A variation on conventional Swedish massage, Esalen Institute has trained bodyworkers in their unique, psycho-spiritual massage approach for several decades. While many valuable aspects of Esalen massage have been studied and incorporated into bodywork practices across the nation, one native element remains controversial – nudity. Although the clothing optional custom at Esalen Institute is believed to enhance participating individuals’ personal experiences, bringing this routine into the outside world of bodywork poses a great ethical challenge.

About Esalen Institute

Esalen is a non-profit organization that has been devoted to the exploration of human potential since the 1960s. Historical luminaries like Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez and countless others have gathered at Esalen to develop revolutionary ideas, transformative practices and innovative art forms.

Esalen Institute, renowned for its healing natural hot springs, has long been recognized as a world leader in alternative and experiential education. Dramatically situated on Big Sur’s cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Esalen Institute is a premiere incubator for mind-body-spirit techniques and has consistently remained at the forefront of new developments and discoveries in the fields of psychology and bodywork.

About Esalen Massage

Esalen Massage (EM) is known for its healing and nurturing touch; it combines long strokes, gentle rocking and stretching, sculpting of deep musculature and the precision of acupressure. However, EM goes beyond the physical result of bodywork by focusing on energy exchange and psychological well-being. Taught and trademarked by the Esalen Institute, EM aims to tune the mind and body together to create a sense of serenity and peace.

Ten key aspects of the Esalen technique for practitioners include:

  1. Grounding yourself before giving a massage.
  2. Waiting and listening to the client’s breath before making initial contact.
  3. Gentle rocking to help the body let go of rigidity.
  4. Creating a unified and whole massage defined by long, lengthening strokes.
  5. Making small circular movements around joints to encourage release.
  6. Bringing the whole body weight into the movement.
  7. A little unpredictability to ease away holding patterns.
  8. Allowing time to pause.
  9. Understanding that massage goes beyond the physical self.
  10. Remembering that everybody loves and wants to be touched.

Esalen and Nudity

When visiting Esalen Institute, some guests may notice that there are clothing optional areas. Although Esalen’s clothing optional policy has long been challenged, most guests go nude at the hot springs and ardently defend their right to do so.

According to playwright and Esalen regular Lynne Kaufman, “I’ve been at the baths naked for a period over 25 years. It was at Esalen, through the baths and through the massage, that I saw my body as natural. The amazing thing is that once people take off their clothes, there is more commonality. It was the clothing that made for differences. When released from that, they were just other organisms. What I saw was an acceptance of all kinds of body types, which was a very different experience: it was evolutionary. You see the youthful bodies, the old men and women. You see life.”

Author of the essay Fig Leaf in the Wind, Sharon Thom describes Esalen’s acceptance of nudity as an acknowledgment of personal freedom. In her essay she explains, “Our need to hide, all of the time, behind a variety of decorative devices and professional excuses and whatever status we’ve managed to fluff up around ourselves, our need to avoid one another at all costs, is what makes us less free. Taking our clothes off lies a few steps short of authentic liberation.”

Nudity in EM

While clients have the option of shedding their clothing during an EM session at Esalen Institute, this decision is made by the client only if he or she is completely comfortable with nudity. Because massage recipients traditionally soak in the hot springs prior to their EM appointment, this setting supports nudity as a natural state.

During the course of the massage, the EM client is draped with a sheet or towel. When massage therapists are trained at Esalen, they are instructed to proceed very gently and introduce people to massage in the most non-threatening way possible. Outside of Esalen Institute’s setting, this means giving clients an option of being fully clothed, wearing undergarments or going nude. Despite the level of covering or uncovering massage recipients choose, professional draping practices assures a non-threatening atmosphere.

In general, our society has very little acceptance of nudity. As a massage practitioner, respecting client privacy is crucial for professionalism and to prevent major psychological implications that could result from bearing all. Esalen Massage’s unique approach to integrating the physical, emotional and spiritual selves has been appreciated by clients and practitioners for decades. Regardless of where the massage is performed, helping a client find serenity and peace is independent of Esalen Institute’s optional clothing practice. Thus, if the idea of psycho-spiritual massage while being surrounded by nudes inspires freedom and healing in your soul, book yourself for a workshop or extended stay in California’s Esalen Institute. For everyone else, you can benefit from the innate wisdom of Esalen’s massage techniques and pass it along to your clients while maintaining the professionalism and ethics required in a legitimate massage therapy practice.