Written by Sarah Jones
Last Updated

Esalen massage is different from many other massage techniques in that it combines working on the body with elements of psychology, for a completely holistic approach to the wellbeing of the massage customer. 

It was developed at the Esalen Institute in California and has sparked controversy over the years because it is often associated with full nudity for the customer; however, this is always optional and is part of the unique approach. 

The Esalen institute offers training in the technique and their students are known as bodyworkers rather than massage therapists. It is essentially based on a traditional Swedish massage with some other elements and variations added in. 

What About the Nudity Aspect of Esalen?

Esalen massage takes on a psycho-spiritual approach and the custom of experiencing nudity is part of that approach. The institute believes that nudity enhances the customer’s experience, but it is always optional. 

At the institute itself, there are natural hot springs, and those who experience a massage there, are encouraged to bathe nude in the springs first, so it’s a more natural environment in which to feel comfortable naked. 

When Esalen massage is practiced outside of the institute the nudity aspect becomes a bit more difficult to organize and justify and that’s why it has sparked controversy over the years, although the emphasis is always on optional nudity. 

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What is Different About the Massage Techniques Used?

The actual massage itself is renowned for a nurturing and healing approach, using rocking, long gentle strokes, and stretching of the body. Bodyworkers also work using acupressure and sculpting of the muscles during a session. 

Esalen massage is not just about the physical side, there is also a focus on energy levels and on the client’s mental well-being as well. The ultimate aim is to bring the mind and body into balance and to create a sense of calm.

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Those who practice Esalen massages have to follow several principles: 

  • Always ground your own energy before treating someone
  • Listen to the customer’s breathing before you begin
  • Rock the body gently to help start the relaxation
  • Use long strokes to create a unified message
  • Release joint tension with smaller movements
  • Use the customer’s body weight for the movement
  • Recognize that massage is not just physical


What is the Esalen Institute and Where is it Based?

The Esalen Institute was set up in the 1960s to explore the potential of humans and is a non-profit business. Many great minds and artists have spent time there to discuss and talk through ideas, develop innovative practices and create new art forms.

It is located on the top of the Big Sur’s cliffs and has become a world leader recognized for alternative learning. It is a hive for new mind body and spirit treatments and programs and has been right at the front when it comes to combining work with the body and psychology practices. 

At the Institute there are several areas that are described as clothing-optional and with the hot springs on-site, many visitors choose to spend at least some of their time nude and argue that it is all part of spiritual growth. 

There is the view that wearing clothing is what makes us all different and judge each other, but stripping down to our natural selves can remove some of the judgemental views about what bodies should look like and what beauty is, making it a more spiritual experience. 

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So all clients who arrive for an Esalen massage at the Institute have the opportunity to shed their clothes and remain nude after their hot springs visit, but it is entirely optional and during the massage itself they would always be draped with a sheet for privacy. 

One of the issues with Esalen is when massage therapists train in the practice and then choose to practice it outside of the institute, in another salon or spa where nudity is not so easy to undertake and not approved of. 

Those who train in Esalen and practice outside of the Institute are advised that they should always give clients the choice to stay dressed, stay in underwear or be naked. However, whichever option they go for, they will always have a sheet draped over them for privacy.



Despite the controversy that sometimes surrounds it, Esalen massage has been used for decades to bring peace and balance to many people around the world. Whether you opt to head to the Institute for the full nude experience or prefer a clothed version at your local spa, the principles of the treatment will still be the same. 

With its unique combination of bodywork and psychology, an Esalen massage treatment is certainly something that everyone looking to improve their spiritual and physical wellness should aim to try at least once in their lifetime. 


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