Imagine yourself floating weightlessly in a void, rocking gently as wave after wave of comfort washes over you, bringing with it an inner calm. Physical bliss is followed by emotional liberation. Welcome to Watsu, a profoundly relaxing aquatic therapy that combines gentle stretching movements with acupressure (shiastu), while the receiver floats in a warm pool

Focusing on the natural elements of earth, air, fire and water, Watsu, a popular healing therapy, was developed at Harbin Hot Springs, in Middletown, California, in the early 1980s by Zen shiatsu teacher Harold Dull. He believed that the principles of this Japanese healing system, which manipulates pressure points along energy meridians that run through the body, could have a much more powerful effect while in the water. Watsu (water + shiatsu) was born. Today, this healing therapy is very popular in leading spas across America and Europe. Watsu is believed to have a powerful effect that can release you from chronic pain, but the entire process in itself is slow, gentle, rhythmic and soothing.

Floating in silence, and breathing in synchronicity with the Watsu practitioner, limbs are gently stretched while various pressure points on the body are held and then released. Propelled and supported in this tranquil bath, the spine elongates, joints rotate and tired muscles release in ways not typically possible, even during a body massage. If you cannot swim, or are afraid of the water, floatation devices are provided to help you stay afloat as the gentle stretching exercises continue.

As a Spa tradition

At the heart of the Bath House Spa at the Royal Crescent Hotel in Bath, England is a warm relaxation pool. Incense and candles infuse the air, creating a heady aroma. When you enter the pool for a Watsu session, you are asked to shut your eyes and focus on your breathing. “By first closing our eyes and focusing on the breath, we allow the body to adjust to the elements that surround us—the warmth of the water, the smell, the touch and the various aromas all play their part in the session,” explains Jemaur Tayle, Bath House manager and Watsu therapist. “The client is then gently tilted back and cradled with their head resting in the elbow crease of the practitioner’s arm [while] the other arm rests lightly on the lower back,” she continues. “By taking one through a series of moderate stretches, which open up meridians throughout the body, and focusing on certain acupressure points, you will be able to experience a deep sense of surrender and nurture inner calm and well-being.”

In Watsu there is no fixed routine. There are 375 moves and positions that practitioners draw upon to relieve a person’s pain, reduce stress and increase range of motion. During a session, the flexibility of your body will dictate the direction the session takes.

“Movements can range from stillness to a more free-flow approach,” says Tayle. The session begins with the practitioner acclimatizing the guest in the water while assessing her comfort level. For the next 40 minutes she will be taken through a series of movements that have been designed to open up the neural pathways in the brain and increase flexibility and circulation in the body.

Healing synergy

Watsu offers a range of stress-reducing benefits. Treatments are recommended for chronic pain, headaches and fatigue; neuromuscular, sleep and anxiety disorders; arthritis; fibromyalgia; hyperactivity; autism; cerebral palsy; multiple sclerosis; spinal cord injuries; Rhett’s syndrome; Parkinson’s disease; depression; addiction withdrawal; and to simply stave off stress and induce relaxation. The joy of experiencing lightness and freedom in the body allows you to express other emotions more freely, say Watsu practitioners. Perhaps it is the deep relief one feels when released from a prison of chronic pain. Perhaps it is the lost remnants of an elusive childhood memory that suddenly springs up within you, vivid and beautiful.

“I’ve had regular massages but I believe that being enveloped in the matrix of water while being supervised and guided through therapeutic movements brings a new awakening in the tissue,” says Ruth Wheeler, a Watsu client and nutritionist based in Austin, Texas.

“The sessions relieved my years of discomfort brought about by injury and stress. I walked away with a renewed sense of balance and connectedness with my body that I had never felt before.”

Watsu creates physical ease and fosters a sense of emotional wellbeing. Under such freeing conditions, the mind can cease its relentless activity and enter a meditative and truly tranquil zone.

(The author can be contacted at kamala.metroplus@gmail.com)