Discovering the World of Watsu Therapy

By Leigh Downing

In the early 1980s, a man named Harold Dull was living at a hot springs resort and began developing ways to use Zen Shiatsu while holding/cradling a person in warm water. Dull noticed that a state of deep relaxation was almost immediate for the receiver and that physiological and psychological effects were profound. In the early years of development, massage therapists were the main practitioners of this new form of aquatic bodywork.

Over the years, Dull’s new form of aquatic therapy, called Watsu, has spread worldwide. Physical therapists, massage therapists and other healthcare providers have recognized aquatic bodywork and incorporated it into their healthcare regimens.

Watsu is a dynamic therapy in which a Watsu therapist or practitioner gently cradles their client in chest-deep warm water while coordinating with the breath and providing massage, stretching and movement. Current certification levels for providers include practitioner and therapist. On an instructor level, there are certifications for “assistant” and “instructor.”

Watsu therapists and practitioners are keenly observant of their client’s breath and pay close attention to any signs of overstimulation or holding. The practitioner moves their clients in patterns and use dynamic movement and stillness, joint mobilization, hydrostatic pressure and turbulent drag to provide traction and stretches.

Once in the water, a Watsu practitioner encourages their client to pay attention to their breath and to assume a “seated” position. Sometimes, “floats” will be used around the client’s legs to keep them from sinking and prevent curving of the spine

Throughout the session, the client’s face remains above the water and is primarily face up, and often facing slightly to the side. The Watsu practitioner moves their client through the water in a variety of patterns. The experience is like receiving Thai massage while being fully supported/floated in body-temperature water.

Aquatic bodywork therapy increases mobility and circulation, provides a sense of well-being and deep relaxation and may even balance the autonomic nervous system. Health concerns such as fibromyalgia and stroke have been mentioned as benefiting from aquatic therapy. Range of motion, muscle spasm, pain, PTSD, depression and edema are conditions that are also improved by regular Watsu sessions.

Leigh Downing, a Watsu therapist, is also a licensed massage therapist with certifications in cupping therapy, colorpuncture and orthobionomy. She practices at Sol Healing and Wellness, in Austin, and EvoSpa, in Lakeway, and can be reached at 512-507-6208, AustinWatsu@gmail.com, or by visiting AustinWatsu.com.