Retreat to Esalen

Photo courtesy of a wonderful Esalen friend, Sept 2016
Photo courtesy of a wonderful Esalen friend, Sept 2016

Today I go to Esalen. I say this in the way a kid repeats to himself in a dazed, reverent tone, tomorrow is my birthday, or today is the last day of school. Ironically, my son was reciting the latter just yesterday. We both were, repeating it to each other in incredulous tones, as if afraid that someone or something was going to snatch this delicious, too-good-to-be true reality from us. But no one did. He woke up this morning to the first day of summer. And today I go to Esalen. And we are both basking in our respective glows.

Before I went for the first time, 12 years ago, someone in my yoga class, upon hearing I was going, nodded wisely and said, “you’ll love it. And you’ll never be the same again.”

She was right.

The Esalen Institute is located in Big Sur, high atop the steep cliffs and bluffs that dominate the region. They annually offer hundreds of classes and workshops, most of which are weekend-length or five-day, but there are month-long ones, even longer ones available. They are holistic-oriented workshops. Meditation, yoga, alternative thinking, healing, living. Buildings are located on miraculously flat land (for this region) that was once cultivated by the Esselen Indians; carbon dating of excavated sites show their presence since 2630 BCE. Amid natural geothermic hot springs, Esalen sprawls out on 120 acres, smack up against breathtaking Pacific coastline. The Institute offers its workshoppers fabulously good, fresh food (with produce from their garden), served cafeteria style, catering to vegans and omnivores alike.


An article about Esalen in Travel and Leisure caught my eye, written by Dani Shapiro, author of the delicious Still Writing: the Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. I love this bit:

Ask anyone who has ever been to the Esalen Institute—even those who haven’t—and there is always a story. The Big Sur retreat center 45 miles south of Monterey epitomizes a kind of 1960’s California spiritual bohemianism, and has been a lightning rod for controversy and drama since its founding early in that decade. A few days before my visit, when I mentioned to my dentist—a mild-mannered, rural Connecticut fellow—that I was heading there, he became more animated than I’d ever seen him. “Esalen!” A dreamy look crossed his face. “Esalen! I didn’t know the place still existed.” He shook his head. “Do they still have the naked baths?”

Oh, crack me up. She nailed it. The article is so great; she took me right there, step for step (by the time you’ve been there a half-dozen times, this is not difficult to do—your mind/body/spirit has memorized the geography of the place). You can check out the rest of the article HERE.

Some people refer to Esalen as “that naked hot tub place.” There’s so much more to the place, such a sense of healing and renewal that you feel the moment you drive up and park. You go there for the workshops. For the airy, peaceful ground. But, yes, the hot tub experience needs to be mentioned. Yes, it does sort of define the place. Yes, the first time you go there to them, if you’re not a nudie, it’s a jolt. I’m remembering my first visit, 12 years ago. The tubs were in a different place, higher up, as the fancy new baths were being built below. I trudged up the little dirt footpath and caught my first glimpse of a big cedar hot tub filled with 6 to 8 naked men, laughing and lounging in and around the tub in various states of carefree abandon. I stopped in my tracks and whispered to myself, Oh, God. I can’t do this. But I’d paid for a $120 massage and you were expected to disrobe and wait in the tubs for your massage, and really, it’s a luxury, a privilege, to soak in a mineral hot tub prior to a massage. It would be like not accepting the free champagne you’re being offered before and during a fancy dinner you’d paid for. And just a note here, if you’re shaking your head now, saying no way, never, nope, well, know this. You can wear a swimsuit. You can go during quiet hours when it might be one person per tub.  (And a little secret: there’s a more private tub on the second level that sits by itself, next to the massage rooms, and rarely gets used/noticed.) You can avoid the tubs entirely. But you’d be surprised, once you get past the initial unclothed moment, just how unthreatening it becomes. How oddly pedestrian. Everyone’s naked; no one cares. By the time you take your last tub soak before departing, it couldn’t feel more natural. Seriously. And in regards to my own nerve-laced first experience, I was able to disrobe in anonymity, slip into the nearest tub in anonymity. The two older women there, basking in the warm water, didn’t look twice. They were too busy being relaxed. (The extraverted nudies in the far tub remained just that: both extraverted and far away, enjoying themselves and their own experience.)



