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Women In Wellness: Brita Ostrom of ‘Esalen Institute’ on the Five Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Help Support People’s Journey Towards Better Wellbeing

You don’t need to make big plans. Just put one step in front of the other. Big plans paralyze me. In others, they often seem misplaced.

As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brita Ostrom.

Brita Ostrom, Esalen Institute, Big Sur, California, is one of the founders of Esalen® Massage, a massage that turned into a movement of personal growth, heart-to-heart contact, massage as an art form, and a recognition of our birthright impetus toward health and healing. She’s been at it for fifty years.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I grew up on an island in the Pacific Northwest where everyone knew each other well and stayed a respectful distance apart. Tired of riding the ferry, I jumped to the urban East Coast for college and social work. Yet this sense of shared community stayed with me. The protests against the war and for civil rights anchored my desire to live life in an intentional manner. A surprise hitch hike to Esalen showed me the creative community I sought in a restful natural setting, with a small salary was included. I found space for my wildness here, too. While religion took a back seat, a recognition of spirit in many manifestations caught hold. After I learned massage, I joined a small cohort of fellow practitioners who recognized the power in non-judgmental touch as a means to heal personal and social violence. Connection counted. We inspired each other, we taught together, we dreamed a school. Massage acceptance nationwide stepped out of the parlors and into respectful homes and medical practices. It became okay to touch. It improved both mood and health. Most important, it felt good to give. We developed programming to fill the growing need for laypeople to learn to touch and ease family and friends and for professionals to dive deep. Personally, I undertook an advanced somatic psychology degree and combined body awareness with insight and change. I realized the body and mind were always linked in every thought and need. I started to teach Esalen Massage abroad. I bring these cultures — Asian, rural Canadian, European– into my work. I’m seventy-seven years old and I don’t see an end in sight.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?

The daily experience of giving massages to the guests at Esalen is the best story of all. Just imagine this: a stranger signs up for a massage with me and we meet outside the room on the edge of the Pacific, he or she clad in a towel. I can see the New York-style tension in tight hip movements, or the pain of recent widowhood caught up in the body posture and voice tone. We speak briefly, and the client says “I just want to catch up, to get back in my body again, and my neck is really killing me.” He/she lays down on the table, uncomfortable to take their identity off to this degree. I cover them carefully and begin slow strokes, not deep. I monitor my own breath and pace. They ask a question, still feeling they should be doing something. Yet — and here is the miracle that happens daily — within twenty minutes their breath has expanded, their tissue has softened, their limbs move freely. I can easily go deeper, work into tightly bound muscles. They’ve surrendered to the experience. Meanwhile the sea continues its song. At the end of the massage, they rest, unmoving, perhaps with the smallest hint of a smile at the corners of the mouth. When they sit up, they don’t need to say a word. I can see they have dropped the stress of work deadlines, accepted the pain of losing a loved one. They’ve stepped back into themselves, into their whole potential. He/she manages a full smile. “Wow!” Pause. “That was amazing.” I smile and almost give one of the slight bows I see in Japan. This is the beauty of massage; it brings us back to our fullest self, our most beautiful self, and I ride along on the journey and help clear the way. The human being has this uncanny trajectory toward wellness, toward grace and beauty. I could tell many stories of trauma unwinding from the body during a massage, or great creativity untapped, but really, it’s the everyday miracle of coming home to oneself that keeps me going.

Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I grew up in a culture that either ignored touch and the body or sexualized it. I was part of that culture, and yet I thought I was cool about the body, and touching strangers. Therefore I easily laid the “uptight” label on clients who couldn’t relax or friends who refused massage. I wouldn’t recognize my own areas of concern. I didn’t acknowledge the state of others; I just thought they should get over it and act natural. It was only after I learned to say “I’m a little nervous about….” that others could really open up to me and visa versa. I’ve no need to be so perfect!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I’ve lived in community and associated with an education center for fifty years, so singling out one person is tough. The aspirations of Esalen’s co-founders, and the lifetime of support they have given the institute is immense. Yet I will point to my good friend and coworker Peggy Horan. She has the most amazing ability to get the story straight and then accurately access “we can do this” or not. She’s my main cheerleader. “Would you like to lead that massage group,” she asked me 50 years ago while I stammered and stepped back. “Sure, you can do it. I’ll be right here to help.” She brought me into teaching, into leading a movement class, encouraged me to jump in and make a mistake and enjoy it. She keeps on learning new things. She gave up massage for midwifery for a while, starting out with the delivery of my own daughter. When she managed the massage staff, she always sought out what was each person’s strength and built on that. Yet she knows her own worth and teaches me daily to ask for what I deserve. The best part: we have easy fun together, always happy to meet up and share our innermost joys, failings, and fears. When we disagree, it’s about the topic and not about our friendship, so I’m comfortable arguing with her. Usually I take her advice and sometimes she tries mine on. I love her sense of color. We’ve grown 50 years together. She just turned 80 and I’ve followed her lead and just joined a mindfulness meditation teacher training. She’s always encouraging me to take a taste of something new.

Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?

The biggest impact my work has made is through the adage: Own your own body. We are taught to give away our body wisdom. “You can’t be cold, you have on a sweater already,” to ignore it in favor of didactic learning. Religion in the West wants us to sidestep the body, and early thinking talked a lot about sins of the flesh. We are taught to source information from without rather than to also reach within. As a counterbalance, massage brings us in touch with our body, our connection to others and to our natural selves. We begin to inhabit our own space, physically and metaphorically. The result: We access the wisdom of our body, we acknowledge our thoughts and recognize our insights, and then give them energy, direction. We move to make a difference. I find so much heartache and anger are caused by people not paying attention to themselves, not taking themselves seriously, “whatever…” . I’m not talking in that romantic way here — that can be just another ploy to seek affirmation — but rather in accessing that deep-down impulse to do the right thing. The place that this has most clearly manifested is the medical setting, where patients no longer give all their power to their doctor, but rather take an active role in their own healing, using imagery to relax during office and surgical procedures, take responsibility for lifestyle changes in diet, exercise, and relationship, and work with the process, rather than just take it like a pill. As the human body becomes accepted rather than hidden, perhaps we can come to terms with our sexuality. Can you imagine a world where women feel comfortable acknowledging their sexual feelings in a safe way to themselves and to their partner and the male is free from the predatory role! This is a future dream, yet acceptance of the wondrous human body could inspire this revolution.

Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.

The “come to your senses” lifestyle tweaks

• Start each day slowly. Don’t rush the transition from sleep to wakefulness, but savor it.

• Do a nighttime rolldown. Stretch, shake out the day and the evening, maybe take a short walk, and let the cares of the day roll off you.

• Drink water and love its wetness.

• Notice signs of withhold in your breathing, a sure sign of tension, and backtrack to the cause. Do what you can to remedy.

• Self massage your hands daily, your feet as often as you reach for them, and massage someone else’s shoulders. Be open to change.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I’d encourage people to live in community, help each other, do things together, reach out to welcome guests. Grow gardens, make art, share the harvest.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

• You don’t need to make big plans. Just put one step in front of the other. Big plans paralyze me. In others, they often seem misplaced.

• Respect what you have to offer and offer it fully. I’m shy and I’m also sensitive to envy and so pull back. Also, I want to be perfect.

• Say yes first. Then consider any questions you have. I tend to say no first and then work my way to yes. This leaves me in the dust.

• Invite guests over. Take that first step. Somehow I expect them to just drop in.

• Its fine to be quiet and alone. If nothing else, the pandemic has confirmed this.

Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?

Of these topics, sustainability meets me daily. The effects of our economic practices are coming to ugly fruition: racial disparity in housing, health and potential, vast workforce income — CEO/Worker — disparity, the shame of the homeless encampment, the suicide of a friend due to overextended credit, my own work habits. Sustainability means paying attention to the effects of one person’s actions on this generation and generations forward. Sustainability links to a thriving world.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Good question! I’m not on social media, so Google me. A podcast or similar may be in my near future. For Esalen, www.esalen.org

Thank you!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.

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