Northwest NEWS

December 2, 2002


Watsu: unique treatment for the body, mind and soul
by Deborah Stone
   Features Writer

Photo courtesy of Harriet Ott
Harriet Ott and client during a Watsu session.
   Do yourself a favor. Treat yourself to a Watsu instead of a facial next time you want to do something special for yourself. The results will surprise and delight you and linger long after a facial has worn off.
   I had my first Watsu experience early this fall at a spa in southern California and returned home a fervent convert of this amazing aquatic therapy. Developed by Harold Dull at Harbin Hot Springs, California in the early 1980s, Watsu is a combination of water and shiatsu, the ancient healing art of Japan, which focuses on restoring the flow of energy to blocked areas of the body, thus relieving pain and reducing tension. Dull, head of the School of Shiatsu and Massage at Harbin Hot Springs, invented Watsu after studying Zen Shiatsu in Japan and then applying the work within a warm water milieu.
   While floating his clients in the hot springs, he used gentle shiatsu stretches to help them move more freely and incorporated massage in the process. He discovered that in the water, the body can be easily placed in many relaxing positions that would be impossible on land. Floating horizontally, with the support of a therapist's arms, an individual's spine is freed from its normally erect posture and the gravitational demands that are placed on it are nonexistent. This spinal freedom is the key to allowing healing energy movement to occur in the body and is an integral component to each Watsu session.
   Dull began including this unique form of bodywork in his workshops at Harbin and soon attracted hundreds of students eager to learn about Watsu. Over the years, this therapeutic treatment became popular abroad, particularly in Europe and Japan, before making its mark in the U.S. It is used to relieve pain, increase flexibility and joint mobility, ease stress and achieve total relaxation. In my search to continue this incredible treatment once I arrived home, I learned that Watsu is definitely alive in the Northwest and has its share of devotees, but general public awareness of this therapy is limited.
   Harriet Ott, Watsu practitioner and owner of Community Integration Services (a company providing aquatic therapy programs) in Sammamish, says that there are approximately 25 Watsu professionals in Washington and they all feel that lack of awareness and information about Watsu is a major problem.
   She says, "We're trying to educate people about Watsu and get the word out that this treatment is applicable to everyone because everyone can benefit on a variety of levels. It's a relatively new profession and most people have never heard of it before. We're also faced with the problem of finding a warm water facility to do the work. Many practitioners rent space at a facility initially, but this can be costly over time. Some, like me, decide to build their own pool in order to have complete control over the situation and to minimize their costs in the long run."
   Ott has been in the field of therapeutic recreation and aquatic therapy for over 25 years. She has had extensive training and experience in a variety of therapeutic aquatic treatments and techniques and is certified in therapeutic recreation, aquatic therapy, AiChi (a water based therapy based on Tai Chi) and Watsu. Ott was led to Watsu after having a profound experience with the treatment as an instructor's model several years ago in a course offered by ATRI (Aquatic Therapeutic Rehabilitation Institute).
   "It was an amazing experience for me," comments Ott. "It came at a time in my life when I was dealing with some trauma and things were very hectic and stressful for me. The experience brought me such peace and quiet, there in the water, and gave me the rest bit I so desperately needed." Ott was taken with Watsu and spent three years focusing on becoming a practitioner. The process involved extensive coursework and practical experience in the field, totaling about 500 hours of training.
   According to Ott, standards are changing and becoming more defined, as more people are coming to the profession from all walks of life. They are attracted to the work because it blends a variety of treatments together and allows them to develop their own styles, according to their individual body types and personal preferences. "It's also very rewarding," explains Ott. "It's wonderfully satisfying to see the results of this work and hear from clients how it helped them, but it's also a gratifying experience for me, as the giver. I get something from each Watsu experience I do. I connect with each of my clients and the process helps to center me and bring balance into my life. It forces me to slow down, focus and be present in life. It gives me more awareness of the mind-body connection and continually emphasizes the importance of this connection."
   After speaking with Harriet extensively about her work, I could hardly wait to have my second Watsu experience and see how it compared with my initial treatment in California.
   Her pool, the Water Lily Pool, is located in the backyard of her Sammamish home and is a 15-foot round above-ground pool with a sun dome. This dome, provides privacy, but also allows year round usage. The water is treated with ozone gas instead of the usual chlorine chemicals. According to Ott, ozone gas provides a more natural environment, as well as one that is gentle to the skin, eyes and bathing suits, and it is also an effective sanitizer. The water is kept at a lovely warm ninety seven degrees and I quickly hopped in to escape from the outdoor chill. Once inside, the dome structure gave the scene a cozy feel and I began to relax in the waist-to-chest-high water.
   Harriet placed flotation bands around my legs and then I leaned back into her arms to begin my session. Through a series of holds, stretches, bends and slow spins, she helped extend and flex my muscles to manipulate them to their full range of motion. I gradually began to relax and let go of the stress that normally affects my body, particularly in the neck, shoulders and lower back. The gentle resistance of the water helped to make me feel long and fluid, as well as freed up my joints.
   Harriet led my body and it followed, first with some hesitation and then with grateful acquiescence. It was almost like dancing, with one partner leading and the other following. The experience was over all too soon and all I could manage to utter was "Wow!" Somehow there weren't words available to really express what I had just gone through, but Harriet seemed to understand and simply nodded her head knowingly. The sensations of my Watsu experience stayed with me for days and made me realize the necessity of taking the time out of my hectic life to be good to my body. It's a favor I do for myself.
   For more information about Watsu and Community Integration Services in Sammamish and the Eastside, call Harriet Ott at (425) 830-7746 or visit