Soothing Waters

An aquatic massage therapy called Watsu can ease your ills.

By Kelly Barbieri

From November, 2006

There are few things in life more soothing than a massage: lying peacefully in a quiet, dimly lit room, the feel of hands gliding across skin and the sensation of muscles melting beneath those hands. But people who have been lucky enough to experience Watsu—a shiatsu-based massage practice done within body-temperature water—say that it not only relaxes the muscles, it is an experience that can heal body and soul (as 9/11 widow Marian Fontana found out and related in her article “Life After Grief,” which appeared in the September 2006 issue of Energy Times).

In 1980, Harold Dull was teaching Zen Shiatsu close to a naturally heated spring at his Harbin Hot Springs Center (a non-profit retreat and workshop center located north of San Francisco, above the Napa Valley wine region) when it dawned on him: Warm water is the perfect medium for stretching. He started working with his students in the body-temperature water and found that the heat greatly increased range of motion and flexibility. His students also told him that being stretched in the warm, low-gravity surroundings was very relaxing.

 Dull was soon teaching his water shiatsu technique to massage therapists, who brought the comforting elements of their own discipline to the practice. Dull christened the new technique Watsu—a combination of the words “water” and “shiatsu.” It is now practiced in more than 40 countries; aquatic therapists use it as their primary rehabilitation modality.

 “Watsu is a passive form of aquatic bodywork/therapy that supports and gently moves a person through warm water in graceful, fluid movements,” Dull writes on his website www.Watsu.com. “It promotes a deep state of relaxation with dramatic changes in the autonomic nervous system. Through quieting the sympathetic and enhancing the parasympathetic nervous systems, Watsu has profound effects on the neuromuscular system.”

A Watsu session is a dance between practitioner and client, the two moving in harmony with absolutely no resistance. Because gravity in the water is reduced by 90%, the dance of Watsu appears otherworldly yet completely natural at the same time. But Watsu isn’t just an extremely pleasant massage. In addition to the physical benefits derived from the movements and stretches, Watsu has shown to be effective at minimizing chronic pain and reducing stress.

Watsu in Action
    Husband and wife team Ben Watts and Tiina Dohrman, owners of The Greenspan Center in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York, have seen first hand how Watsu can help those suffering from sore muscles as well as those in need of greater rehabilitation. They utilized a renovated warehouse space to open Brooklyn’s first Watsu pool in 1999 and it didn’t take long for their practice to blossom. Ruth Shortt has been taking her six-year-old son Rian Mooney, who has cerebral palsy (CP), to the Greenspan Center for two years.

    “With CP kids, water is a natural because of the lowered gravity,” says Shortt. “We were attending public pools for years before we tried Watsu, but Rian would get cold after 10 minutes. The warmth of the Watsu pool has made all the difference.”

    In the Greenspan Watsu pool, Rian is comfortable enough so that he can stay in the water for the whole 60-minute session. “The sessions have cut Rian’s seizures by about 40%, cut his spasticity and loosened up his muscles,” says Shortt. “He used to tightly fist his hands but the work has greatly helped that. He also has greater head and trunk control.”

Rian has also benefited from what many Watsu clients say is an overall feeling of unity and relaxation. “He has a real bond with Tiina and is very comfortable in the water,” says Shortt. “It is a wonderful thing to see.”

Even jaded and skeptical lifelong New Yorkers quickly fall under the spell of Watsu. “It doesn’t take long for a client to drop into a session,” says Watts. “I think that it is the atmosphere—with no sound except the water, no feeling of gravity and just passive movement—that is so cajoling. We find that once people experience the work, they usually come back for more.”

According to Watts, the bond between practitioner and client forms as the pair breathes in sync during the session. The simple act is a primal one: For some clients, the warm water, synchronized breathing and nurturing movements merge during a session to form an almost womb-like experience. Dull has heard the “womb” analogy from his clients many times, but insists that creating that pre-birth environment isn’t the goal of Watsu. “The practitioner does not try to force a womb experience on the client,” says Dull. “We aim for a feeling of unity of spirit, mind and body.”

They are obviously successful in achieving that goal. In a 2001 study conducted at the State University of Campinas in Brazil, 10 individuals were asked at the end of a 10-session Watsu package what the work meant to them. The feeling of connection among mind, body and spirit—that a person becomes “one” with everything even after a session—was a common element in all the responses.

 “Watsu has a beginning and an end yet it is endless,” says Dull. “Its lesson is to let go of whatever you are holding on to and following the flow of whatever comes up. This is something that can easily be carried into everyday life.”

What Happens in the Water?
It’s hard to say what to expect at a Watsu session because, according to Watts, there is no typical session: “A Watsu practitioner is trained to just be with you, so each session is different depending on what you might need from the practitioner at the time.”

Watsu pools are usually 12- or 16-foot in diameter to allow for proper, unimpeded movement. The Greenspan Center, for example, has a 16-foot aboveground saltwater pool heated to 98 degrees. To facilitate client comfort, the ambient temperature of the room is kept at 85 degrees.

Before entering the water, the practitioner will ask the client questions to determine expectations and concerns. “After discussing what we do, we have a client change into a swimsuit and get into our pool,” says Watts. Sessions last for about an hour and are focused on what the client needs at that time, whether it be stretching, massaging or just floating.

“It is possible to imagine what happens before you step into the water, but to know what Watsu is, it must be experienced,” says Dull. “The sessions flow with the needs of the client, but whatever those needs are, we have found that a Watsu session usually satisfies.”

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