More MS news articles for February 2001

What's up with watsu? Controversial treatment blends massage therapy, water

Updated: Sunday, Feb. 4, 2001 at 19:00 CST
By Ellen Creager
Knight Ridder News Service

DETROIT -- Lynn Lipman closes her eyes, her body as limp as a rag doll. Her arms drift. Her long hair fans out in the water.

Physical therapist Laura Johnson cradles Lipman close, tugging a leg, moving an arm, breathing in time with her breath.

The floating woman feels her pain drift off someplace.

Then Johnson pulls Lipman swiftly through the water and under. For nearly an hour, Lipman is spun and turned underwater, for 10, 20, 55 seconds at a time, as natural as a mermaid, as passive as a sea reed.

The effect is primitive, womblike, peaceful, lovely, tender and odd. The water hugs the pair all around. New Age music plays. A few other swimmers in the warm pool stare and feel that they're somehow intruding on something rare and private.

This is shiatsu massage in the water, called Watsu, and its exotic variation, known as Waterdance.

"Watsu touches you on all kinds of levels," says Johnson, one of only a few people in Michigan certified in Watsu. "It can be wacky and way out, but it's also great physical therapy."

Lipman says Watsu eases her chronic pain from fibromyalgia for 24 hours, allowing her to sleep better and take less medicine. Fibromyalgia is a condition involving chronic muscle pain and fatigue.

With Watsu, "It's easy to let go," says Lipman, 46, of West Bloomfield, Mich. "When I'm in the water, I'm not even aware of myself. Time stops. There's a stillness. I can almost fall asleep or go into a trance."

Six years ago, Lipman was teaching school when a movie screen fell off the wall and onto her left shoulder. After two surgeries, she remains in pain daily. She has tried acupuncture, regular massage, medication, reflexology and biofeedback. Although all of these have helped, nothing has relaxed her like the past 18 months of Watsu and Waterdance treatment. It's worth the $75 per hour every Thursday, she says.

The American Physical Therapy Association has embraced Watsu as beneficial for treatment of neurological and physical disabilities, citing its value in lowering stress, pain, muscle tension and blood pressure. It can increase a person's range of motion and strength, improve sleep and muscle tone, and confer a sense of well-being, practitioners say.

Watsu is effective for arthritis, fibromyalgia, back pain, knee or ankle pain, head injuries, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and chronic fatigue, practitioners say.

The American Council on Exercise predicts that underwater massage will gain new popularity in the next year.

Watsu is rare and somewhat controversial, however, because of its spicy origins and the unusually close physical contact between therapist and client.

Watsu was invented in 1980 by poet Howard Dull at the School of Shiatsu and Massage at Harbin Hot Springs in Middletown, Calif. Originally, Watsu was not a physical therapy technique but a holistic spiritual adventure done while naked. Twenty years later, the clothing-optional Harbin still advertises Watsu as "part soothing massage, part return to the womb and part expansion to everything beyond."

Watsu "had that whole Northern California mystique, and people thought it was hocus-pocus," says Dave Morris, associate professor of physical therapy at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Morris, who also is president of the aquatic section of the physical therapy association, learned Watsu in 1989. He was one of the first physical therapists to recognize its potential for use in rehabilitation from illness and injury.

To founder Dull, Watsu is a Zen experience, a realignment of meridians, a revitalization of one's chakras (energy centers) and a back-to-the-womb experience.

To clients, Watsu is a hard-to-describe experience -- like floating out to sea, becoming a scarf blowing in the wind, or being a dolphin.

"It's like the difference between feeling your weight and floating in air," says Ella Bastine of Canton, a Watsu practitioner who also is a physical therapist and nurse. "The heat of the water, plus the closeness of the person, is indescribably relaxing."

To Western doctors, Johnson describes Watsu in a more practical way.

"I tell them it is physical therapy, gentle stretching in warm water to increase range of motion," she says.

Johnson, a physical therapist at William Beaumont Hospital in Troy for 11 years, now practices on her own because she feels so strongly that Watsu helps relieve chronic pain and other ailments, even though it is not a conventionally measurable technique. Her biggest problem is finding warm pools that are private and the right temperature, 94 to 97 degrees. The ideal round Watsu pool is 4 feet deep, 10 feet in diameter and holds about 2,500 gallons. Johnson rents space in various area pools, but other swimmers hang around watching.

Some insurance companies will pay for Watsu treatment but only as part of a broader physical rehabilitation plan.

And the close, almost intimate physical contact between client and therapist?

"It's a nurturing type of thing; that's probably why my clients are not taken aback by the fact I'm female and holding them close," says Bastine. If a client feels uncomfortable with Watsu, she stops.

Lipman describes Watsu as physically empowering: In the water, she can roll onto her left side and do things that normally she cannot. But it's beyond the mere physical.

"Pain is really private. You don't want people to know, and you try to do more and more to make up for your limitations," she says, a slight catch in her voice. "This is reassuring; it helps you to come to terms with what's going on in your body and know that it is going to be OK."

Ironically, Lipman used to hate swimming and was afraid of it. After doing months of Watsu, with her head above water, Lipman finally trusted Johnson enough to consider trying Waterdance.

At first, she used a snorkel because she was so frightened. Then she graduated to a nose clip and goggles. Now she uses only a nose clip, and her breathing is so calm and her relaxation so deep, she can remain underwater for a minute or more. Down there, the world is muffled, and so is all pain.

Johnson says not everyone is cut out for Watsu or Waterdance. It involves a huge amount of trust.

"If you like control, it's not for you. If you hate the water or hate to relax, it's not for you," she says.

Also, some medical conditions such as severe cardiac problems, open wounds and vertigo preclude Watsu.

The Worldwide Aquatic Bodywork Association, an umbrella group, focuses on Watsu education and lists its practitioners.


Watsu and Waterdance treatment are massage techniques performed in a warm pool to bring pain relief. The treatments can increase a person's range of motion and strength, improve sleep and muscle tone, and confer a sense of well-being, practitioners say. For more information, see the Web site for the World Aquatic Bodywork Association at, which includes links to practitioners. People interested in learning more about Watsu may want to read Watsu: Freeing the Body in Water by Harold Dull (Harbin Springs, $20).