Floating from within
Local therapist PenRose Baldwin and her Watsu massage technique
Just what is a Watsu, anyway?
No, it’s not something you order in a Japanese restaurant. It’s a blend of massage and energy movements performed in a warm pool by a practitioner who literally takes you in his or her arms to work the body.
Watsu was born in the 1980s, when former Beat poet Harold Dull combined Waterdance, a water therapy, with Japanese Shiatsu stretches (stretches traditionally used to open the meridians through which chi, or vital energy, flows) in movement he likened to “water poetry.”
Begun at Harbin Hot Springs, a clothing-optional retreat in Lake County, its roots are notoriously Californian, and Watsu gained a quirky reputation when many practitioners worked without swimsuits.
Today its new, suited respectability boasts over a thousand classes worldwide and enthusiastic write-ups by such wellness gurus as Andrew Weil, Massage magazine and Yoga Journal.
It’s a respectability that Chico’s own therapist PenRose Baldwin helped create during her years working with the original Harbin group, when she helped bring the practice of Watsu into the mainstream.
“I wasn’t even on a healing path,” remembers Baldwin, who had an MA in instructional design before falling in love with Watsu. Having ventured to the hot springs one December, she got hooked and took classes “so I could keep doing it,” as she says, “and before I knew it I had 800 hours and my certificate.”
Along the way to becoming an accomplished water therapist, Baldwin also became a certified body worker therapist, with training in positional release, deep-tissue massage, pain relief and the ancient Hawaiian art of Lomi Lomi massage.
Fascinated with anatomy and how energy affects the healing process, she worked with such widely known healers as Caroline Myss (Anatomy of the Spirit) and Dr. Leonard Laskow (Healing with Love).
And, while she still practices Lomi Lomi massage for Chico clients, it’s in the water where her talents in the healing arts truly merge.
Beginning with established techniques but moving into a Zen-like spontaneity, practitioner, client and water are said to meld, forming a unique, intimate connection designed to release and move chi, or life force.
Advocates say that, with the water’s lull and a practitioner’s support, Watsu not only helps alleviate injury and chronic pain, but also offers a lyrical, primal experience akin to deep meditation.
Kathlene Colvert had just broken up with her boyfriend when she went for her second Watsu session with Baldwin. She’d enjoyed her first experience and was ready to try again, but this time with a clear intention.
“I wanted to open my heart,” she says. “I didn’t want to be in pain.”
What happened during her session still amazes both Baldwin and Colvert. Baldwin remembers that “something told me she wasn’t getting the release she needed, so I took her under.”
“She actually put me under while supporting me, still holding my hand,” agrees Colvert. “And she stepped lightly on my heart and I pushed through the water and floated back up.”
When she surfaced Baldwin told her, “That’s right, no one’s going to step on your heart.”
“And it felt so good, it was such a release,” says Colvert, “it gave me a sweet peace that has stuck with me.”
By its very medium, Watsu can create such intimate experiences, which move past the physical to produce what Andrew Weil called “an altered state that I liked very much.”
Because you’re supported in the practitioner’s arms, you’re literally given over to him or her, sinking into his or her embrace while being alternately rocked, massaged, twirled, cradled and danced.
In basic Watsu, earplugs are optional, and your head is always kept above water. In the form known as Waterdance, you’re taken underwater—with nose plug in place.
Because Watsu relies so much on trust with the therapist, Baldwin is careful to set up the boundaries of the experience beforehand and give a thorough follow-up after.
Practicing in a four-foot-deep, covered, heated pool on a secluded piece of private property replete with trees and birds overhead, she might take two to three hours to give a Watsu experience. This includes consultation beforehand, an hour in the water, and a delicious solitude afterward, where you can munch on a provided snack and write, or simply contemplate your feelings.
“I like people to feel empowered,” she says, “so I’m careful to give them tools to use in the water, whether it’s how to breathe through unexpected feelings, or even to stop the session if they want. They have control.”
Baldwin works with individuals, pregnant moms and even couples and says Watsu has proven wonderful for physical ailments, helping clients ease chronic pain—for weeks at a time—from such maladies as headache, fibromyalgia and injury.
And, unlike many alternative healers, Baldwin does not shy away from acknowledging the more spiritual aspects of her practice.
“I consider the water very sacred,” she says, “and I think Watsu is about the gift of nurturing.”
So while she’s fine with those who simply want a water massage, she’s also there to “create a space for people to go as deep as they’d like.”
Each practitioner has his or her own style, and Baldwin’s is to work intuitively, without a preconceived agenda, seeking to align herself with what a particular client might need.
“When I first pick a person up in my arms,” she says, “there’s a time when we’re sinking, we’re just being there, and I’m getting hold of their rhythm, emptying myself totally and asking for guidance from their higher power, whoever knows them best. That’s where I find the intuitiveness and instinct comes in.”
Talking about the marriage between massage and water, Baldwin says what she can accomplish in the pool is equivalent to 10 times that on land.
“Because the muscles have relaxed so they’re not fighting you. You can find the knots and painful spots and run over them. In water, it’s like putting your hands through butter.”
In this way clients become so relaxed that body and water merge.
“If I’ve done my job, I disappear, too,” she adds, and, while expert, she still calls herself simply “a facilitator. I’m not doing it, I’m only assisting.”
Assisting in an experience she likens to a cleansing rain.
“Afterwards, it’s like walking into fresh air after that rain, you see things differently. The world hasn’t changed, but you have.”
Experiences range from those who are energized to those who say they “sleep rock hard” and may include the surfacing and release of long-buried memories or vivid dreams.
“What’s nice,” says Baldwin about the over 2,000 Watsus she’s given, “is that no two are alike. And even if you break down and cry, there’s something about the water that just carries it away.”
“I’ve had Watsus for four years,” confirms Mona Martine, recreational aquatic therapist for Enloe’s Rehabilitation Center, “and every one is totally different.”
Martine, who calls Baldwin a mentor, met her while searching for new professional techniques. Having used water therapy for 11 years with patients suffering everything from acute injury to arthritic and orthopedic distress, she’s seen its success and now incorporates some basic Watsu moves in her work.
“Certain holding patterns reside in the body,” she explains. “The longer these memories stay in the muscles, the more chronic they become.” Not just physical, but psychological memories, as well. And water therapies such as Watsu can offer a way to move them out.
”Watsu is totally rewarding,” adds Martine. “I would suggest anybody who has chronic pain issues, to try it.”
For her, Watsu “gets right to base of the psychological stuff that’s stuck. If you relax and let go, you go to a place where you’re OK, and from that point you can move out.”
Move out through emotional pain with the acceptance to help it heal.
“My first Watsu totally blew my mind,” she says. “I laughed and I cried, right from my belly. It felt so cleansing, and afterward I was just glad to be alive.”
The experience came, she adds, “from the core of my being. … The water is very forgiving and supportive, and PenRose is very nurturing and intuitive. She allows you the freedom to go as deep as you need to go at the time.”
Kathlene Colvert agrees.
“I feel like a whole new woman,” she says. “Breakups are a painful business, and sure there’s still heartache, but nothing like there was. And when I need to, I can go back to that movement in the water and feel that peace. It’s gentle but effective. I can’t help but rave about the whole thing. I think PenRose is lovely.”