Meet Watsu®: Your Body's New Best Friend

Athletes can benefit from this innovative massage technique

“You can talk to me, but I can’t talk to you,” says Nikki, the massage therapist at Canyon Ranch. Nikki is in her bathing suit, and as she’s done for the past nine years, she’s preparing a client, in this case, me, for the massage treatment known as Watsu®.

Although there is soft music playing in the background, I can no longer hear it, or Nikki, as I become submerged in the warm water. Nikki offered me a pair of ear plugs, but never one to suffer from swimmer’s ear, I politely declined. I did, however, let Nikki slip floats under each of my legs as I attempted to surrender both body and mind to this unique form of massage.

Massage is an ancient therapy as old as man himself, but it wasn’t until 1980 that Harold Dull invented Watsu®—aptly named after the word water and its likeness to Shiatsu—a Japanese form of acupressure. Today, Watsu® is offered at elite health resorts and spas worldwide such as Canyon Ranch in Tucson, which has a state-of-the-art aquatic center featuring three pools reserved specifically for Watsu®.

All of the pools at Canyon Ranch have lifts to help guests with injuries or disabilities, and although it doesn’t take much for one to be considered a good candidate for Watsu®, this treatment is particularly beneficial for athletes. The key is the warm water that reduces or completely removes physical limitations and brings on a flood of feelings and emotions that aren’t stimulated by other styles of massage.

The first ten minutes of Watsu are the most memorable, but also the most challenging. I’m asked to lay on my back (that’s where the leg floats come in handy) and close my eyes for the duration of the session. Nikki takes complete control and with one arm under my torso, begins to cradle me and gently move my upper body. My stiff legs slowly sway back and forth. This motion loosens up my sore muscles until eventually Nikki is able to bend each of my legs back for the ultimate stretch.

Meanwhile, mentally, I’ve graduated from the feeling of infancy as my mind drifts back to memories of swim lessons. It’s still hard to keep my eyes closed, especially as I become more aware of my body as a whole. Whereas with most massage techniques you only feel it where the massage therapist is touching you, in Watsu®, the movements of the therapist and your body make ripples in the water. For example, a stretching of your legs sends water bubbles that brush up against your arms.

But the water doesn’t just increase complete awareness, it also allows for movements and exercises that would be impossible or painful on land. At times, Nikki softly pulls me by my arms, toes and even my hair, which surprisingly, doesn’t hurt. I feel fluid—like a floating rag doll dancing in slow motion. It’s easy to see how someone who has tried various forms of rehabilitation on land can rediscover mobility while being treated in warm water.

Because the water and floats are now supporting my body, my spine is able to take a much-needed break, and even though my back is not being massaged it feels better almost immediately. (While I don’t have chronic back pain, I occasionally suffer as a result of my poor cycling posture, which is why I was interested in trying Watsu®.)

Finally, with my eyes still closed, my back touches the back of the pool’s wall and I realize that I’m back to standing. It’s as though I’ve come full circle—from being held like a baby to being on my own two feet like an adult. Feeling like I’ve just completed a hot yoga session, without all of the sweat and strain, I feel far more flexible and free than I felt 55 minutes earlier when I shyly stepped into the pool.

I open my eyes to see Nikki floating two feet away. After instructing me that I should drink lots of water (Watsu® makes you very thirsty), she gives me some valuable feedback. “You need to surrender,” she tells me. As someone who thinks too much and constantly stresses over everything from the weather to when I’ll fit in my next workout, it wasn’t all that surprising. Nikki notes that it wasn’t until the final ten minutes of my session that I had let go enough to give her optimal control over my body and its range of motion. If I was already feeling that much better, how amazing would I be feeling if I had given her complete control for the entire session?

Some people surrender too much—Nikki recalls having clients fall asleep during Watsu®—but for athletes who are used to having complete control over their bodies, this is usually not a problem. That’s one reason why Watsu® is such a good treatment for athletes. Not only does it relieve sore muscles, joints, and mobility issues, it also requires a heightened state of vulnerability. Experiencing vulnerability and facing weaknesses are the key to overcoming fears and acquiring new strengths. For this Watsu® recipient, the fear was stepping out in a bathing suit. Fortunately, it’s perfectly acceptable to walk around Canyon Ranch in your signature luxurious bathrobe. I chose to accessorize mine with the post-massage glow that only comes from a treatment as stimulating as Watsu®.

For more information on Watsu® at Canyon Ranch, see here