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Breathe In, Breathe Out

More than 50 years ago, the Esalen Institute provided a refuge for those seeking a place to unwind—and expand their minds. Today, a new generation of wellness retreats offers a place to get away and think.


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A nude therapy group at Esalen, 1968.

Photo: Ralph Crane Courtesy of the LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

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Steve McQueen and Neile Adams in the Institute’s hot springs, 1963.

PHOTO: John Dominis Courtesy of the LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

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Esalen’s lodge, circa 1960.

Photo: Paul Herber Courtesy of Esalen

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The new lodge, designed by Arkin Tilt Architects.

Photo: Ed Caldwell Courtesy of Arkin Tilt Architects

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Esalen’s mineral hot springs-fed bathhouse.

Photo: Courtesy of Esalen

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The pool and grassy knoll at sunset.

Photo: Courtesy of Esalen

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Restorative yoga.

Photo: Courtesy of Esalen

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Photo: Jeannene Langford Courtes of Tassajara

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Skylonda Lodge

Photo: Courtesy of Skylonda Lodge

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1440 Multiversity lobby.

Photo: Courtesy of 1440 Multiversity

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1440 Multiversity pool.

Photo: Courtesy of 1440 Multiversity

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1440 Muliversity sanctuary.

Photo: Courtesy of 1440 Multiversity

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Green Gulch garden.

Photo: Courtesy of Green Gulch

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Mount Madonna out-door cafe.

Photo: Courtesy of Mount Madonna Center


It was my first job after college. Less than a year out of Boston University, I was shy, buttoned-up and painfully awkward. My new co-workers in San Francisco were of the chatty oversharing variety who would meditate at their desks and practice yoga in the conference room. I rolled my eyes a lot. In my sixth month, my boss, who knew more than one Sanskrit chant, was determined to break me out of my J.Crew shell and douse me in her woo-woo. “You have to go to Esalen,” she said, letting me know I was in need of its famed retreat offerings. “Eat well, get weird and report back.”

I followed her orders. Located three hours down the coast from San Francisco, the Esalen Institute has been a mecca for those seeking self-actualization and earthy self-care since it opened as a nonprofit in 1962. On my first visit, I did all the things you’re supposed to do: take naked dips in its oceanside hot springs, fumble through early-morning vinyasas, load up on the vegetarian buffet that the neohippie volunteers prepared (and blessed). In front of complete strangers—mostly midlifers in tattered tie-dye leggings and unkempt beards—I cried, chanted and, yes, overshared.

For those who have visited over the decades, Esalen has been a place of personal breakthrough. And for the now-established wellness travel industry, the 27-acre property was a pioneer. Heck, “wellness,” as a buzzword, wasn’t even part of the zeitgeist when the Esalen opened more than 50 years ago. For me, it’s been more than 13 years since my first visit and several more have followed, eventually leading me to dozens of spiritually inclined retreat centers all over the Bay Area. Many of them, including the Zen-centric Tassajara in Carmel Valley, were founded in part by ardent fans and teachers from Esalen. Silent meditation in a yurt? Done it. Kirtan in a sweat lodge? Yup. Alongside my yoga mats, Vedic texts and artist-created tarot decks at home, you could say I have fully found my own sense of woo-woo, as has much of the Bay Area. To the point now that rose quartz and sage bundles are downright fashionable and mainstream, featured throughout upscale boutiques along the Mission’s Valencia Street and Oakland’s Temescal Alley.

But a funny thing has happened along the way to enlightenment. Where destinations such as Esalen once catered to the New Age set and all its hemp-filled dreams, a fresh throng of seekers from Silicon Valley have joined as guests. And, with them, a desire for more modern amenities and tech-focused programs that have given these granola havens a touch of the haute. In the past eight years, for example, Esalen has seen tech workers join its board of trustees and its day-to-day staff. Ex-Google and -Facebook employees can be found in the kitchens or leading workshops on depression and tech, virtual reality and spirituality, and online addiction. Former Google Product Manager and startup exec coach Ben Tauber holds the seat as its executive director, and boutique hotelier Chip Conley serves on the board and teaches workshops (some geared toward CEOs on how to become a more “conscious leader”).

“I started going to Esalen in 1978, when I was in college at Stanford, to hang out in the hot tubs,” says Conley, who, last year, opened his own retreat destination on the Baja peninsula called Modern Elder Academy, which offers programs based on his 2018 book, Wisdom@Work. “Then I started going to workshops on creativity and emotions. You know, learning to be the best ‘you’ you can be. But, then, at some point I had a desire for society to be the best it can be.”

For Conley, that shift was something he was hearing from a lot of would-be guests. So when he joined the board eight years ago, he helped evolve the property’s offerings from exploring guests’ inner worlds to empowering them to affect change in the outer. “If you look at millennials today, the purposefulness they have in making a difference in society is profound. It’s a function of having responsibility for what’s happening all around you,” he says.

