Esalen Institute: New Age Adventures on California’s Big Sur Coast

The Esalen Institute opens new horizons on ancient ground in California's Big Sur

Esalen’s Hot Springs are cantilevered over the Pacific in California’s Big Sur

The world’s best massage

It was the best massage I had ever experienced.  And let me set the record straight.  While I have enjoyed massages on four continents, I am no massage junkie.  I find too often that the promise and the pitch fall way short in reality…the touch is too tentative or too uneven, too rote or too rough.

I am also no great meditator.  My busy, restless mind wanders across the white noise of minutiae instead of stilling itself.

But here, now, lying on a table in an exquisitely minimal building wedged into a cliff, its huge sliding glass doors thrown open to the Pacific Ocean crashing onto the Californian coast, I am in the moment, naked except for a towel and a masseuse is kneading my back with long rhythmic strokes that mirror the rumble of the surf a few meters below.  A seagull rides the airwaves at eye level when I gaze for a moment at the sun’s rays. The horizon is a blur of blues as water and sky merge.  Perhaps I am floating.

For the next hour and a quarter I succumb to the Esalen Massage, evolved over almost forty years as an essential element in the human potential movement that sprang from this lush, dramatic, some say spiritual, landscape in the bosom of Big Sur, a  coastal wilderness midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Coastal fog often creates dramatic vistas along Highway 1 in Big Sur

Highway 1 zigzags above the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur



Esalen: the backstory

Elemental, primitive, natural, untamed…Big Sur feels like it is from another time, another era.  Highway One zigzags like a serpent along the coast, which itself can appear dragon-like when the white fog rolls in from the ocean, cloaking the cliffs and beaches in an ethereal mist. So it is difficult to imagine a more perfect spot for a brave new educational endeavor that threw out conventional thinking and embraced philosophies and practices from the East and West.

Created by Michael Murphy and Dick Price in 1962, the Esalen Institute embraced bold new thinkers such as Aldous Huxley, Fritz Perls, Abraham Maslow, Allan Watts, and Carl Rogers and became known as the New Age Harvard.  It was here that Gestalt Therapy was created and crafted, where Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and George Harrison played at the Big Sur Folk Festival and where Boris Yeltsin fomented his early understandings of democracy in Esalen’s ground-breaking US/Soviet Exchange Program. Actually it was IN Esalen’s famous hot springs that many of these concepts actually bore fruit, which is why it was called Hot Tub Diplomacy.


Esalen Hot Springs

Which brings me back to the massages.  They take place down at the marvelous new hot springs building, all cement, sandstone, glass and roof gardens perched above the Pacific. One side is for massages and quiet hot tub enjoyment, the other, open to the sky, has a number of tubs and old fashioned claw foot bathtubs that all gaze out to a watery infinity.  In between are perhaps the best showers ever.  You stand on warm sandstone and let hot water whoosh over you as you gaze out at the wild surf through sliding glass doors.  People walk around naked, or clad if they feel like it.  Men and women shower and change in the same area. It is like Adam and Eve before the apple was eaten.  As a bonus, every Wednesday evening, a group hot tub meditation takes place to the guttural tones of the didgeridoo. Only in California.


How to experience Esalen

Painting classes are just one of many creative activities at the Esalen Institute

Painting en plein air at The Esalen Institue

Today, The Esalen Institute offers more than 500 residential workshops a year that serve to integrate the body, mind, heart and spirit. Options include arts, health, massage, martial arts, yoga,  dance and other exotic topics like Gestalt, eco-psychology,  integral thought, mythology, philosophical inquiry, spiritual studies,  mindfulness, permaculture and sustainability.

You can also do a personal retreat to immerse yourself in this breathtaking 120-acre site. A range of daily activities may include yoga, writing, dance, t’ai chi and meditation in addition to enjoying the baths and massages.  Plus you are free to swim in the pool, play Frisbee on the green green lawns, create in the art house, and help in the gardens, five acres of organic vegetables and flowers that are worthy of a Monet painting.  Oh, and eat sublimely fresh, sustainable meals three times a day, that might include oatmeal, quinoa and Swiss chard, farm-raised local salmon, crab and sausage jambalaya and a kaleidoscope of salads that make you smile.





A study in blues

The fog creates magical blue meditations over the Pacific at the Esalen Institute


Esalen Institute: New Age Adventures on California's Big Sur Coast

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Esalen Institute: New Age Adventures on California\'s Big Sur Coast 36.237628, -121.784821 Esalen Institute: New Age Adventures on California\'s Big Sur Coast






Sue Gough Henly

Sue Gough Henly is award-winning travel writer and photographer whose bi-line has appeared in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, The Guardian, The Toronto Star and all the major Australian publications. Her travel blog, Genuine Journeys, is full of insider tips on the best places for authentic experiences and luxury splurges. She is also the author of Australia’s Best Places travel app. When she doesn’t have sand between her toes or a pack on her back, she writes about food, wine and culture.

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