Esalen: Our Retreat from Modern Life


Since 1962, Esalen, the grand dame of spiritual retreat centers in the U.S., has welcomed almost a million visitors looking to explore their “human potential.”

On a recent vacation, I sat cross-legged on a pillow trying to visualize a space inside my solar plexus alongside ten other people earnestly visualizing one in theirs. No, it wasn’t a group attempt at soothing turista tummy troubles, but an early morning chakra opening meditation at the world-famous Esalen retreat center.

As a British gal living in Northern California, I’m used to a certain amount of what the English might dismiss as “navel-gazing,” but when I look around, every one of these “hippies” looks exactly like me.

Going on retreat is the new vacation. Forget enjoying cocktail service around a hotel pool, a growing number of busy urban professionals are opting to spend their vacation days seeking inner peace under a tree or, quite literally, meditating on a mountaintop.

Nikki Striefler, the founder of, the fastest-growing guide to living mindfully on the web believes she knows why. “It’s virtually—pun intended—impossible to unplug in most daily circumstances today,” she says. “When we make the commitment to go on a spiritual retreat, we are giving ourselves permission to turn off, and we’re able to tell others they can’t reach us without our having to feel bad about it.”


It’s not just technology we need a break from. “The simple over-crowding of our cities and the strain on our public places makes it harder than ever to escape to a park when everyone else is there trying to do the same thing,” Striefler says. “Traveling to a remote retreat center has more payoff in terms of finding solitude and peace than ever before.”

There are a number of retreat centers across the country, but  the Esalen Institute has earned its place at the top of the list. And that may have something to do with being located along a spell-binding, beautiful stretch of California’s Big Sur coast. Located on twenty-seven acres, the idyllic setting is cut into the side of a cliff overlooking the Pacific ocean. The institute’s facilities include rustic ocean view cabins, an art center, organic vegetable gardens that supply the ingredients for the delicious meals, a mineral water swimming pool, massage pavilion and its famous clothing-optional hot springs baths.

The institute was founded in 1962 by Michael Murphy and Richard Price as one of the first places in the U.S. where people could explore personal growth and expanded states of consciousness. It’s hard to imagine now, but practices offered like yoga, meditation and holistic medicine were then considered counterculture interests.

With more than 400 workshops available year round, there is something to interest everyone. The list of past inquiring minds who’ve visited include, Aldous Huxley, Hunter S. Thompson, Joseph Campbell, Buckminster Fuller, Moshe Feldenkrais, Ida Rolf, and Alan Watts–so you know you’ll be following in great company.


And for those who just want to enjoy the tranquil surroundings, hot springs and proprietary Esalen-style massages, there is the option to stay on a design-your-own-retreat basis.

In our increasingly fast-paced, highly stimulated and plugged-in world, hotel resorts that offer more of the same just won’t cut it. Whether you’re interested in finding your chakra points or not, discovering new versions of getting “away from it all” at places like Esalen is the modern approach to truly taking time off.

 Images: Esalen 

Rowena Ritchie

Rowena is EcoSalon’s West Coast Fashion Editor and currently resides in San Francisco, CA.