With the assistance of Conley and other board members, the storied nonprofit began attracting more stressed-out executives and startup founders who recognized how much their technologies have power over our lives. And with workshops on how to become a more mindful business leader came a new audience with a lot of money. Thanks to an evolving clientele, Conley helped fundraise capital to renovate the much-loved, but outdated, buildings in 2016. The lodge got a fancy retrimming with a clean, almost sleek silhouette, and more modern guest accommodations were added. Mornings still start with chakra meditations, asanas and seed bread; and the bathhouse is still a big draw. Think of it as hippie 2.0, though with a price tag of close to $3,000 for an all-inclusive weekend workshop for two. And, yet, in true 1960s style, you can still crash on a conference-room floor and enjoy the workshops and facilities over a weekend for $420. The personal breakthroughs and oversharing remain complimentary.


Be Here (and There) Now

State of Mind: Tech Overload
The Fix: Tassajara
Vibe: In a word, monkish. Most of the resident volunteers are here to practice meditative silence for weeks on end. In exchange for their program, they tend to the creekside cabins and a beautifully appointed lodge available to the vacationing public and short-stay retreat participants doing the yoga or meditation thing—often led by teachers from the SF Zen Center. Outlets are few and far between (you won’t find any electricity in the rooms). And Wi-Fi? Forget it. For all its simplicity, though, the amenities feel extravagant, what with a large hot spring-fed bathhouse and the best artisanal bakery this side of Santa Cruz. From $73.50, Carmel Valley 

State of Mind: Budget Brain
The Fix: Mount Madonna Center
Vibe: Your crunch factor should already be pretty high before you step on these sprawling grounds near Gilroy. And it doesn’t hurt if you have warm memories of church camp too—because it’s easy to imagine crosses hanging where the om symbols are now. A robust schedule of yoga and meditation retreats (of various styles, though its personal guru is Baba Hari Dass) can be found year-round. And, while the dining room, cabins and campsites are neatly kept but hardly polished for modern tastes, you won’t mind much. Because you’re most likely spending most of your time doing a deep dive on your inner world via daily lectures, asana classes and early morning meditation sessions. From $59, Watsonville

State of Mind: Existential Mayhem
The Fix: Esalen Institute
Vibe: Yes, it really is as epic as every-one says it is. Coed clothing-optional hot springs? Yup. Ocean cliffs with sunset meditations? True. With Bay Area entrepreneurs like hotelier Chip Conley and former Google Product Manager Ben Tauber serving on the nonprofit’s board of trustees, the mind-expanding destination has, in recent years, gone from hippie to downright haute. Building projects have given the main lodge a majorly modern (and sleek!) overhaul and more wine-countryworthy guest rooms. Though a wide range of options, from a spot on the floor of a meeting room (bring a sleeping bag) to shared spaces, private accommodations are available too. From $420, Big Sur 

State of Mind: Physical Slump
The Fix: Skylonda Lodge
Vibe: Pre-dawn upward dogs, chef-made meals approved by an on-site nutritionist and stunning free-standing rooms that sit among Skyline Boulevard’s ancient redwoods. Retreats are intimate and all about getting vulnerable with your fellow boot-campers. The physical stuff isn’t overkill— though there is an obstacle course race at the end. Still, if you haven’t seen a gym in a few years, you’ll want to follow the extensive Skylonda prep tips before you go to the all-inclusive stay. Add to it: Get ready to talk about your feelings and identifying how you could be happier. Whatever you’ve got going on day to day (a lack of energy, feeling stuck at work, weight gain), expect to share and use the week to figure it out in between 6-mile hikes, circuit training and massages. From $4,000, Woodside

State of Mind: Crunched for Time
The Fix: 1440 Multiversity
Vibe: From the outside, it looks like a fancy new community college. (In fact, it’s a former bible college.) And like a CC, there are students, and there are faculty. The former are typically tech types with a side of woo-woo; the latter represent a roster that reads like the ultimate Outside Lands lineup for the mindful set. Daylong workshops appear weekly—one once featured Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed in conversation—with overnights available for longer programs on everything from coyote medicine to qi gong. From $160, Scotts Valley 

State of Mind: Midlife Crisis
The Fix: Modern Elder Academy
Vibe: Astone’sthrowfromthetownofTodos Santos in Mexico, Chip Conley’s estate is everything you’d hope for from the man who bought the Phoenix Hotel in the Tenderloin and made it utterly cool again. Stays are either one or two weeks long and are scheduled with intense workshops that make you ask: What do I want to do with my life next? Classes with Conley are on the lineup, as well as a roster of experts in self-actualization and, yes, plenty of time for spa treatments and self-care. From $3,500, Baja California Sur


Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco 

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