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Esalen Massage: Mindfulness in Action

Esalen massage has a reputation as a relaxing massage with long, flowing strokes. The massage does include other techniques, such as stretches, passive joint movement, and rhythmic rocking. But it's the flowing strokes that encourage you to feel fully connected  and integrated.

Shoulder massage

Developed over years at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, this type of massage has roots in many other methods of working with the body. Swedish massage was a big influence, as was Charlotte Selver's sensory awareness work that focuses on your ability to monitor sensation from within.

Other influences include oriental medicine; meditation; yoga stretches; somatic mind-body psychology; gestalt practice; the teachings of Ida Rolf, Moshe Feldenkrais, and Milton Trager; and the energy work of polarity therapy and cranial-sacral technique. Attention to breathing is also an important part of the massage.

In some ways, Esalen is more of an approach to massage than a specific technique. This approach gives "attention to the whole person rather than a summary of parts" and recognizes the innate capability for self-healing within each person.1

Esalen Massage Principles

This massage operates from four basic principles2:

  1. The practitioner works with, not on, you.

  2. The massage is a moving meditation for the practitioner, who brings a meditative presence to the massage and commits to be as fully present as possible for the whole massage session.

  3. The practitioner is aware the massage may affect you on physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual levels.

  4. The practitioner integrates long, flowing strokes throughout the massage to give you a sense of relaxation, connection, and wholeness.

Practitioners help you tune into yourself and become aware of your holding patterns, acting as a facilitator and witness to your healing process. Esalen is "a way of exploring, person to person, a matrix of physical, psychological, energetic and spiritual awareness united by the balm of touch."1

A Esalen practitioner who works with, instead of on, you, can listen and respond to what they feel both in your tissue and on an intuitive level, rather than imposing a particular protocol. The quality of the touch and presence of the practitioner is essential, as is your mindfulness during the massage.


1 "Bodywork with a Place in History," Massage Magazine, March/April 1997.

2 Deborah Anne Medow, "A Happy Song: Esalen Massage," Massage Magazine, April 2011.

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