Big Sur’s Esalen Institute

Part of the Esalen Institute experience is becoming aware of the link between Earth and humans. (Daniel Bianchetta)

Built upon a site where natural thermal springs flow and those in search of greater meaning gather to explore and promote the concept of human potential, the world-renowned Big Sur retreat, Esalen Institute sits on the edge of the California coastline. Courses and workshops provide ongoing opportunities for participants to delve into alternative ways of approaching life’s challenges, from personal relationships and growth to global crises and environmental issues.

Named for the peaceful Esselen Indians who inhabited this central California region around 4,000 years ago, the land was originally developed by an area physician with the intention of creating a health retreat modeled after traditional, water-based spas found in Europe. Later, in 1962, Esalen was founded on the 120-acre site by Michael Murphy and Richard Price, who envisioned a sanctuary where individual potential could flourish, nurtured within a community of like-minded individuals. Today, President Gordon Wheeler explains that the institute’s governing theory of human potential can be translated as “our deep human capacity to evolve and create new solutions to old problems—personally, socially and at a cultural and whole-world level.”

Big Sur sits atop California’s coastal cliffs. (Jens Wazel)

Wheeler maintains that as a transformational educational institute, Esalen does not offer or practice psychotherapy of any label or particular school. Rather, the growth and creativity of individuals and groups is advanced through transformational learning programs such as citizen diplomacy initiatives at the Esalen Center for Theory & Research and workshops on deepening intimacy in relationships or unleashing the power of emotional connection with the self and others.

While all workshops are open to the public, the cost of registration includes accommodations. Guests wishing to explore the Big Sur community have their choice of standard accommodations between shared housing with up to three persons per room; premium rooms featuring upgraded bathrooms; private-suite Point Houses with wood-burning stoves and views of the Pacific Ocean; bunk bed rooms for seminar participants; or shared sleeping space in the meeting rooms with your own sleeping bag.


  • Esalen Institute baths (Robert Schlagal)

  • Visitors are invited to spend time in the on-site gardens. (Doug Ellis)

  • Workshops are open to the public. (Doug Ellis)

  • Guests lend a hand harvesting crops on the 4-acre farm. (Rebecca Schoenenberger)

Everyone who visits or attends a seminar or workshop is invited to lend a hand in the 4-acre farm and gardens, learning to mindfully harvest crops. Part of the Esalen experience involves becoming aware of the vital link between Earth and the human species through the institute’s philosophy of relational agriculture, and how that link is singularly manifested in the production of pure, organic foods.

As essential as the work ethic and care of the land, so too is care of the self. The institute’s branded Esalen massage modality, with its signature flowing strokes, is supplemented with a menu of holistic healing arts that include spiritual massage, craniosacral therapy and transformational kinesiology, a form of subtle energy adjustment that’s meant to awaken the body’s own inner wisdom. Visitors staying on- or off-property can schedule massage appointments or arrange for a soak in the therapeutic mineral waters of the thermal springs—with the option of public night bathing, available to off-property guests by reservation, beneath the stars from 1-3 a.m.

A sunset at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur (Jens Wazel)

But not all transformation at Esalen falls within the realm of psychological experience or growth: There’s also plenty in the way of purely physical change. Planned as a three-year endeavor to be completed by the end of this year, the $15 million Campus Renewal Project is in full swing, the largest property development effort in the institute’s history with the construction of a six-room guest building and new cafe and bar. The newly updated Lodge is at the center of the renewal; the gathering place—which encompasses dining and workshops areas—also lies at the heart of the institute. Completed changes already include a remodeled kitchen and a second-floor addition featuring the state-of-the-art Huxley meeting room, a multipurpose space for dance, yoga and educational programs. Great care is also being taken to further Esalen’s sustainability agenda of moving steadily toward zero-energy-footprint buildings and, ultimately, a grid-positive facility achieved through solar and geothermal energy, best planning and materials, and best practices.

“Teachers and students alike tell us that ‘something happens’ when you set foot on the Esalen property: Time speeds up or stands still, people often report a sense of greater intensity, more openness to new experience[s], new behaviors that challenge long- and deeply-held habits of living, learning, connecting,” Wheeler says. “There’s a mystery here that’s different for each person, challenging each visitor to make his [or] her meanings in a new way.”

By Debra Bokur