Shiatsu Massage In a Warm Pool Can Melt Away Aches and Pains

Watsu massage is an intriguing form of bodywork, which incorporates numerous types of therapy, including the gentle Japanese finger-pressure technique called shiatsu… muscle stretching… joint mobilization… and massage, performed by a trained practitioner (or therapist) while the client soaks in warm water. It provides not only pain relief, but also emotional release that people really, really rave about. I have one friend who now schedules a Watsu massage for herself every other week — she says nothing else has been as helpful at soothing her arthritis, plus it’s the most pleasant and relaxing experience she has ever had.

The concept of Watsu massage was developed about 30 years ago, when a Shiatsu practitioner named Harold Dull first combined Zen shiatsu stretches and movements as he worked with his students in the naturally therapeutic pools at Harbin Hot Springs in Northern California. Today, trained Watsu practitioners and therapists around the country treat patients for a variety of complaints, including stress, chronic back pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia and orthopedic problems.

To find out more about it, I spoke with Joyce Reim, director of the Watsu Institute at the School of Shiatsu and Massage in Middletown, California. Reim told me that she was a patient suffering from crippling arthritis pain when she herself first experienced Watsu. “Painkillers were all that traditional medicine had to offer me,” she says. “After my first Watsu session, I felt invigorated and free of pain.” Typically the pain is relieved while the patient is floating in the warm water, but does come back later, says Reim, noting that after regular Watsu sessions arthritis flare-ups are farther apart and the pain is less severe.


Watsu massage is given in a warm-water therapeutic pool about four feet deep, heated to body temperature (about 98 degrees). The massage therapist is in the water with you. You float on your back while he/she gently holds you, stretches and massages your tight muscles. Flotation devices are often used. The experience has been described to me as feeling like you are melting effortlessly into the warm water, blurring the boundaries between your body and the environment.

According to Reim, warm water is an ideal medium for this kind of passive stretching. It provides support while also taking weight off the vertebrae, allowing the spine to be moved in ways that aren’t possible on a solid horizontal surface. “Recipients feel profound physical release and a release from pain and tension,” Reim said. Some describe the experience as intense and almost spiritual, as the practitioner cradles the client in his/her arms in the water, delivering physical and often emotional support. Reim told me that practitioners have a specific term for the profound connection that many givers and receivers report experiencing — it’s called “heart wrap,” and it delivers “a sense of oneness and peace.”


Research shows that the physical benefits are meaningful as well:

  • According to one study, in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, Watsu massage patients suffering from fibromyalgia experienced significant improvements in physical and social function, vitality and reduced pain.
  • A 2005 study found that after 18 months of twice-monthly, 30-minute Watsu sessions, residents of a retirement community suffering a range of maladies, including knee replacement, cancer, Parkinson’s disease and mild anxiety, reported substantial improvements in self-assessments of emotional stress, along with a reduction of aches and pains and improvements in flexibility, as well as in their ability to relax.

Watsu is generally considered a viable treatment for most people when given by a well-trained practitioner. To find a trained Watsu practitioner, go to the Web site of the Worldwide Aquatic Bodywork Association, It maintains a worldwide registry of therapists who have met requirements to practice and teach Watsu.