Watsu: Warm Water Shiatsu Massage

By Kathleen Christ, LMT, NCMBT Aquatic Therapist

WATSU is a warm water shiatsu massage that is experienced more like a dancing meditation than a type of bodywork. The tremendous amounts of energy that are moved and released clearly makes Watsu a powerful form of bodywork, but the feeling that one gets from it is mystical, very gentle, peaceful, and healing.

Freeing the spine in a weightless environment is the cornerstone of a Watsu session. The therapist supports the client in 95°F water while gently rocking and stretching the back and limbs. Acupressure (Shiatsu) points are stimulated and muscles are massaged while the body is in a gentle motion. The body can then unwind to a profound degree easily and naturally, and subtle healing energies, which are usually restricted, are allowed to circulate.

Movement and stillness are interwoven in harmony with the breath. This, combined with the feeling of weightlessness, warmth and the support of the water, induces a deep state of relaxation of body and mind. During Watsu, physical and mental tension, fear, muscle spasms, and joint restrictions dissolve. Clients find they have more flexibility and awareness.

Since all life began in the ocean and we are 70% to 80% water, returning to an environment that closely resembles our conception and birth is healing to the deepest parts of our being. The key to the inner journey is allowing the mind to rest in a place of preconceptual thought and prelanguage. Watsu ever so gently assists the body and the mind in that delicate and beautiful process. It's a spiritual dance that calls forth healing in every cell of the body.

Energy moves 100 times more efficiently in water than on land. Working the energy centers of the body in the water is easier and more powerful than traditional bodywork. For people who are ill or deconditioned, Watsu is a soothing yet potent form of exercise that the body simply receives without exertion. No lactic acid is produced and the body grows stronger without tension. After several sessions, the client is usually ready to begin some simple stretching and movement on land, while continuing most of the exercising and strength building in an aquatic environment for a quicker and more stable healing.

In addition, in water our lower Tan Tien (about 2" below the navel and 2" deep) moves up to our middle Tan Tien or Heart Chakra to lend more strength to the opening of our Heart Chakra. Sometimes, Watsu is referred to as "Embracing and Opening the Heart."

During a Watsu session, the eyes are closed and the ears are in the water, so outside stimulation is minimized and the neocortex or higher rational brain, relaxes. A sense of space and time disappears, and if the body feels safe, the primitive brain, which directly or indirectly produces all the hormones in the body, is free to rebalance and repair. While the body is tense or experiencing various levels of distress, the neocortex is ever vigilant and on duty. Gently persuading the neocortex to relax and take a break is not usually an easy task. However, the warm water, flowing movements and support of the practitioner does facilitate very deep states of relaxation and rejuvenation of all the systems.

Land massage affects the various muscles of the body, but Watsu affects all the systems of the body, especially the inner organs. When the inner organs are massaged and relaxed, they release toxins which may feel like gas or bloating. Large quantities of fresh water are needed for the next 24 hours to facilitate the toxins flushing away. Immediately, the workload of the systems is easier and healing of the body can accelerate.

The secret of Watsu, after everything is said and done, is the ability to completely surrender to the water. If the mind or ego stays active and alert, the final effect will be diminished. Watsu needs to be experienced by the body while the mind is taking a little vacation. Trusting the water, and trusting the process, is the heart of the matter.

In spiritual terms, it has been likened to baptism or an initiation to the return of wholeness. One important feature of Watsu is the final movement or closure with the integration of mind and heart energies. To be balanced, in harmony and fully integrated with body, mind, heart, and spirit, is the essence of inner peace and wholeness.

Watsu treatments are recommended for the following conditions: Chronic Pain, Arthritis, Neuromuscular Disorders, Chronic Headaches, Chronic Fatigue, Hyperactivity, Autism, Sleep Disorders, Anxiety Disorders, Cerebral Palsy, Multiple Sclerosis, Spinal Cord Injuries, Polio, Rhett's Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, Abuse Issues, Depression, Addictions, Parkinson's Disease and other diseases.

Since Watsu is considered a form of hydrotherapy, if your physician writes a prescription for Watsu, your insurance may cover it.

Watsu was created by Harold Dull in 1981 and is now practiced all over the world. It is one of the key movements of the Worldwide Aquatic Bodywork Association based in Middletown, CA.