Watsu – water shiatsu that takes you back to childhood

Watsu is a deep, powerful and curious form of bodywork.  A long, intense, intimate session of massage and manipulation techniques, carried out while you float in (or even under) a warm pool, watsu promises to heal you in mind, body and spirit.  Fans claim it has remarkable regenerative qualities; that it can release stress, muscle tension and pain like no other treatment.  They also say that it can equally release emotional anguish, giving you back a sense of childhood innocence and joy.

Watsu was the brainchild of Harold Dull, an American poet who became fascinated with shiatsu, the Japanese acupressure massage and stretching therapy.  Having studied in San Francisco and Japan in the 70s he wanted to combine the therapeutic effects of shiatsu with the healing properties of water.  At first he tried giving massage on a padded board set up in a hot tub but when he moved to Harbin Hot Springs in California he soon realised that he could achieve far better, far deeper effects by floating his client in water, working on their body while cradling the head above water.  His watsu techniques had such good results that they were taken up by the Timpany Center in San Jose where the therapy is still used to help people who are severely mentally, emotionally and physically disabled.

In its native California watsu is generally performed naked.  But elsewhere it’s more common to wear swimsuits.  You get changed and before you enter the pool, the practitioner will ask you a series of questions. Having completed the health check you descend into the pool.  The practitioner takes your head in his or her hands and asks you to lie back, relax and float.  Throughout a watsu session you are encouraged to breath deeply and evenly, using your mouth alone, and to keep your eyes gently closed. The breathing can feel a little unnatural to begin with and  some people find it strange and even a little embarrassing being cradled in water by a virtual stranger.  But the feeling generally passes and many people find that time vanishes. Because the water is so supportive your body can be stretched much further than would be possible on dry land.  There is a wonderful sense of release came as you are stretched, rocked and manipulated.  Sometimes, however, watsu can be quite painful as stubborn tension is unknotted.

Many people find that when they leave the pool they are far more flexible and can bend far further than normal.  It’s also quite common to feel emotionally moved and even quite tearful.  Being held so closely, particularly by a stranger, is simply not part of our culture.

Research has shown watsu to have a host of benefits.  Water takes the weight off the vertebrae and relaxes the muscles so the practitioner can move the spine in ways that would be impossible on land.  The effect is far greater freedom and mobility in the body. Tests have also shown watsu influences the body in other ways too:  it decreases muscular tension, increases superficial circulation and lymphatic function; strengthens the immune system and can aid digestion and respiratory difficulties.  “It’s excellent for the later stages of pregnancy,” says watsu practitioner Hilary Austin, “because it’s so relaxing and water is so supportive.”

Many people find watsu helps insomnia and anxiety, that it can release deeply-held stress and improve posture.  In California it has been used successfully to help people with addictions and, paradoxically, it can even help people get over a fear of water.  It has profound effects on an emotional level – particularly for people who have intimacy issues.  Harold Dull insists that the close contact between practitioner and client is an essential aspect of the therapy; that it allows for the deep emotional healing that can take place. UK practitioner Elaine Artney says that many people find that the close, nurturing touch, brings up old memories – sometimes good, sometimes bad.  She also notes that watsu can be very helpful for people who are already undergoing psychotherapy or personal development work:  “It works as a catalyst,” she says, “it speeds up the process.”  Watsu has been used with great success on sufferers of abuse.

Scottish practitioner Mari MacRitchie has used the therapy very successfully with children who have physical or mental disabilities.  “It’s a wonderful experience for children who are otherwise confined to a wheelchair,” she says.

Watsu can be used safely on most people (whatever their age or size) but practitioners need to know whether clients are pregnant (certain moves aren’t used) or have spinal problems, implants or any serious health or psychological problems.  Some people who suffer from motion sickness find watsu uncomfortable and it cannot be used when there are open wounds, skin conditions or infectious diseases.

Sessions usually last one or two hours.  There is no set number of sessions:  some people have just one, others a course.

For more information, see the website www.watsu.com


Photo by Haley Phelps on Unsplash


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