Watsu: A Unique Water Therapy for Chronic Pain
Watsu is a unique form of bodywork, unlike any other type of physical therapy or massage therapy you have ever experienced. It has been described as Shiatsu massage performed in warm water. In fact, that’s where the name came from - "Water Shiatsu" became Watsu.
The first time I ever heard of Watsu was in 2002 when we were preparing the very first issue of Fibromyalgia AWARE magazine. We were publishing an article about how Watsu could benefit people with fibromyalgia. After reading the article, I knew this was something I wanted to try. However, I live in a pretty small town and didn’t know of anyone nearby who practiced Watsu, so it would have to remain a dream for the time being.
Then a few years later I received a call from a local massage therapist who had just gotten his Watsu certification. He wanted to offer a free Watsu session to a few of our support group members so we could see how it worked for FM pain. Guess who was first to volunteer (Actually, I ended up receiving two free sessions.)
What Happens In a Watsu Session?
I think the best way to explain what happens in a Watsu session is to describe my own experience.
I stepped down into approximately four feet of warm water. (Watsu is best performed in water that is at or near body temperature.) I laid back in the water and closed my eyes as the therapist supported me in his arms. He then began to move me through the water very slowly. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was synchronizing his breathing to mine and synchronizing my body’s movements to my breathing.
Over the next hour, he slowly manipulated my body through many different positions and stretches, always keeping my face out of the water. Sometimes he cradled me in a fetal position; other times I was stretched out with my body arched as he pulled me through the water in a circle. It was all done with the grace and fluidity of a ballet. My body never stopped moving; one position flowed into the next, with no stopping or starting. It was as if the water, the therapist and I were in perfect harmony.
One of the most amazing things I experienced was the feeling that my body had melted into the water. I couldn’t tell where I ended and the water began. Because the water was body temperature, it felt as if we were one and I flowed where the water flowed. And for the first time, my mind wasn’t going 90 miles an hour. I didn’t think about anything - just existed in the moment and lived the experience.
The hour flew by and by the time we were finished, I felt more relaxed than I have at anytime in my life. I was so relaxed, a few of the support group ladies who were there expressed concern about me driving myself home. (Fortunately, I only lived a few minutes away, so it wasn’t a problem.) And best of all, I didn’t think about pain during the session or for quite awhile afterward.
How Does Watsu Work?
Watsu is a completely passive form of aquatic therapy. Floating in the water takes the weight and pressure off the vertebrae and joints, allowing them to move freely and be gently stretched in ways not possible on land. It’s probably as close as most of us will ever get to experiencing weightlessness.
Physiotherapist Peggy Schoedinger writes, "Watsu promotes a deep state of relaxation with dramatic changes in the autonomic nervous system. Through quieting the sympathetic and enhancing the parasympathetic nervous systems, Watsu has profound effects on the neuromuscular system."
Some of the benefits reported from Watsu include:
- Decreased muscle tension
- Increased mobility and flexibility
- Decreased pain
- Decreased muscle spasms and spasticity
- Decreased stress
- Better sleep
Watsu has been found to be beneficial for a number of different health challenges, including:
- Chronic pain
- Ankylosing spondylitis
- Spinal cord injury
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Traumatic Brain Injury
Watsu has been effectively used for people of all ages - from babies to the elderly - and for a wide variety of both physical and emotional conditions. It is highly recommended by the well-known integrative medicine specialist, Dr. Andrew Weil, who has received it himself many times.
Finding a Watsu Therapist
The Worldwide Aquatic Bodywork Association (WABA) oversees the training programs for Watsu practitioners and establishes guidelines for certification.
They also maintain a registry of certified practitioners around the world.
Watsu is being incorporated into aquatic therapy treatment programs in hospitals, clinics and rehabilitation centers all over the world. It is considered a form of massage, so if your insurance will pay for massage therapy prescribed by your doctor, they should also pay for Watsu.
It has also become an extremely popular service offered at many spas. If you have a spa in your area or have the opportunity to visit one, be sure to ask if they offer Watsu.
As with any type of therapy or complementary treatment, check with your doctor to make sure Watsu is appropriate for you.
To see a video demonstration of Watsu by its creator, Harold Dull, click here: Introduction to Watsu
Weil A. Wellness Therapies - Watsu. DrWeil.com Retrieved February 28, 2011.
Schoedinger, P. Benefits of Watsu for People with Orthopedic, Neurologic, and Rheumatologic Special Needs. Watsu.com. Retrieved February 28, 2011.
Karen is the co-founder of the National Fibromyalgia Association. She wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Pain Management.