Diving Into Watsu Massage

Underwater therapy is catching on at health resorts -- but it's not for everyone

After a stressful six-hour flight to Tucson from New York with my husband and 3-month-old son in tow, I arrived at Canyon Ranch Health Resort a few months ago desperate for respite from weeks of sleep deprivation. The staff nurse I was assigned to took one look at the circles under my eyes and suggested that I try Watsu, an underwater massage.

I'd heard about Watsu -- especially from the massage therapist I see at home -- so I was curious to try it. Typically performed in a specially designed pool heated to body temperature, Watsu is a series of gentle movements and stretches intended to relax your body. It was invented in 1980 by Harold Dull, a Northern California massage therapist who offered the treatment in local hot springs. It incorporates techniques from zen shiatsu, an ancient Chinese pressure-point therapy believed to release blockages along the body's meridians where chi, or energy, flows.

The Watsu Institute, Dull's massage school in Middletown, Calif., has trained more than 5,000 practitioners. "Our goal is a world where everybody holds and floats each other in their arms," Dull says. That may take a while, but in the meantime, Watsu is popping up on more spa menus. In many cases, resorts are building dedicated Watsu pools.

Medical research shows that floating in warm water can be soothing, especially for acute and chronic pain. Warm water may have mental benefits, too. "Once you've been wrapped in water a bit, your mind starts to slow down," explains Keith McDaniel, a Watsu therapist at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. "You're between dreaming and being awake, and all of the little things go out the window." Even better for me, Watsu is supposed to relieve stress and help you sleep.

I arrived at my session wearing a bathing suit, which most practitioners prefer that you do. I hopped into a pool about 14 feet in diameter with water that was four feet deep and warm as a bath. Darcy Conner, the Watsu therapist, spent a few minutes talking to me about my new-mom lifestyle as well as my numerous ailments (pain in my lower back, neck, and knees, as well as insomnia).

Darcy cradled my body in her arms, holding my neck in her elbow and using her other hand to support my lower back. "Take a deep breath," she instructed. I kept my eyes closed during the next 50 minutes, as she pushed and pulled my body through the water, keeping my face above the surface. I felt as if I were dancing as my arms and legs flowed and waved in the water. Darcy gently massaged my entire body with a firm-but-soft touch, focusing on my back, neck, and shoulders. I emerged an hour later feeling mellow and dazed.


I'd like to say I slept well after the treatment, but a baby is an obstacle. Rave reviews for Watsu, however, came from my mom, who was traveling with us. (It wouldn't be much of a vacation without a babysitter.) She was giddy after her session -- "I've been reborn!"

Still, Watsu isn't recommended for people who are not used to being massaged. "It's a very specialized experience, one that requires a considerable amount of trust and maturity," says David Erlich, spa director at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa in Sonoma, Calif. I didn't mind that a stranger was touching me, but having my ears move in and out of the water felt weird. I wish I had used the earplugs Darchy offered at the start of the session.

Most spas charge about $150 per hour for Watsu. To learn more about it, watch a 10-minute orientation video with Dull at waba.edu. The site also provides a list of more than 100 Watsu practitioners nationwide. Lucky for me, my massage therapist is studying at the Watsu Institute. I'm counting down the days until she returns to New York, and we can take the plunge together.

By Lauren Young

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