GUEST COLUMN: What Is Watsu? - KATHRYNE E. ''KEO'' OPTON

Kathryne Ellen opton, or "KEO" as she is known to her clients and friends, is passionately dedicated to the enhancement of health and wellness in the community, one individual at a time. After reciving her undergraduate degree from cornell, she pursued her graduate stidies in special needs education and initially began her professional life as a teacher of the deaf. Keo formed her own personal training company and also competed as a bodybuilder. As a personal health advocate, public speaker, and avid presenter, she can be found meeting with groups of all ages teaching and sharing with others how to make healthy lifestyle choices. she is an educator, motivator, and student of multiple disciplines, including watsu, fitness education, alternative health, and bodywork.

she discovered watsu in 1997, and since that time has offered personal training to her clients on land and in the water. An active member of the gainesville chapter of the florida state massage therapy association, Keo is Gainesville's first watsu practioiner and currently serves as the chair of the seated massage team of the suwannee valley state massage therapy. Keo became a provider for the national certifying board for therapeutic massage and bodywork (NCBTMB) on june27, 2009. she is now able to offer continuing education units for massage therapist who hold national licensure.

When I tell people I am a Watsu Practitioner, everyone I meet looks at me like I’m hanging upside down (which I can be caught doing weekly at my fitness center, but that’s another article).  I hope this short article will open a new world for you about where and how you could expand your practice, and, at the very least, your awareness, into the realms of aquatic bodywork therapy. Watsu stands for Water Shiatsu. It is a registered trademark, and was developed in the early 1970s. I wrestled with myself about how to write this for you. Did you want to hear about the history of Watsu? Did you need a definition? Were you interested in what its effects are on the human experience, the body and how it is related to massage? Maybe you only wanted to look at pictures or hear anecdotes about healing? Maybe you’d want to hear about aquatic bodywork’s clinical focus? I promise you I will try to convey some of the above and hold your attention. Are you ready? Let’s take a breath and go with the flow! Watsu is a relatively new form of aquatic bodywork developed at Harbin Hot Springs by Harold Dull. Using principles of Zen Shiatsu (traditional Japanese acupressure massage) in warm water. Dull combined the manipulation of the system of meridians and chakras with the supportive aqueous environment. Watsu is defined as: “A form of passive aquatic therapy modeled after the principles of Zen Shiatsu  (massage). Watsu is always performed in a hands-on manner by the provider. The client is usually held or cradled in warm water while the provider stabilizes or moves one segment of the body, resulting in a stretch of another segment due to the drag effect. The client remains completely passive while the provider combines the unique qualities of the water with rhythmic flow patterns.” 

In Watsu, emphasis is placed on stretching the meridians corresponding to the points used in acupuncture, releasing blocked energy. Multidimensional stretching facilitates the surfacing of energy. Warm water (92-94 F) provides a free flowing environment for this type of therapy. Watsu has been noted to have a significant psychological impact on the receiver. Research from trauma/somatics and psycho neurobiology have shown us that emotions/memories of an event are stored in the body tissues and patterned in the brain. (2) Watsu often releases energy related to the restoration of these tissues and can release past emotions or memories into the flow. The nurturing and supportive nature of Watsu creates a safe environment in which to deal with these emotions. Watsu’s free flowing nature promotes self awareness of muscle tension and encourages release of this tension. The rhythmical, rotational movements in Watsu also assist in reducing muscle tension and promoting relaxation. Being submerged in warm water promotes circulation and unloads weight bearing joints. The recipient often can tolerate extensive stretching and soft tissue manipulation that may be difficult to tolerate on land.

There is one doctor in the United States who researches the human body and the physiologic effects of warm water immersion. Dr. Bruce Becker and I presented side by side at the National Institutes of Health in October 2007. The annual Office of Cancer and Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM) Conference was an exciting place to share aquatic based therapy and research. What I learned was that we must do more research (!) to document the efficacy of Watsu.   Sara Firman (www.aquapoetics.com) has been encouraging practitioners of alternative aquatic  bodywork who work mainly in non-clinical settings to begin keeping anecdotal records of their experiences that might then suggest valuable areas of further study. You can see some exploratory discussions of the topic on the professional network for aquatic therapists at www.aquaticnet.com. She presented her case for documenting alternative aquatics and talked about the value of aspects of this work that do not fit the current scientific paradigm at an  Aquatic Therapy and Rehabilitation Institute (www.atri.org) conference in November of 2009.

