I’ve been intrigued by (and keen to try) Watsu – a rather strange-sounding aquatic massage that combines exercise in water, shiatsu and flotation – for a while now. Part of a long tradition (that stretches back into ancient history) of water therapy, it claims not only to relieve muscle tension but also to strengthen muscles and improve mobility, digestion, flexibility and sleep patterns – as well as reducing emotional angst.
Yes to all of the above, please: I’m ready to jump in.
I’ve come to the city of Bath for my Watsu session; specifically the Thermae Bath Spa, which is one of the few places in the UK that offers the treatment.
I opt for the four-hour Thermae Harmony package and begin by relaxing in several of the mineral-rich pools – the open-air roof-top pool, where I enjoy the beautiful views over the city, and the Minerva Bath (named after the Roman goddess of health and wisdom), which has massage jets and a whirlpool.
I nip into the aroma steam rooms, too, which prove wonderfully relaxing – the air is infused with essences of lotus flower, eucalyptus and mint, and it really clears my head.
I am welcomed by my “Watsuer” (therapist), Sarah, who leads me to a small, private pool. I slowly submerge myself in the 33.5ºC water. Despite the blissful temperature, I can’t help feeling a little self-conscious as she envelops me in her arms – we look like swimming-costume-clad lovers. “Watsu uses Japanese shiatsu methods, so I will be using my hands to guide your body around the water while stretching and massaging your muscles. This will calm your breathing and release tension.” Sarah rests my head on her shoulder.
I am guided around the water in what I can only describe as a graceful ballet-style dance while Sarah applies pressure to my neck and back – kneading into the knots. My legs are stretched and pulled in a manner of different ways and positions – from bending to extending to rotating. She pulls and stretches my body as a regular masseuse would, but in water it somehow all feels very different. “The water allows a loosening of joints and complete relaxation of muscles, so let your mind and body go and just relax,” she says. My body feels freed from the limitations of gravity – lighter and almost elastic.
At this point, she wholly submerges me. I can hear the muffled sound of bubbles and the occasional swish of water. My body is seamlessly guided in a flowing movement, much like the moves she has already been performing, but with my head underwater (although I rise up regularly to take breaths). It’s a bit like scuba-diving practice in the pool before being let loose in the ocean.
After a while, I begin to feel less self-conscious, less stressed and more relaxed – it is almost like I am suspended in time and space. I focus on the weightlessness of my body in the water. Sarah then moves the focus of her attention to my arms, which are again pushed and pulled above my head and to my sides.
It reminds me, in some ways, of a Thai massage: she stretches my limbs out and up and back down again as I slowly exhale, and each stretch is synchronised to the rhythm of my breathing. Sarah continues with her routine, focusing on different muscles in my body – guided by my breathing patterns.
After just over an hour, I feel completely relieved of tension. As I emerge from the pool my whole body feels light, but my hands are like prunes and my eyes and ears feel sensitive after spending so long in the water. I feel strangely heavy, yet supple.
With another couple of hours to kill, I head back over to the steam rooms and pools to reflect on the experience, and then tuck into lunch at the Springs Café and Restaurant.
The bottom line:
Despite the initial awkwardness (because of the face-to-face intimacy and embrace of the massage), floating in the hands of a stranger was, to my surprise, rather comforting and relaxing.
However, I must say that this massage is not for me: I prefer a treatment that’s more firm – an hour under the hands of my super stress-knot slayer Slav at KX gym, say. But I can see why it might appeal to those, like pregnant women, who are in search of something gentler. Plus, the post-plunge prune-like effect reminded me of being a child, left playing with my rubber ducks in the bath for too long.
As far as the Thermae Bath Spa itself goes, I definitely recommend it. Other packages and spa technologies I’m tempted to try include the Vichy Rainforest Shower, a light and sound treatment where a cascade of water is used to massage, cleanse, stimulate and soothe the body’s soft tissue.