The Power of Watsu (Water + Shiatsu)

I woke up to the ringing of my phone alarm at 7:00A.M. to do something incredible and disturbing — get out of my comfort zone. As I got up out of my sleeping bag in our wood cabin and started getting dressed into my bathing suit, it was like my body knew exactly what to do. My mind, on the other hand, wasn’t so convinced. Going swimming in a lake at 7:15A.M. on a September morning in Canada sounded horrible but somehow life-changing at the same time.

It was the last day of our two-day Unity Summit, a time when first year naturopathic medical students bond and get to know one another before starting an incredible four-year journey together and then graduate and become naturopathic doctors.

I heard about Watsu the night before from an incredible naturopathic doctor, Dr. Frances Turk, N.D., who spoke to our class about her life-changing experience being an ND and the lessons she learned while in her practice. She had the most soothing and exuberant energy about her. She told us that Watsu (water + shiatsu) was a massage technique that uses the pressure and resistance from the water to help stretch and move the spine in ways that could not be achieved on a massage table. I was intrigued. She also told us that she wouldn’t let us drown, so my trust was building.

Hoping that I would be one of the 10 people that would get to experience Watsu that morning, I started walking out the cabin door down to the lake. But before I opened the door, on my way out, I woke one of my cabin-mates, telling her what an amazing experience she should not miss and that she should get out of her toasty bed to jump into a cold lake. I trusted my intuition that this guarantee would pay off. Thankfully, she agreed to come with me, and off we went, shivering all the way.

Since the lake temperature was not as warm as the typical pool watsu is often performed in, Dr. Turk suggested we get into the lake before it was our turn in order to warm up. She could not move our spines and muscles easily if we were shivering and tense. We sat on the dock, watching each person get in the water to warm up.

Dr. Frances Turk, N.D., performing watsu on me during Unity Summit at Lake Couchiching, ON, Canada. (Photo by Kieran O’Hagan-Wong)

Then we watched Dr. Turk help each person on the dock to put on “floaties” around their calves to help them float better during the session. Once Dr. Turk got the person in the water, the Watsu dance began. It really looked like a coordinated water ballet with Dr. Turk cradling each person, rocking their bodies back and forth, and stretching the muscles with ease. Dr. Turk spent about 10 minutes with each person.

Watsu video (By Catherine Rabo)

Then, it was my turn. Previous to my “appointment,” I warmed up by doing laps for about 15 minutes in the lake. Dr. Turk helped me put on the floaties around my legs and then brought me to the shallow part of the lake where she could still stand. Then, my incredible experience began. I was ready and fully trusting in the process.

As I put my head in the water, I could feel the water go up over my ears. I didn’t panic. Dr. Turk held my head so the water never came near my eyes. I was supported and felt my body completely relax. In my relaxed state, I heard the sounds of the other students talking on the dock in a muffled way through the water. They sounded so far away. I imagined this is what it may be like in utero in a safe, watery environment, hearing far-away sounds.

I listened to the sound of my own deep breathing with the water over my ears. I felt like I was being transported to another time in my life when I first learned to swim when I was four years old. In my relaxed state, I felt my past trauma from that time float away. “It’s safe to trust,” my intuition said. Just then, I could feel the sun’s warm rays on my face, deepening my relaxation.

While Dr. Turk held my head, she started walking backwards in the water and pulled me toward her with a swaying motion so my spine was like a water snake in the water. I felt an incredible and freeing stretching in my spine. It was like all the tension in my back was being slowly shaken off of me.

I came back to my breath and center. I was remaining to breathe deeply and my body felt like a wet noodle — no stress, no tightness. I lost track of time as Dr. Turk did her Watsu water ballet of stretches and movements.

When my time was up and I slowly opened my eyes, I started to smile. Then, I tried to stand up and felt extremely drunk. My body was trying to collect itself in space and time. As I stood up, I stumbled five or six steps all the way to the dock. I couldn’t imagine what I would have felt like after an hour of Watsu.

I am so thankful that day that I got to start my ND education with such a gentle and magical experience. I will forever remember the freeing and powerful effect of Watsu.


3 thoughts on “The Power of Watsu (Water + Shiatsu)”

  1. A wonderful magical moment! Beautiful.
    What a great way to start a life changing education. I can really see how the water & slight pulling and swaying motion on a completely relaxed body could open the spine. I would love to try this!

    Liked by 1 person

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