I’m floating on my back in an outdoor pool at the Watsu Center, located at the School of Shiatsu and Massage in Middletown, California. It is my first Watsu session, and the technique’s founder, Harold Dull, turns my body gently in the warm water.
I feel serene despite the intimacy of the moment, one that would normally make me cringe. I’m not one for close encounters with strangers—partner yoga and group hugs are not for me. But, here, in the arms of this older man, both of us wearing only swimsuits, I am filled with an unmistakable sense of, well, bliss. Watsu, a form of aquatic Zen shiatsu that utilizes stretching to balance the body’s chi (energy), is purported to elevate feelings of connectedness. Dull describes the phenomenon as “heart resonance,” or recognition of the oneness of all living things. Does he notice my eventual surrender into the moment, merging with the lifeforce that I can feel pulsing all around me? If he does, he doesn’t let on. Watsu practitioners aim to “hold” the space, I discovered, so that releasewhether emotional, physical, or spiritualcan happen in its own time.
Dull developed Watsu in 1980, at Harbin Hot Springs resort. While searching to develop more effective ways to teach the stretching, holding, and leaning postures of Zen shiatsu, he led his students into the warm, spring-fed pools at the resort. They reported deeper stretches, greater relaxation, and a profound sense of well-being. Dull refined his technique in the water, then developed the WaterBreath Dance, in which breathing is synchronized between the practitioner and the recipient.
Watsu is usually conducted in chest-high water heated to a thermoneutral temperature of 94 to 98 degrees, a level that is thought to create homeostasis, which allows the body to relax.
“The major physical benefit of being in the water is the release of pressure on the spine. What we then have is a really powerful tool for stress reduction,” Dull says. In addition, Watsu is increasingly being recognized for its potential in the arena of physical rehabilitation. In hospitals and therapeutic centers in places such as Brazil, Israel, Germany, New Zealand, and the United States, it is being used to treat conditions such as fibromyalgia, hypertonic (abnormally tight) muscles, and some brain and spinal cord injuries.
The work’s intimate naturethe receiver is held by the practitioner in warm waterrequires trust and the ability to literally go with the flow. “The most important thing is that clients feel safe,” Dull says.
Right now, I do feel safe, and nurtured. When Dull first scooped me up into his arms and instructed me to breathe, I was sure that my pounding heart would give away my nervousness. But after just a few minutes, my body goes limp and my mind rests peacefully. Breathing deeply as I’m in the water, I realize that for this moment, my soul is content.