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Recently, I had the great good fortune to be invited to participate in a conference at Esalen–that famous, new age spiritual retreat (you know, the Beats hung out there, Huxley tripped there…) in Big Sur, California, perched on the rocks overlooking the gorgeous Pacific Ocean. I couldn’t believe my luck: five days of salon-style conversation between scholars of religion, scientists, and comic book artists among other creative types. Heaven!
My own worry: nudity.
Esalen is not only famous for its eclectic history and notorious visitors, its yoga retreats and guru-led workshops, but also for its hot spring baths. Which, now having been there, I can say are exquisitely beautiful and built right on the edge of the rocks overlooking the ocean. Unreal. Incredible.
But before leaving, when the convener of my conference asked if I had any questions, my one query was the following: “So….will everybody be naked at the baths and in the pool? Because I am a New England prude through and through, and a Catholic one at that.” In other words: there was no nudity on my agenda! No matter what.
His response: “Oh, don’t worry! Nobody will mind if you wear a bathing suit!”
Um, nobody will mind?
This brings me to the tantalizing title of my post…


On my very first day at Esalen, in addition to being awed by the natural beauty and wonderful conversation, we had gorgeous weather and I wanted to go for a swim. I love nothing more than a leisurely float in a pool–which at Esalen, I was told, was naturally heated by the hot springs. Yippee!!!
So there I was, in my cute new 1950’s style Isaac Mizrahi bathing suit bought at Target–a little nautical two-piece with a skirt and everything, plus a big, wide-rimmed red hat to keep the sun out of my face (all I needed were heels to complete the look)–heading into the pool area which required opening an pretty, old, metal gate.
Cree-ee-eeek! All eyes were on me. At which point I about DIED. All around the pool were naked people–almost all men–laying on their backs (!) sunning themselves! Um, aahhhhhh! (You have to understand: Esalen is more or less the Summer of Love frozen in time.) My first impulse was to flee, but after the gate’s announcement of my arrival, I figured I had to stay. I was the only person in a bathing suit. I grabbed a boogie board at the side of the pool, jumped in, and kept my head down, hoping to avoid eye contact with any naked people, especially if they were naked people also attending my conference (there was only about 20 at the conference total–and yes, some of them did show up naked!).
I was scooting around in the pool for only about 10 minutes before the unthinkable (and most hilariously cliched thing) happened: A man, a naked one, waltzes into the pool area, all tanned and toned (yes, it was hard not to notice this) WITH A YOGA MAT!
At which point, he proceeded to do NAKED YOGA for what felt like AN HOUR, next to the pool where I was SWIMMING. His naked yoga routine included…..I kid you not….about twenty minutes of STANDING ON HIS HEAD NAKED. Have I mentioned that he was NAKED?
Ah, Esalen! You gotta love a place where people feel this is normal behavior. In case you were wondering: overall, I had a wonderful time there, met amazing people at the conference, enjoyed the baths, the pool, and the gorgeous scenery the entire time, and I would LOVE to go back. But no, not once did I remove my little 50’s retro bathing suit! No way. Nor will I next time, if I ever have the fortune of being invited back–me and my old-fashioned two-piece, with the wide-brimmed red hat, that is.
For a fascinating, lively history of Esalen, check out Jeffrey Kripal’s book, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion.

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