The workshops I’ve taken there include mindfulness meditation (highly recommended; I returned the next year for the very same workshop). Drumming. Accessing your creative/inner/higher/deeper power. In truth, I can’t remember the name of each one specifically, but you get the idea, right? Lots of sharing, emoting, inner-searching, cathartic release. Very Esalen. I’ve always signed up for the weekend version, from Friday evening through Sunday morning, which has always seemed way too short, but when you’re a mom, certain things come first. Until, that is, the children become teenagers and stress you out so much that you storm out of the house after one such argument/encounter, pacing your property, fuming, drawing in ragged breaths, muttering I’m going to lose my mind, I already am losing my mind, I gotta get out of here, I gotta get out of here for more than just a weekend and so you walk back into the house and make a beeline for your laptop where you Google “Esalen” and look for a workshop that begins the day your kid’s school year ends, and with a cackle of glee, you press “book,” for not just the meditation weekend retreat but the five-day Yoga Festival that follows, and it’s not cheap, in fact it’s gasp-gasp expensive, but sometimes when you’re a mom, you gotta do what you gotta do and so I did. [Wait… I mean to say, in this hypothetical situation, this is what a stressed out mom might say and do. Yeah. That’s what I meant.]

A few more details. Esalen allows no visitors, no site visits. Sleeping is shared accommodations, either in bunk-bed rooms for four, or ridiculously expensive shared hotel-sized rooms, or shockingly, absurdly expensive single rooms for those people who are resisting accepting that Esalen is, at its best, a communal experience, and hopefully you’re here to work on that issue of yours. (And hey, I get it, I’m a privacy and solitude freak, but trust me, the bunk room setup works surprisingly well.) The hot tubs and baths are like nothing you’ve ever experienced, located on a deck smack up against the cliffs, below which the Pacific Ocean crashes or murmurs, depending on the tides. The adjacent indoor showers are equally spectacular, with one entire wall composed of sliding glass panels, premiering the Pacific Ocean below.

Massages are out of this world. Again, I hear the words of my yogi friend echoing in my mind. “You will never be the same again.” And again, I concur. It’s a little like Paris, my favorite city in the whole world. And when I’m traveling, but not there, it all gets separated into two distinct mind-sets (or heart-sets). There’s Paris, and there’s not-Paris. Everything else takes a distinct back seat. And so, that’s how it goes, once you’ve had an Esalen massage at Esalen. There’s Esalen and there’s not-Esalen. You’re going to ask me what makes it so different, and I’m not sure I know how to answer that. It’s like watching a ballet student of seven years dance alongside a ballet professional. Same steps, maybe even same gestures and nuances. But the training, a life dedicated to the craft, the highest of education and commitment, all shows up in small ways. The massage therapists’ hands, the assurance of the trademark long, flowing strokes. The caring, almost spiritual nature of the experience. The marvelous interaction of masseur/masseuse to massage-ee. The healing nature of it all. (And, in case you’re taking notes, my go-to masseur there is Thomas Attila Vaas. See if he’s available. He rocks.)


This year I’ll be doing a “yoga festival” for the five-day portion. I’m a longtime yogi, as devoted to my yoga practice as I am my ballet. I’m one of those annoying people who, when on vacation, need to go exercise, get in a class or pump some iron. Esalen offers free movement classes for all workshoppers, and in the past, I’ve always made sure to take in the morning yoga class before the day’s workshop. I’ve never done a yoga workshop, though. Yoga, atop yoga, for five days. Wow. Odd. Something new.

So there is that, too. Trying something new, stepping out of my comfort zone, that groove of mine which is both safely familiar and currently uncomfortable. Funny, that. You know you need to break up the equation, jar it a little, as you’re showing all the classic signs of burnout. And yet, even the most comfortable of getaways for me contains within it a level of discomfort. I’m a solitary, habitual creature. This will be neither a solitary nor habitual week. Far from it. But it will be Esalen. The place where people bare their hearts, their dreams, aspirations, thorny issues, as easily as their bare their bodies. In fact, I’m convinced the two are related. Make yourself vulnerable by shedding your clothes, exposing all of yourself to others, the psychological equivalent happens. Some of the most profound, insightful conversations of my life have come from chatting with fellow attendees while in the hot tubs. Particularly in the dark of night, the murmur of the Pacific Ocean below you, all the time in the world.

And on this note, dear reader, I’ll leave you. It’s time for me to drive to Esalen. But do yourself a favor: click on the link below and check out Esalen for yourself. It might be calling your name…



3 thoughts on “Retreat to Esalen”

  1. Loved reading this!!

    I’ve only read your classical music essays (which I love because your voice is so genuine and laid-back), and what fun that I found this. Every bit as enjoyable to read as your classical music essays!

  2. Esalen is a must do place. Attend for a least a weekend. The grounds, ocean view, food, masage, bath, clean air blowing off the Pacific Ocean. Leave your world behind and go to Esalen.


Leave a Comment