Watsu: A Place to start when you are physically unable to exercise

By Kathleen Christ, LMT, NCMBT Aquatic Therapist

"We carry in our bodies the whole history of evolution. When we go into our most primitive moments, the aquatic, we are on our most creative level." - Harold Dull

For people who are bedridden or in a wheelchair, exercise is a luxury that they can only dream about. Of course, movement is essential; it is life, it is health. Once regular and systemic movement becomes impossible, our entire quality of life begins to shift. So, is there an alternative to the state of "the spirit is willing, the body is weak"?

In my practice as a massage therapist, both on land and in water, I have discovered some gentle yet powerful moves that can be applied to individuals who can no longer exercise their own bodies. Like all good practices, the regularity and constancy is just as important as the actual modality that is chosen. Since the people that I see come in wheelchairs or on walkers, more coordination is involved because they also need a driver, someone to help lift, dress, etc. and sometimes actually someone to participate in each session with us. I fully appreciate how much more difficult it is to arrange for everyone and everything.

Due to all of these constraints, it is a tribute to my clients and their sheer will to make it happen, that I do see and have the privilege of working and learning with so many. Over the years, week after week, working with these fragile bodies has taught me so much about what is possible.

Aquatic therapy seems to be the best place to begin. The factors of water: buoyancy, hydrostatic pressure, resistance and sensory stimulation combined with warm water not only feels incredibly good, but makes the exercise of stretching and movement actually fun and enjoyable. How can something this fun be really good for you, too? Having the client looking forward to the session and wholeheartedly participating is satisfying to the entire crew.

Watsu is a warm water (95 degrees) shiatsu massage that the client simply receives; no exertion is necessary and no lactic acid is produced. As the therapist, I am stretching, folding, rocking, cradling, pulling and twisting the client. Profound relaxation, rebalancing and a deep meditative state are the result. For anyone experiencing orthopedic or neurological problems, it can have amazing results. I see one young woman (18) who is in a coma, another is an 83-year-old man with Parkinson's, and another is a 33-year-old man with brain injury. For individuals not so severely handicapped, Watsu can greatly assist them in returning more quickly to a healthier state and beginning their own exercise program. Again, I would recommend aquatic exercises, preferably AiChi (T'ai Chi) in the water. People with arthritis, fibromyalgia, hip or knee replacement or recovering from an injury find both of these modalities to have extremely rehabilitative effects.

Initially, the body feels tired and hungry, but after a few sessions, the body adjusts and begins to feel more energy and vitality. Health and balance have started to return. The effort is definitely worth