I'm a sucker for hot water. I "go skiing" solely for the après Jacuzzi privileges, and consider iced tea an abomination. Imagine my joy to...

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I’m a sucker for hot water. I “go skiing” solely for the après Jacuzzi privileges, and consider iced tea an abomination. Imagine my joy to discover Watsu, a therapeutic massage enjoyed while floating in a body-temperature pool.

The celestial combination is a made-up word (water plus shiatsu) describing an emerging mind/body treatment that also incorporates cradling, stretching, yoga, dance, meditation and a fair amount of play.

The therapy purports to help with everything from work-a-day stress, chronic pain and sleep disorders to orthopedic problems, fibromyalgia and severe developmental difficulties in children. The earthier of my peers describe Watsu as “healing,” “nurturing,” and “like counseling without having to talk.” They say, “I never felt so safe being held,” and “like I was being led through heaven by an angel.”

Time to get in that water.


Who should Watsu?

Watsu is for anybody who wants a relaxing experience, but is considered particularly beneficial for people with high-stress syndrome, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, arthritis or multiple sclerosis. Some benefits of Watsu massage:

Decreased muscle tension and muscle guarding, which is forcing the body to compensate for an injured, under — or overused body part.

Discovery and release of emotions

Increased range of body motion

Improved body awareness

Decreased pain

Reduced stress/anxiety

Improved posture

Increased energy/less fatigue

Improved breathing patterns

Improved sleeping patterns

Source: Community Integration Services (http://cisaquatics.com/watsu)

My inaugural session took place this spring. It was a T-shirt perfect morning at The Water Lily Pool, run by Harriet Ott out of her backyard in the Sammamish hills. I was 14 weeks pregnant. My Watsu therapist, Laura Srygley, all tanned sinew in a lavender swimsuit, spent about 10 minutes going over my intake form (I checked chronic pain, disturbed sleep and pregnancy nausea on the level of the profane) before sending me inside for a quick shower. Emerging, I climbed a three-step ladder into the 4-foot deep, above-ground pool. An opaque sunshade domed the pool, capturing gentle heat from the water. In I slid.

For the next 50 minutes, Srygley painted with my body, swishing, stretching, applying shiatsu, and holding me. At times, she held me under my knees and upper back, draping one of my arms across her shoulders. The other floated through the water as freely as my hair, which received occasional tugs (a lovely sensation, trust me).

At other times, Srygley supported my entire weight by cradling only my neck. The water did the rest. My eyes were closed throughout, and though my face remained above water, my ears were submerged. The only sound was whoooosh, the only visual, intermittent light and shadow. The cumulative effect was a comforting solitude that went beyond sensual, beyond intimate. It was prenatal.

How to Watsu

Before you go: Watch a 10-minute orientation video with Watsu founder Harold Dull: www.waba.edu (link is at lower left on opening page).

Bring: A towel, a warm robe, drinking water and a swimsuit. Shampoo, conditioner, body wash and lotion provided.

Time: Plan on spending 1-1 ½ hours. Before the treatment, the therapist should spend enough time talking to understand the client’s health concerns.

Cost: $70-$125 per treatment, depending on the therapist’s experience and the shi-shi factor of the pool. Therapists who are also licensed to practice massage can bill insurance.

Wear: Both therapist and client should wear swimsuits.

What to expect: During the session, the client’s face remains above water. Some therapists offer ear plugs. Clients with water-sensitive ears should use them.

Breaks: Do not hesitate to pause the session for a bathroom break, if the movement feels uncomfortable or if you experience strong emotions.

Alle C. Hall

Freed from gravity

In 1980, Harold Dull, freshly returned from studying shiatsu in Japan, applied the ancient Asian pressure-point therapy to massage clients wafting in the waters at Harbin Hot Springs, Calif. Dull and the practitioners he has since trained — thousands, spanning six continents; each logging 300 of hours of water classes, 100 hours of shiatsu and another 100 of anatomy and physiology — continue to find that a body freed from gravitational constraints glides easily into positions impossible on a massage table, often leading to the release of long-held physical and emotional tensions.

Gary Jaeger trained with Dull in 1995. Beyond the obvious — warm water is relaxing, softens the tissues — Jaeger cites the womblike environment which facilitates “a deeper, more penetrating massage with far less pressure and discomfort. The weightlessness and freedom of movement allow an individual to experience other joyful, often blissful states.”