She hopes, as I do, to see the collaboration of Watsu practitioners in clinical and alternative settings worldwide as we develop a way to collect data and show how impactful this type of work can be. There was a time when massage had not been researched, and yet many massage therapists intuitively ‘knew’ it was an essential form of healing, pain reduction and an opportunity for personal growth and self-awareness. I believe that Watsu deserves recognition as a valid clinical modality to the world and that we need to design a methodology to do this. The Worldwide Aquatic Bodywork Association (WABA) maintains a list of Watsu practitioners in over 40 countries! Watsu is used as a cool down in water aerobics classes in Japan; it is used as rebonding therapy in many clinical settings, and is used in aquatic rehabilitation by hundreds of aquatic physical therapists.  Watsu is used around the world by professional body workers and psychologists, as well as the general public. I myself rent space at a physical therapy clinic and offer a saline pool environment for my sessions. There is a practitioner in Israel who works only with children who have cerebral palsy. There is a clinic in Arizona where an entire staff of physical therapists have been trained and over hundreds of sessions are given a month. Many spas and resorts offer Watsu. It is popular at Canyon Ranch, and at one point the actor Mel Gibson was receiving four sessions a week! Personally, I’d like to see Watsu offered at every YMCA or local Boys and Girls Club in the USA!

One question many people have about Watsu is based on receivers who may be a bit timid about their lack of swimming ability, or prior water trauma (i.e., having some fear around being in the water.). I watched my own little brother almost drown when I was 6. Paralyzed by fear, I never forgot this as I matured. I didn’t learn how to swim until I was 22! There had been a traumatic experience in the water for me for certain, and Watsu helped me to come to terms with it.  I watsued with my own mother when I was 37. We both agreed we had not bonded at my birth, and that the Watsu helped us to do this. It was an incredible gift to share this with her! An environment of complete safety and trust is established during a session. Earplugs may be worn to prevent water from going into one’s ears. I find the earplugs allow me to relax more fully. (Sometimes the water going in and out of your ears can tickle you or bring you back to a more alert state. I prefer to stay deep in alpha brain wave pattern). Many of my.clients will fall asleep; in fact, I’ve been known to wake myself up snoring in my Watsus! Specific moves in Watsu are learned via DVD as well as with follow along pool practice. This year at the FSMTA convention, I will offer a short introduction to some of these basic moves. There is also stillness in Watsu. Harold Dull, the man who invented Watsu, would say it is the stillness that moves, for one is able to observe the spine unwinding in a Watsu. One can feel surrounded by the physics of the water indicating heartbeats and energetic releases. The most profound experience I have ever had offering a session was as I cradled a client who was paralyzed on one side of his body. At one point during the session, I noticed that the color of his cheeks and face were becoming quite rosy and red. I gently lifted his head so he could hear my voice and I asked him if he was OK. He said yes, and that he ‘felt like a sacred being’ for the first time in his life. Peggy Shoedinger has written in Comprehensive Aquatic Therapy (2004) that ”...Watsu is being incorporated into aquatic therapy treatment programs in hospitals, clinics and rehabilitation centers around the world. Therapists are impressed by the benefits for so many of their patients. Some of the many populations who have benefited include traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, CVA, Parkinson’s Disease, arthritis, cerebral palsy, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, ankylosing spondylitis, multiple sclerosis, post mastectomy, arthritis, post thoracic surgery, and post traumatic stress disorder.”

As you can imagine, Watsu benefits the pregnancy client and allows the mother to bond with her baby while simultaneously creating more space in the body for the fetus. I offer an introduction to Watsu here at The Birth Center in Gainesville, FL. My first Watsu instructor was also a water birth facilitator.  I invite parents and families to come to the pool to support the clientor patients I see. I have had the opportunity to work with cancer survivors as well as those who were dying and celebrating their journey of life.Some of my land clients end up in the pool, and vice versa. This flexibility allows them to explore the full range of experiences they require. Any healthcare professional utilizing bodywork as part of his/her practice will benefit from learning Watsu.Those who will benefit include physical, occupational, recreational and massage therapists. Some professionals will utilize Watsu as the primary intervention in their treatment programs. Others will find their patients benefit the most when Watsu is used as part of the treatment program or as part of each treatment session. Therapists find Watsu to be especially beneficial for patients/clients who are having difficulty working on functional skills secondary to pain or muscle spasm. Watsu is taught in many countries worldwide: www.waba.edu has the list of registered practitioners and classes.

Watsu is a passive form of aquatic therapy where the patient or client is supported and gently moved through warm water in graceful, fluid movements. Watsu promotes a deep state of relaxation with dramatic changes in the autonomic nervous system. Through quieting the sympathetic and enhancing the parasympathetic nervous systems, Watsu has profound effects on the neuromuscular system. These changes benefit patients with a wide variety of orthopedic, neurologic and rheumatic impairments.When I was realizing how out of balance my own life was, I found the Watsu pool in Boston. Like many of my chronic pain patients and clients, I was at the end of the trail for pain relief. I had accidentally fractured my hand and was unable to continue on in the sport I loved. Depressed and at a loss for what to do about my life and my competitive sports addiction,I became withdrawn and gained weight. My friends were concerned and I was given an ultimatum. Either I find some help for myself and I find it soon, or they were going to place me in the hospital.I opened my eyes after my first session and looked at my practitioner. The first words out of my mouth weren’t thank you! I asked a question. Those who know me would smile….for I am the one who always asks why. This time I didn’t. I simply asked “Where do I go to learn how to do this? My Watsu journey began in 1997. I came from water onto land….and now as a surf and turf body worker I can truly say I am able to reach everyone who chooses to come to me for massage or Watsu.

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