Earlier this year, Peter decided he wanted to do a workshop retreat at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. I knew three things about Esalen: the massages were famous, the natural hot springs were “unconventional,” and the cook book was in line with my food philosophy. Otherwise, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was curious.
Arriving at Esalen
The drive to Esalen began the experience. The road to Big Sur is incredibly beautiful, and winds along enormous cliffs overlooking the ocean.
We had the unique experience of watching whales spouting all along the drive down. It was surprising because it was not migration season.
When we arrived, we were stunned at the mix of natural, modern, rustic and ranch-style beauty of the property. Esalen consists of about 17 acres set along a hillside on the coast. Everything was designed to face the ocean. An on-property garden and farm were used to produce the food for our daily meals. The floral and fauna were stunning. Hummingbirds would float from flower to flower. Blue Jays watched for any food scraps that were left unattended. Beyond the main deck, down along a steep cliff side, were the famous baths.
But one thing we certainly were not expecting was the incredible diversity of people. Families, couples, singles, business-types to yogis, spiritualists to wanderers, young to old, etc. The only common element amongst us all was an open, non-judgmental and curious mindset.
While most accommodations were shared sleeping arrangements (bunk beds, sleeping bags in a large living room, etc.), Peter and I opted for a private yurt. We’re glad we did. The yurt was simple, but adequate, and had a beautiful ocean view. Nothing fancy, but we were happy.
After checking in, we went to our first workshop Awake In the Wild. (The instructor is well known in the world of mindfulness meditation, and incorporates mindfulness meditation in natural, outdoor settings.) For two hours, we introduced ourselves, and talked about what we loved about nature. But before long, I was second-guessing our workshop choice.
I put my concerns aside and we headed back to the yurt. At this point, it was close to 10PM and pitch black. Because Big Sur is so remote, the stars reached from horizon to horizon. There were so many stars, it looked like they were stacked on top of one another. We even saw a shooting star that night.
The next morning, we woke up and took a yoga class. After breakfast, we headed to the second workshop. The workshop began on a lawn overlooking the ocean. The class was designed to have some discussion, and then practice three different kinds of meditation. The group shared their observations after each exercise and then it was time to break for lunch.
I learned a lot, but honestly by lunch I was looking for a plan B.
Yoga for Mood - Swing and a Miss
After lunch, I switched from Awake in the Wild to Yoga for Mood. I thought, “Hey, it has the word yoga in it. Perfect! There must be more moving and less sitting.”
I soon learned that “yoga” doesn’t necessarily mean movement, poses, salutation, and strength. Instead we chanted, talked about our feelings, and did mental self-awareness exercises. Again, not really what I was looking for. So I grabbed my computer, the Esalen cookbook, and started this blog post.
The second food bar always had fresh greens from the garden and some sort of mixture of dark leafy greens like chard or kale salad. There was always plain quinoa, brown rice, fresh beets and some sort of quinoa mixture, usually including nuts and seeds.
I’ve been living the good life with fresh food in California, but the Esalen garden takes it to another level. I’m actually having trouble putting the freshness into words. Now I know it’s going to be impossible for me to live anywhere else from now on. As much as I miss the East Coast heat and the warm summer nights, I am such a foodie at heart that nothing can replace the quality of food I get in California.
Eselan’s Coconut Red Lentil Soup Recipe
Serving size 6
Recipe from Esalen’s Cook Book, but also from 101 Cook Books
1 cup yellow split peas
1 cup red split lentils (masoor dal)
7 cups liters water
1 medium carrot, cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 tablespoons fresh peeled and minced ginger
2 tablespoons curry powder
2 tablespoons butter or ghee
8 green onions (scallions), thinly sliced
1/3 cup golden raisins
1/3 cup tomato paste
1 1/4-ounce can coconut milk
2 teaspoons fine grain sea salt
one small handful cilantro, chopped
cooked brown rice or farro, for serving (optional)
Give the split peas and lentils a good rinse – until they no longer put off murky water. Place them in an extra-large soup pot, cover with the water, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and add the carrot and 1/4 of the ginger. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the split peas are soft.
In the meantime, in a small dry skillet or saucepan over low heat, toast the curry powder until it is quite fragrant. Be careful though, you don’t want to burn the curry powder, just toast it. Set aside. Place the butter in a pan over medium heat, add half of the green onions, the remaining ginger, and raisins. Saute for two minutes stirring constantly, then add the tomato paste and saute for another minute or two more.
Add the toasted curry powder to the tomato paste mixture, mix well, and then add this to the simmering soup along with the coconut milk and salt. Simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes or so. The texture should thicken up, but you can play around with the consistency if you like by adding more water, a bit at a time, if you like. Or simmer longer for a thicker consistency. The thicker this soup got, the more I liked it.
Sprinkle each bowl generously with cilantro and the remaining green onions.
The Esalen workshops weren’t my thing. But the property, food, and more importantly the people were exactly what I had hoped for. I look forward to going back and attending one of their cooking classes for healthier living or maybe an actual movement yoga class.
For more amazing pictures of Eselan’s property, visit my Basil Diaries Facebook page here.