What is Esalen?
From their website, Esalen describes itself as “a holistic retreat and educational institute”. We would describe it as a summer camp for adults. There’s rustic cabins for lodging, a buffet and communal seating area for meals, sometimes campfires at night, and your days are filled with a schedule of activities, mostly involving learning and some sort of exercise. Most people stay for 3-5 days for their workshops, but there are also day passes for those who live nearby, and longer stays as a participant in their REEP and LEEP programs.
What do you do there?
Generally, people go to attend one of their workshops. These are typically 3-5 days long, and have a schedule that will fill most of your day. The day can start as early as 7:30am with something like yoga, qi gong, or learning the bath ritual, but these sessions usually aren’t mandatory. In fact, none of the sessions are mandatory. If you wanted to spend all day eating and sitting in the baths, it’s unlikely anyone would bother you about it. But you’re paying for the workshops, so you might as well attend.
During the week we were there, we had a number of unique sessions and classes to take part in. There was a sound bath, which is an amazingly relaxing experience which we would highly recommend. There was a similar panel, in which the sound bath expert would make music on the bowls while one of the elders, Penny, would recite poetry from Hafiz. They had some Q&A sessions, where experts on a particular topic would talk. There were also more physical sessions, such as qi gong and the 5 rhythms dancing.
The baths are one of their most famous features. Esalen has natural hot springs, which are piped directly into communal pools and single-person bathtubs. It’s mixed gender, and clothing is optional. Most of the people bathing did so without clothes. The baths are located cliffside, overlooking the ocean, and you can hear the waves and sea birds throughout your bath. It makes the experience that much more memorable. The hot springs do have a sulfur smell, but they have showers right there to get nice and clean again.
They also have massages, also done at the same location as the baths. Again, the natural sounds of the ocean will make the experience all the better. The massages are somewhat pricey, but we decided to start our week with an early afternoon treat. It really helped relax us after the long drive. We probably wouldn’t splurge on a massage every visit, but once was nice.
Is that it? just classes?
Esalen has a beautiful campus you can spend time walking, breathtaking old trees, a meditation hut, a pool for swimming, and a book store with many different types of reading material. There’s no TVs, and with limited internet service, you’ll be spending more time with nature than you probably have in some time.
There’s also an art barn, but we didn’t have the opportunity to spend any time there. Perhaps on a future visit we can get some use out of that.
There’s several gardens. There’s a Buddha garden that serves as a meeting place and occasional meditation spot, flower gardens, herb gardens, and they also grow fruits and vegetables in several areas around the campus.
If you’re musically inclined, there’s several guitars and a piano in the lodge. You can play inside or outside if you like.
Why did you go?
First, we wanted to check out Esalen for ourselves. We had driven past it many times on our way up the coast, and were always curious about what went on there.
Secondly, we wanted a relaxing vacation – something where we could reconnect with each other, and reexamine how we’re living our lives.
Aunty Lucy wanted to practice mindfulness, being conscious and present, and Esalen is a great place to practice being fully present. Uncle Cid wanted to explore alternative methods to feeling the way one does on LSD – being present, and feeling connected to the rest of the universe.
How’s the food?
Esalen serves breakfast, lunch and dinner on a regular schedule in their main lodge. It’s buffet style, so you can grab as much or as little as you want. There’s also tea, coffee, fresh and dried fruit available all day. The lodge is also where the only Wifi access is, and it’s turned off during mealtimes.
The breakfast was one of our favorite meals of the day, as they regularly serve coconut yogurt, overnight oats, fresh fruits like strawberries, blueberries and raspberries, and granola. We’ve since incorporated this breakfast into our own routine at home, since it’s such a great and healthy way to start the day.
For both lunch and dinner, there’s a salad bar and soup where the breakfast foods were, and they have two buffet lines (both the same) with about 4 different food items on it. They’ll usually have at least one meat item, and one vegan item, clearly marked, and will also list out allergens or items like gluten if they know someone there has an allergy that week (it will be on your forms when you register).
Sometimes they’ll also have dessert off to the right side, but not always. We were disappointed at meals that didn’t offer desserts, but the dried mango slices make for a pretty sweet treat.
We were also disappointed that they served meat items Esalen. For a place that’s meant to “push the boundaries of what is possible within your own personal growth”, I would expect them to encourage a vegetarian diet, if not vegan. Certainly if they get the rare individual for whom it’s medically necessary to eat meat, they could accommodate their particular diet. But as a whole one would expect them to promote a diet which is healthier, less cruel, and more environmentally friendly.
