They say you never forget your first, and that’s held true for me. I can still remember in much detail my first massage. Part of its memorable nature involved the striking beauty of the place where it occurred, a hot springs along the shores of the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur California.
I had dragged my luggable computer to Esalen Institute, to assist one of my teachers, Ilana Rubenfeld, with a writing project. Ilana was on the Esalen Institute faculty, having invented a hands-on therapy, integrating psychotherapy, intuition, and bodywork. While on the retreat center campus I was able to participate not only in Ilana’s classes but I was able to experience my first massage.
An Esalen massage begins at the edge of the Pacific, with a soak in several tubs fed by water from the underground hot mineral springs. And yes, people did not wear bathing suits, but there was no need to feel self-conscious. The scenery the wildflower-filled cliffside, in one direction and a spectacular seascape of rocky coastline and navy blue sky in the other, commanded all the attention. The massage rooms sit along side the ocean, so that although there’s music, the predominant sounds are of waves lapping against the rocky shore and wind soothing the pine trees.
As I go back to that place now in memory, what stands out is the effort I kept making to stay aware and awake for each delicious bodily sensation initiated by the therapist’s touch. I remember thinking I didn’t know my body could be this relaxed. At some point the relaxation became so deep that it took my mind to a space I’d never visited, even in my dreams.
During my most recent massage at a spa in Desert Hot Springs, California, my body taught me something else I didn’t know. In the thirty years since my first massage, I’ve become a better collaborator – bringing my breath and my full awareness to the point of contact between my body and the therapist’s hands. The aroma of the lotions, the music, the faint light, all conspire to encourage a letting go of excess tension in the muscles but the state of relaxation depends on the communication between the practitioner’s hands and my breath and intention. Together we give each of body part permission to let go of whatever is in excess, whatever is no longer needed.
As the massage begins I notice the temperature of the room, a bit cooler than I’m used to. I notice the music, its repetitious rhythm and non-descript phrases, purposely arranged so as not to call attention to itself. I notice the feel of the lotion on my skin and that, in the desert air, my skin seems especially thirsty and grateful for the moisture it’s receiving.
As the massage progressed, some muscles relaxed easily, others with a surprisingly spastic jerk, and occasionally a sharp reflected pain accompanied some releases, subsiding as quickly as it came. While my muscles were engaged in these various releases, my mind surprised me by recreating some violent scenes from a movie I’d seen recently, “Ten Years a Slave.” As this internal visualization occurred I noticed it and then brought my attention back to the point of contact with the therapist’s hands. After this continued for some time I had the realization, (or the sensation) that these images were being released from my body, as though they had been stored in my muscles since I first saw them.