Esalen: Big Sur’s Spiritual Mecca

Giving Peace a Chance at the Ultra-Private Philosophical Retreat

Any city dweller of reasonable sensitivity will acknowledge that a prolonged stay in the modern metropolis can be taxing on the spirit. Of course, there’s always the option of a beach holiday, or a weekend in the countryside. But as the march of commerce increasingly fills every corner of the globe with blaring adverts, bleeping cellphones and queues of tourists, getting away from it all—and finding some much-needed headspace—is the ultimate luxury. At the storied Esalen Institute, the blissed-out living-learning center on the coast of Big Sur, California, laptops, car keys and wallets are traded for therapeutic workshops (topics range from sustainability to somatics), mandatory gestalt practice, philosophical seminars and, yes, hot spring baths (clothing optional), open round the clock. Founded in 1962 by Stanford grads Michael Murphy and Dick Price, Esalen has been a fashionable retreat for generations of questing glamorati, from Allen Ginsberg and Grace Slick to Joan Baez and Susan Sontag to Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, all of whom have been lured by the intoxicating proposal of physical beauty and east-west transcendence—not to mention the cool minimalism of Esalen’s sandstone and concrete buildings, designed by California architect Mickey Muennig. Built on the sacred grounds of the Native American tribe Esselen and perched on a vertiginous cliffside, the retreat is inaccessible to the white noise of the city and 3G signal. The general public, too, are partially barred—the only way to gain entry is to attend one of the institute’s workshops, or to give up your normal life and become part of its self-sustaining, soul-searching community (though, if you're a night owl, you can reserve a dip in the hot springs for any time between 1am and 3am). For today’s story, we found an alternative way in, via tour guide Nina Milner, a South African sculptor, actor and model who has lived at Esalen for the past six months. She took seasoned interiors photographer Douglas Friedman around the serene and super-exclusive retreat, the result being these lush, utopian images.

Read more about Milner's Esalen experience and her "Sex of the Spirit" workshop here.

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