Generally their food was tasty and well-prepared, and offered a lot of fresh vegetables. There were a few dishes, like the diced sweet potatoes, that were not cooked properly, and also didn’t have any good seasoning on them, but we always found another thing to eat at each meal. There weren’t any days where we were left hungry or unsatisfied.
What’s the lodging like?
Esalen offers several different types of accommodation, and they would all likely be described as “rustic”. We were in the “Premium queen room”, and there is no TV, no air conditioning, and no wifi. Other than hand soap, toilet paper, and a single towel each, you really need to bring all your own toiletries, including a hair dryer.
Some of their other accommodations include bunk beds, shared rooms with multiple beds, and even the option to sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor with 6 other people. With only a $300 difference between 4 nights in a bunk bed vs. a sleeping bag, I’m not sure why anyone would choose the sleeping bag option. You can look at all their room options here: https://www.esalen.org/visit/accommodations-and-tuition
What should I pack?
Try monitoring the weather in the Big Sur area prior to your arrival, so you know whether or not to pack clothes for cold, heat, or rain. Generally, we would recommend bringing a variety of clothes which can be layered, such as light waterproof jackets or hoodies. There might be a wide temperature spread between night and day, so shorts may be more appropriate for daytime, but you may want to change into pants once the sun goes down. Additionally, there are many workshops and classes that include body movement, such as yoga and dancing. Bring clothes you can change into for flexibility and getting sweaty.
We did not have any issues with bugs while we were there, but depending on the season, but spray or wipes might be appropriate.
There are no toiletries included besides hand soap, so bring your own shampoo, conditioner, body wash, face wash, lotions, etc. If you use a hair dryer, you will need to bring your own.
If you’re staying in the sleeping bag accommodations, you will need to bring your own bedding. All other rooms that include beds have the bedding included.
Bring a refillable water bottle, especially for the active classes. Sometimes these classes are also held outside, so bringing a hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses is also recommended.
There is no nearby pharmacy, and the bookstore offers a very limited amount of supplies. If you suspect you may need basic medications like painkillers, antacids, allergy medicines, UTI medications, or any other typical medicine cabinet staple, we would highly recommend bringing it with you.
If you suspect you might grow bored in your free time, you might want to bring a book, or buy something from the book store. We suspect if you spend more time interacting with others at Esalen, and less time alone, you won’t have much free time.
What could they improve on?
As mentioned before, we were disappointed that they served meat at the cafeteria. We hope in the future they can switch to being either vegetarian or vegan, since there is really no reason they should be supporting meat consumption in this day and age.
We were also quite surprised to see how much emphasis Esalen places on lineage and pedigree. Many of the instructors and speakers were introduced by who their parents were, or who their ancestors were, or who their teacher or guru was. We reject the importance of lineage or pedigree as a measure of someone’s worth as a teacher.
We believe that the more important path to personal growth is the “Primary Religious Experience“. This was one of the main lessons of the book “Siddhartha”, and in “How to Change Your Mind” – anyone who tells you that they alone are the keepers of the experience and knowledge you need is trying to wield a power over you. Look instead for a teacher that values achievement in your personal experience over their authority. A good teacher will act as a tour guide for life as it’s lived, not sitting behind you, casting shadows on the cave wall.
We also have distain for those who place great importance in ancestry. It is medically important to know what inheritable conditions your ancestors had. That’s its only practical and ethical use in the world. Esalen has no reason to endorse any teacher based on who their ancestors were. Your lineage is not relevant, from a teaching or learning standpoint. Nepotism should have no place in any field, much less the self-help or self-improvement areas. Ancestry and lineage have too often become tools for the Ego to assert its power over others, and we hope Esalen can begin to move past valuing pedigree in its teachers.
In the cases of martial arts or yoga, “lineage” has a different meaning. It means which specific style of the sport/practice is being taught. It’s helpful to differentiate the various branches of qi gong, tai chi, or yoga, so one can approach the activity with some knowledge of what to expect from the class. We allow exceptions for promoting teachers of these sorts of physical activities by their lineage, as it’s a descriptor of the class, and does not imply any additional expertise based on who they were born to, or who their teacher was.
So overall, what did we think?
We enjoyed our time at Esalen, and hope to return in the future, perhaps for a longer time. It’s very difficult to feel anxious, depressed, or worried while you’re there. It’s also a very good opportunity to practice mindfulness and presence, and seeing what kind of person you can be when you’re not stressed from your day-to-day chaos at home and work.