Occasionally, not so blissful. Both Jaeger and Srygley, also Harbin-trained, report that some clients have extreme emotional reactions in session. Jaeger works with survivors of physical, sexual, mental and emotional abuse. His goal is to support rather than control an individual’s subtle or gross movements as they literally unwind their emotional and/or physical blockages. “For some, it means giving them a lot more space. For others, it is holding them much closer. It is very different than talk therapies.”

Srygley, who turned to Watsu to sort out the pain of her divorce, says, “Either the person will talk about it or not. If the feeling is very strong, they almost always mention it, and usually seem to have found resolution in the progression of the session. They let it go without attachment, and a whole new feeling comes up.”

Moving beyond the physical and into the emotional/spiritual is the goal of many bodywork modalities. Watsu is not unique in aiming for healing catharsis while providing plenty to love on a strictly corporal level. In his practice, Jaeger sees “women who consider themselves 5 to 15 pounds overweight” — you know, most of us — re-visioning themselves as sleek and beautiful. “Their bodies do the best in water. A little bit of fat helps you float.”

Urban retreat

Where to Watsu

• M’Illumino Urban Retreat

Address: 6921 Roosevelt Way N.E., Seattle, WA 98115

Web site: www.m-illumino.com/ Today, M’Illumino hosts an open house to debut its Watsu pool and Urban Retreat.

Contact: Laura Srygley

E-mail: l.srygley@comcast.net

Phone: 206-525-0363

Also: Gary Jaeger can schedule at M’Illumino. See Watsu Northwest, below for contact information.

• Watsu Northwest

Address: 23301 N.E. Redmond Fall City Road, Redmond, WA 98053-8377

Web site: watsunorthwest.com

Contact: Gary Jaeger

E-mail: info@watsunorthwest.com/

Phone: 206-528-8495

• Water Lily Pool

Address: 704 228th Ave N.E. No. 745, Sammamish, WA 98074

Web site: http://cisaquatics.com/watsu.html

Contact: Harriet Ott

E-mail: harrietott@comcast.net

Phone: 425-830-7746

Also: Laura Srygley can also schedule at Water Lily. See M’Illumino, above, for contact information.

Source: Community Integration Services (http://cisaquatics.com/watsu)

My most recent epiphany took place on the unlikely corner of 70th and Roosevelt, in Seattle’s Roosevelt District. Semis roared down the block as I entered the bamboo gates of M’Illumino (“I flood myself with light”), an urban retreat where owner Bridget Thompson was about to open a Watsu facility. A sunny brick courtyard set about with small fountains and statues of Asian deities brought me to brand-new wooden steps leading to the even newer pool — 4 feet deep, 12 feet in diameter — under a charming wooden gazebo. Jaeger, a long drink of water drinking a long bottle of Smart Water, directed me to a figure-eight-shaped bamboo structure of two rooms: the changing room and shower. Now seven months pregnant, I waddled into the pool, eager for weightless grace.

The chest-high water was skin-temperature and slick. M’Illumino opts for salt over the more typical chlorine (Water Lily Pool uses ozone gas instead of chlorine). As Thompson says, “Chlorine is obnoxious.” Jaeger and I spent almost half an hour talking in the pool, which he considers the ideal environment for intake. I moaned about the chilly few steps from shower to pool. He responded that outdoor treatment is ideal. “Ninety-five, 96-degree water indoors; you get too hot.” I shared that I was somewhat nervous about this upcoming physical intimacy with a man I am not married to, whom I had, in fact, just met (wasn’t that my 20s?).

We began. I smiled as he bent my body into a crescent I did not know I remembered from my session with Srygley. There were different moves, as well. Tucking my head between his chin and shoulder, Jaeger supported my neck, rotated me face-down, and I hovered, a bridge above the water. It was utterly painless. He faced me away from him, pulled my feet onto his thighs, clasped my hands together over my head, and arched me. A ship’s figurehead.

Back to reality. M’Illumino’s Watsu does not open officially until today, so I understand I was beta-testing. That said, the darling gazebo did not offer adequate protection from the autumn elements. I don’t relish the idea of Watsu there in the winter. Also, the bamboo shower is open to the sky. What if it rains? Thompson says: “Being rained on is part of the magic,” but I found it cold. She intends to bump up the shower’s heat, and points out that the main studio contains an indoor shower that is available. Additionally, her plans include a system of blinds to surround the gazebo, “To block out wild weather.”

These are quibbles. The warm water and safe, caring touch mitigated the passing traffic and the brisk wind, leaving me with Watsu’s greatest gift: a purely non-intellectual sense of well-being.

Alle C. Hall is a freelance writer living in Seattle.