What is watsu?
I’m floating in body-temperature water, eyes closed, arms and legs stretched out and flotation devices strapped to my legs, cradled by Tina, my therapist. I am trying to let go of any thoughts about being in my bathers in such close physical contact with a complete stranger. In fact, I’m trying to let go of all thoughts before they properly form and just be in this womb-like environment that’s absolutely silent except for the tiny, soothing sounds of water.
It takes a little while of thinking about it, then not thinking about it, but soon I am both fully in my body and, in another way, outside of it as I give in to the experience and relax completely while Tina gently moves my weightless limbs and torso into various positions, working equally on both sides. I also lose my awareness of Tina as a person; her arms and hands become just a part of the seamless environment in which my body contentedly floats and bobs.
This is watsu, an underwater massage therapy that uses some of the principles of shiatsu (hence the name). Watsu was created in California in 1980 by Harold Dull, who trained in Zen shiatsu with its Japanese creator, Shizuto Masunaga. Harold’s book, Watsu: Freeing the Body in Water, is into its 4th edition.
Tina tells me as we begin that watsu is about proper alignment of the spine and joint mobilisation. What Harold Dull found was that weightlessness allows the spine to be moved in ways not possible on dry land, extending the benefits of the stretching and twisting that ordinary shiatsu affords. The other thing about weightlessness is that it seems so much easier to go into a deep meditative state when your body is not resisting anything.
At first I had declined the earplugs Tina offered but in the first minute or so I realise that the rising and falling of the water level just over or just below my ears (my face is always out of the water) will be a distraction and therefore an obstacle to feeling fully immersed in the experience. So before we get anywhere with the massage, I change my mind and ask for the earplugs. Tina says some people prefer them, while others are comfortable without them.
Tina has undergone two years of training to become qualified in watsu. She is giving me this treatment at the QE Health spa in Rotorua, New Zealand’s best known thermal and spa town. What is even more surprising than the idea of being massaged while immersed in water is that QE Health is actually a hospital. A spa in a hospital? Conventional medicine and complementary therapies working together? Very enlightened if you ask me.
Established in 1942 by the government of the time initially as a convalescent hospital for returning soldiers, it was housed in a temporary building that is its headquarters to this day. In 1993 it went into private hands, though its services are contracted to government through regional health authorities. It has a long history of being a place where people from both New Zealand and abroad came to “take the waters” (and the thermal mud).
The spa section used to be only for hospital patients with chronic musculo-skeletal problems such as arthritis or spinal injury, but is now open to the general public as well. You know as soon as you walk in that it’s not going to be fluffy white towels, frangipani and new-age music; it’s no-nonsense, serious therapy going on here. There’s Aix, watsu and other kinds of massage, Lithos therapy using hot and cold rocks, lymphatic drainage, steam (pyretic) and wax baths, as well as mud baths, packs and wraps using the famous sulphurous Rotorua mud.
I can’t comment on the other services but I can report that watsu is possibly the most deeply relaxing therapy I have ever experienced. All tension has gone from my back and neck, and my left shoulder, which is recovering from a bad fracture and subsequent surgery, is noticeably more mobile, meaning it well and truly lives up to Tina’s explanation.
The writer stayed as a guest of Tourism New Zealand.
Image: Luiza Leite Photography