I Tried It: Watsu Aquatic Bodywork

Our writer let go of her inhibitions to try a (very intimate) pool massage.

My first experience with Watsu was a few years ago at a spa in Sedona, Arizona. While planning my spa vacation I asked a staff member to recommend a “must-try” service; her pick was a Watsu treatment.

A what?

She explained that Watsu is a water massage performed in a non-chlorinated pool warmed to body temperature. The fairly vague description left me curious and anxious, but I figured, why not? I’m always up for trying new things and thought perhaps the treatment could be something life-changing—or, at least, funny story to share with my friends at home.

What it ended up being was the most memorable moment from my trip. It led me on a wild-goose chase for other spas that offered Watsu here in Philly. Surprisingly (or not), Watsu is not a very well-known service, especially on the East Coast. So you can imagine my excitement when I found a local women, Julie Angel, who offers Watsu out of her home in Wyndmoor. Lucky me!

Okay, okay—you’re probably still wondering what this treatment is all about, right? Watsu was developed in the early 1980s in Northern California by Harold Dull. He applied the principles of Zen Shiatsu and created a warm-water massage. The touted benefits of a Watsu treatment are vast, including stress release; relief from arthritis, muscle or joint tightness; and help with things insomnia, fear of water, anxiety disorders, depression and more.

Of course, Watsu might not be for everyone. A treatment usually lasts for an hour to an hour-and-a-half. You will be in a bathing suit in a pool with the therapist. Similar to a massage, the therapist will work on different areas of your body, such as your back and neck, with soft to moderate pressure. But unlike a typical massage—and more similar to a Thai massage, which incorporates stretches—the therapist will move your arms, legs and hips while holding you (fairly closely, I should add). The therapist uses your buoyancy in the water to easily move your body through the stretches and holds. It can be very intimate; the therapist cradles you. At one point I was facing my therapist with my legs straddling her waist while she worked on my neck.

Everyone who tries Watsu will take something different from it, but here is my story. Going into my first treatment in Arizona, I was really anxious. I knew I had to wear a swimming suit and that was about it. At the time, I was pregnant with my now 14-month-old son, Hudson. My goal for the treatment was basic: to relax and enjoy some time off my feet. I stepped into the pool with my therapist, a women who exuded love, and I knew it was going to be nurturing. She told me that all I needed to do was relax and surrender. I would have loved to see the look on my face as I sheepishly nodded all the while staring at her with a look of trepidation. She put floats around my knees to so I would be more buoyant and told me to relax my body and become a “rag-doll.”

The next thing I knew she had swept me off my feet and was cradling me like a baby. Yes, it was intimate—something you have to get over to enjoy the experience. I talked myself down off my own judgmental wall and did exactly as I was told and surrendered to the experience.

My head was partially submerged so my ears were under water for the majority of the treatment. I found that it allowed me to more easily connect with my breath and use the time to meditate. Surrendering to the treatment is the key; I choose to center on my breath and enjoy the sensation of my body effortlessly moving through the water.

Fast forward. At my baby shower, a good friend gifted me a treatment with Julie, the local Watsu practitioner. Being a mom herself she knew I would need some “me” time once the baby was born. My first year being a mom was intense, for lack of a better word. There was a lot to process as I transitioned into a new role as a busy working mom and dealt with some other changes in my personal and professional life along the way. A few weeks ago I decided I was ready to take some time for me. I called Julie and booked my treatment.

Julie has been practicing bodywork, including massage and Watsu, for over 25 years. She does treatments in a private indoor, warm-water pool and has that loving, nurturing energy you want in a therapist.

It had been a few years since my last Watsu treatment so I was feeling a bit insecure going into it. But once I was in the pool with Julie and we joined hands to ground and center around our breath, I felt instantly at ease. The process was similar to my previous treatment. She put floats on my legs and told me to relax my body and allow her to take over.

My intentions for this treatment were not only to surrender my body but to use the time to really surrender some of the overwhelming emotions I had been holding onto since the baby was born. At first I had to really focus on my breath because my mind was racing. I could not stop thinking about all the things I had to do. Then, as my body danced in the water, everything seemed to melt away. My mind fell silent, my body felt beautiful, and I was existing in an effortless place. All of the fear and anxiety I had been holding on to was replaced with acceptance and compassion for both me and others in my life.

As I said, I don’t expect you to have the same experience I did—we all have different intentions and process life in our own way. But I do think Watsu is a really powerful, and something more people should know about. If you are into treatments like massage, acupuncture and energy work or are simply an open-minded individual that understands the benefits of taking time for yourself, well, Watsu might be right up your alley.

Watsu sessions with Julie Angel cost $110 and include a consultation. You can reach Julie at 215-836-9779 or JulieAngel@verizon.net.


Katie Cavuto Boyle is a registered dietician and chef, and owner of Healthy Bites.