Watsu combines Shiatsu massage with immersion of the body in warm water. It was founded in the early 1980s by Shiatsu teacher Harold Dull. Dull developed his techniques while practicing Shiatsu on students and now continues his water shiatsu practice while also training others. He is founder and president of the Worldwide Aquatic Bodywork Association, the entity that trains Watsu practitioners and authorizes courses. Watsu first flourished in Europe and Japan, eventually becoming popular in the Northwest U.S.
Molly Martin of The Seattle Times describes a session this way: “We waded into chest-high water and Cobian [the practitioner] had me stand against a side wall. He would float me toward the middle of the pool, he said, and I wouldn’t feel the wall again until the end of the session. As he cupped one hand under my head and the other in the small of my back, he asked me to observe my breathing, to notice how with the in-breath my body rose out of the water. On each out-breath I relaxed a little more and Cobian, who’s also a licensed massage therapist, began a series of holds, bends, stretches and slow spins, using the gentle resistance of the water to lengthen muscles and free up joints.”
The reason practitioners believe Watsu works is that water relieves some of the body’s everyday pressure, allowing a state of relaxation and promoting flexibility. Watsu is typically performed in water that’s heated to 92-94 degrees Fahrenheit. The practitioner uses one hand to balance the patient and the other hand to direct gentle rocking, stretching, bending, or arching movements.
Watsu has been proven to help relieve:
- Back and neck pain
- Fibromyalgia and other chronic pain diseases
- Mood disorders (such as anxiety or PTSD)
- Spinal cord or brain injury due to trauma, stroke or degenerative disease
One study found that pregnant women who had two Watsu sessions had better mental health and less pain than women who didn’t. Another study found that elderly people who were considered at risk of falling no longer manifested that risk after receiving Watsu treatments. Research on residents in a continuing care retirement community showed that 18 sessions of Watsu had positive effects on aches and pains, emotional stress, flexibility, and ability to relax.
Watsu, or water shiatsu, sessions are offered at spas or as part of physical therapy regimens. Potential patients can find practitioners in their area by consulting the WABA registry of licensed practitioners.