East Bay Massage: Esalen

Although I practice a variety of bodywork modalities, Esalen massage was the first of my training and has influenced the way I perceive massage. Here is a little article I wrote on the basics of Esalen bodywork:

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In the book Job’s Body, author Deane Juhan tells us something important about the fundamental approach of Esalen bodywork. He explains:

Bodywork… is a kind of sensorimotor education, rather than a treatment or a procedure… I must enter into an active relationship with [the client]. The bodyworker is not attacking a localized problem; (s)he is carefully generating a flow of sensory information to the mind of the client… It is the mind of the client that does the fixing.

This passage speaks to me both as a massage therapist and as a recipient of massage. I believe it clarifies a fundamentally flawed attitude that massage therapists, health educators, and recipients occasionally bring to their sessions. “Fix me!” is a plea that I hear on a weekly if not daily basis from my clients who come to me with excruciating nerve pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, migraines, and injuries. I have to check my ego quickly as I feel my massage therapist super-hero cape unfurling behind me in a promise of ease, health, and recovery.

Have you ever felt like you needed to “power through” a painful bodywork session? Do you believe in “no pain, no gain?” Worse yet, have you ever felt brutalized by an over-zealous massage practitioner who wouldn’t listen to you when you asked for less pressure? Have you ever been bruised after a massage?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, I suggest you consider this: It is the mind of the client that does the fixing. In pleading with another to “fix” us, we not only give away the power we each contain inherently in our own bodies to heal, we assign the responsibility to someone else who is not capable of fulfilling our request.

Esalen massage is foundationally a relationship. It teaches us how to approach each other through touch by allowing for the greatest space and respect– listening to each client’s body and its assortment of protected postures, injuries, and narratives. You may not realize it, but when you take a deep breath during a massage, if you get goosebumps, if your eyelids flutter, your Esalen massage therapist notices and acknowledges it as permission to move deeper or as encouragement to linger.

It should not be miscontrued, however, that Esalen massage lacks depth of pressure. A session with an Esalen massage therapist will introduce varied depth of pressure, and when it is needed, the pressure does engage the deepest layers of muscle and fascia and includes stretching and other techniques unique to Esalen massage (more on that in the following paragraph!). The important distinction is that the client’s body is always in charge, because it is the client who will ultimately either let go of tension and stress, or retain them. It is not within the massage therapist’s scope or capacity to foist a ‘release’ upon the client. Clients should also always bear in mind that the session is in their honor; the client is in control, and if at any time any thing does not feel right for any reason, it is always encouraged to speak up right away. Massage therapists are often intuitive people who enjoy helping others feel better, but might not be able to read your mind.

During an Esalen session, you will no doubt experience what has been deemed Esalen’s trademark technique. The Long Stroke, aptly named, begins at the foot, flows up the leg, hip, glutes, back, neck and shoulder, and then travels down the arm and hand, connects to the hip and leg and finishes as it exits at the foot. The entire body is contacted, the entire body is re-membered. Imagine how an injured shoulder seems to scream for all your attention, and your nervous system seems able to hear only it. Much the way we are able to focus on one specific task amid a melee of other sensory input, the most urgent message is often heard the clearest. The Long Stroke effects the nervous system by integrating the parts of the whole– and even as the massage therapist stops to work with the loudest complainer in detailed work, it is encompassed again in the totality of the body through the Long Stroke.

If the client’s body is ready to let go of the pain resulting from the injury, it will do so as it is integrated with the rest of the body– supported by the massage therapist, but not due to her.

Thank you for visiting East Bay Massage!

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