The choice is yours: Soak in a healing hot mineral-water bath set into a mountain along the Pacific shoreline; indulge in a sensuous full-body massage; let loose in a sacred-dance class; immerse yourself in topics as varied as gestalt practice, tantric energy work, and Hindu meditation; or find calm during a contemplative solo hike. It’s all available at Esalen Institute, nestled in the striking cliffs of Big Sur, Calif., just a three-and-a-half-hour drive south of San Francisco.
If you’ve already been down the scenic, winding road that leads to this hideaway, you may know of Esalen’s reputation as the birthplace of the New Age movement. Founded in 1962 by Michael Murphy and Richard Price, two former Stanford psychology students, Esalen (named after the Native American Esalen tribe that once inhabited the region) was created on 27 acres of coastline as a nonprofit, educational retreat for people and ideas that were, like its secluded locale, off the beaten path. In an era when women were still wearing pillbox hats and white gloves and men were prisoners of gray flannel, Murphy and Price proved prescient in their vision. What evolved was a place where people could examine changing attitudes about everything from relationships to Eastern teachings in order to explore what has come to be known as “human potential.” Since then, Esalen has been variously misperceived as a ’60s hippie hangout, a ’70s swingin’-singles scene, an ’80s New Age hot spot, and, most notoriously, a nudist resort (due to the coed nudity at the baths, where guests seem to find it as natural to bare their bodies as they do their souls).
Lest the fun and games distract you from Esalen’s work and worth, keep in mind that the world’s key visionary scholars and artists — B.F. Skinner, Jack Kerouac, and Joan Baez are examples — have come to Esalen as teachers and guests. And this highly charged atmosphere is where now-established concepts such as encounter-group therapy, gestalt practice, somatic education, and Esalen massage technique developed. As a result, Esalen’s buffet of choices are as diverse as the dining lodge’s salad bar — both of which are self-serve — and it’s up to you to dish up as much or as little as you desire.