Esalen massage is not about fixing people
Every Esalen teacher I have studied under has taught this. This seems a contradiction in terms. Why would anyone seek massage if not to be fixed? Why would anyone become a massage therapist if not to fix people?
In the medical massage paradigm, the reason to seek massage is to solve a medical problem: Perhaps you were working in your garden and now your back is sore or you rode your bicycle 100 miles and now have pain in your body as a result of that exertion. You seek massage to treat and relieve specific strained or sore muscles, and then you wait until you have another injury before you seek out massage again. No injury means no reason to get a massage.
In contrast, in the Esalen paradigm we are not there to fix people. What does this mean?
I sought out a lot of massage before I became a massage therapist myself, and I never had the slightest interest in having my physical problems solved on the massage table. My goals centered around getting out of my head and somehow making friends with my body. I was overstimulated, disconnected, and felt lost on many fronts; and I found a 90 minute massage gave me an opportunity to go deep and re-connect with myself.
I used to tell my massage providers, “Just take me to the bottom of the lake,” meaning I wanted to get away from the agitation at the surface and go find quiet in the deeps to see what guidance and nourishment might meet me there. My Esalen massage teachers tell me, “If you haven’t relaxed your client to the point they are drooling onto the table, you haven’t relaxed them enough.” That is the experience I wanted: I have been a buddhist meditator most of my life, and the way I use massage is a pretty close cousin to meditation.
Take me to the bottom of the lake
Not long ago I got massage from a massage therapist I found online. I liked this person’s website and thought I’d check her out. In the intake interview she asked me, “Why did you come in today?” I explained that I liked getting regular body work, had recently become a licensed massage therapist myself, had just completed a certification in Esalen massage in Big Sur, California, and I liked her web site and wanted to experience her work. She responded with “Yes, but what is going on in your body?” I said, “Well, I slept well last night, so I feel well-rested. I’ve been eating well lately and my digestion is good. Also I’ve been working out every day and so my body feels good. Actually I feel great.” At this point I could see she was getting get frustrated with me, and she said, “OK let’s go back to the beginning, Why did you come in? What did you want me to do?” I recognized then that this massage therapist simply wasn’t accustomed to working on people who didn’t have specific problems that needed to be “fixed.” I don’t think my “going to the bottom of the lake” idea was on her massage roadmap.
Is it a massage if it doesn’t hurt? Hint – the answer is Yes!
A little bit later I gave an Esalen massage to a client who had received a lot of bodywork but never anything in the Esalen style. After the session I asked how it went for him. He said, “I’m not sure that was a massage, because it didn’t hurt.” He had had many sessions with a massage therapist trained in one of the Asian styles who worked with acupressure points. My client said it ordinarily produced a great deal of pain, to the point that he was coming off the table during the massage. It was not on his massage “roadmap” that he could have massage that didn’t hurt.
Let me state that there is nothing wrong with medical massage and sports massage. These are important and valid forms of massage therapy. They are not, however, the only reasons to seek massage.
One reason I am making this blog is truth in advertising: If you want me to fix a muscle strain or cure a postural problem, I am not the right therapist to see. If you want to experience a great deal of pain on the massage table, I am not going to provide that. But if you want to go to the bottom of the lake and see if the quiet you find there nourishes you, then let’s see what we can do.
Andy Ritan, with Atlanta Esalen Massage.