealed to some extent by heartbeat, breathing, muscle tension and tone, warmth, small vocalizations, and other subtle cues. The Receiver must remain aware of these cues and react to them to maintain the proper quality of touch.
- Breath: The Giver must also be aware of his own breath. It helps to retain focus and calm. I like to breathe out on the outward strokes and in on the inward strokes. This helps to set an appropriately slow pace, and it keeps me oxygenated, mentally calm, and physically cool.
- Movement: Esalen massage is like a dance, with slow, graceful movement. Our workshop used Tai Chi, dance, yoga, and body awareness exercises to reawaken our sense of movement. We must always use the proper working postures to prevent injury to ourselves as well as to provide steady pressure and quality touch.
Silence: Esalen massage is performed with a minimum of conversation. Rather than music, the natural sound of the ocean crashing on the rocks below provides a dreamy, tranquil tempo. I can’t bring you the ocean, but this is why I often use the sound of waves in my treatment room.
- Draping: Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s Esalen massage was often performed with both giver and receiver nude, but that was a more innocent time. Now the giver is fully dressed and the receiver is draped with a towel or sarong, which still allows easy access for those long, slow, full-body strokes. I keep bath towels handy if my Receiver wants to try towel draping, but my default technique for Texas is a full sheet drape. A full drape is a little more time-consuming than a towel, but it often provides more warmth and security than a towel, and it can still be folded to provide the required access for long strokes. I do allow the Receiver to be undraped if it feels more comfortable.
- Energy: Many of Esalen’s teachings deal with energy work, but I do not bring metaphysics into my sessions. You won’t catch me combing your energy field or balancing your chakras. (And so far no one has complained of a tangled aura or unbalanced chakras!) I’m still not convinced that chi exists, and yet people tell me I have good energy. I take this to mean that they recognize my attitude of respect, love, empathy, and confidence.
Some of the therapists I met at Esalen return every year for this workshop/retreat. I wish I could afford to do that, because every time I go I believe that I return a better massage therapist. I seldom have the opportunity to give a straight Esalen style massage. I generally have a treatment plan, with a specific set of problems to address before the session ends, whereas Esalen massage is intuitive and unstructured. Still, I strive to bring a little taste of Esalen to Texas with each Tranquility Time massage. That has always been my goal.
Esalen is what puts the “Tranquility” in Tranquility Time.
If you are curious, you can see photos of The Esalen Institute here on my FaceBook page.
Photos from our Seattle trip are on this other FaceBook page.
The Essentials of Touch, July 19, 2010, 9am to 4pm
Very often massage therapists focus on technique and forget how important it is to approach the human body with reverence, empathy, and a warm gentle touch. This 6 CEU class brings DFW an overview of the Esalen approach to the body. See my CEU page and my CEU calendar for more information.
Posted by Jim Caddell at www.MassageDallas.Info