History is filled with references to hydrotherapy and its role in treating illnesses. Watsu is a relatively new therapy in the history of water-based treatments.
Human history is filled with references to hydrotherapy and its role in treating myriad illnesses and conditions. In this age of modern medicine, we are still instinctively drawn to water’s healing power, seeking out ice for swollen ankles, therapeutic pools for exercise and rehabilitation, and steamy saunas for detoxification.
Watsu, a term blending water and shiatsu, is a relatively new therapy in the long history of water-based treatments. Developed in 1980 by shiatsu-trained Harold Dull, Watsu facilitates the smooth and continuous flow of qi (in Japanese known as “ki”), or life energy, throughout the entire body using stretches, massage, and pressure point manipulation.
What distinguishes Watsu from other forms of bodywork is that clients are held afloat throughout the entire treatment, cradled in the arms of the practitioner, buoyant in the warm water of the Watsu pool.
With eyes closed and ears below the surface, the senses turn inward. The mind is stilled and quieted, the muscles are supported by the water, and the spine becomes loose and supple. In this safe, insulated, and therapeutic space, many receivers find they can let go, both physically and mentally, and be transported into a state of deep relaxation. ‰
The Watsu repertoire of basic movements and positions is extensive. The stretches and rotations in any given session are chosen to suit an individual’s current physical and emotional state. Aided by the buoyancy of the water, the practitioner swirls and rocks the client into positions that may be impossible on dry land. The rhythmic motions are performed with the harmonized breath of the receiver and practitioner, forming an intricate and graceful water dance.
The emotional plane
While the focus of the treatment is on the physical body, Watsu can be an intensely emotional experience. For many people, a safe, womb-like environment is created by simply being held and cradled, receiving nonsexual touch, and allowing another person to direct their body’s movements. Through the manipulation of tissue and the stimulation of pressure points, emotions flow freely from the body and are carried away by the water.
Others find that they experience Watsu in a deeply meditative state. As they allow their physical self to be completely supported by another person, their mind is freed of all responsibility and can become the internal focus of the treatment. Some describe achieving a higher state of awareness, while others drift in and out of sleep during the sessions, wholly entrusting their body to the healing hands of the therapist.
Even if spiritual enlightenment isn’t a feature of every session, the caress of the warm water on the skin, the release of muscle tension, and the gravity-defying feeling of floating leads to a profound sense of calm. Watsu is a powerful tool for stress reduction, engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, the unconscious message centre that tells the body to slow down and rest.
The deep sense of relaxation that ensues during a treatment has very real effects on the body. The heart pumps more slowly and efficiently, blood pressure is reduced, and breathing deepens. These positive effects often continue after the session, resulting in better sleep, less anxiety, and improved digestive function.
Healing with Watsu
One of the most exciting applications of Watsu therapy is in the management of chronic pain conditions that may not respond well to conventional therapies. As the weight of the body is surrendered to the water, tired joints and muscles are relieved of their load, bringing pain relief and increased mobility to clients with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia.
Stretching and massage help to preserve and improve the function of the entire body, while the overall effect of relaxation provides a welcome respite from the stress of chronic illness.
Published research is beginning to appear on the benefits of Watsu, showing promise in the treatment of neurological conditions. In a small study of stroke patients, Watsu was found to improve muscle function, calming the involuntary movements that challenge these patients. The use of Watsu in treating Parkinson’s disease and cerebral palsy has been shown to soothe the spastic muscle contractions that are often associated with these conditions.
Children with pain and neurological conditions are prime candidates for aquatic therapy. Floating in the arms of the practitioner, relaxed and calm, they can be temporarily freed from their restrictive illness. Watsu can also provide miraculous relief for women during pregnancy, relieving lower back pain and easing the load on aching joints and feet.
Simple in its principles yet profound in its effects, Watsu is a uniquely healing experience.
Who can benefit from watsu?
It may help those who suffer from
- Acute or chronic pain
- Soft tissue damage
- Stress and anxiety
- Sleep problems