FITNESS SECTION -PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER - NOVEMBER 3, 2003

 

Body Language | The body floats, and so does the spirit
Watsu combines therapeutic massage with the healing properties of water.


Ron Tarver / Inquirer
Julie Angel supports Bibi Green of Fort Washington during a Watsu session.

 

Julie Angel is often kidded about her name. It's perfect for someone who regularly transports folks to heaven.

The other day, I needed an angel bad. I was in a foul mood because of a blunder I'd made. Then I decided to bike from my house in Wynnewood to Angel's house in Wyndmoor on a day when light showers turned into a steady downpour.

As I pedaled along the Wissahickon, splashing through puddles, I raged at myself aloud for being such an idiot.

I showed up on Angel's doorstep soaked to the bone and flecked from head to toe with mud and cinders.

Angel was sweet and gracious. After we chatted for several minutes, she invited me to slip into something skimpy and join her in the hot tub.

Angel's "tub" is actually a mini-pool, and it is indeed hot - 98 degrees, same as body temperature. The pool is in Angel's office and is as essential to her profession - body worker - as the nearby massage table. The pool is the arena where Angel practices her specialty, the soothing art of Watsu.

It sounds like an African tribe or a '60s dance, but Watsu is a registered trademark, formed by the melding of water and shiatsu. Think of it as aqua-massage.

Angel defines it as "a nurturing and powerful modality in which the client is held in warm water and taken through a gentle series of movements and stretches."

In other words, Watsu combines the therapeutic touching and kneading of massage with the healing properties of water.

"The spine lets go and becomes more fluid in a gravity-free environment," Angel says. "People experience a true sense of weightlessness. Being held in water the temperature of the body is very womblike." For some folks, it's major reversion therapy, like taking a bath in amniotic fluid.

Watsu was developed in the early '80s at a hot-springs retreat in California (natch). Angel, a longtime massage therapist, discovered it seven years ago. It fit with her lifelong interest in the interplay among body, mind and spirit, or "how we manifest in the body who we are."

In her youth, Angel and her body were at war. "I come from a family of non-touchers. We were kinesthetically starved," she says. In her teens, she struggled with anorexia; at one point, she shrank to a waiflike 88 pounds. Anorexia, she says today, was a sign of a severe mind-body split.

That crisis launched her on a "quest for healing." She delved into metaphysics, sampled alternative therapies. "Something clicked," she says. In college, she spent two years studying psychology, but found it bloodless and abstract. She quit and went to San Diego and earned a certification in massage.

Angel's Watsu sessions last from one to three hours. You can combine an hour in the pool with an hour of massage on the table - "surf and turf," one waggish client calls it. Watsu is said to have helped folks with arthritis, fibromyalgia, low back pain, and limited range of motion.

Often, Angel serves as psychotherapist. The warm water, she says, induces deep relaxation. "People drop down to another level of feeling, and things bubble up." Her clients have had epiphanies about changing jobs, ditching spouses.

"It can bring up a lot of tears," she says. "This is real primal stuff, preverbal material that goes beyond thinking. Some people recall memories of being an infant."

One abused woman (most of Angel's clients are female; men by referral only), feeling safe for the first time in her life in Angel's arms, broke into deep, from-the-core sobs.

Time after time, Angel has seen Watsu pierce what she calls "the armored, defensive self." It's a surefire antidote to the maladies of modern life: stress, tension, rage, depression, neurosis. Says Angel: "So many people are deprived of touch and split off from their bodies, working at jobs where they're unhappy and unfulfilled, sitting at desks and computers, where their bodies are trapped and locked up."

My body isn't so much trapped as tortured. As a manly man, my objective is to make my body hard, tight, tough and tense. And no one has ever accused me of being a sensitive New Age guy; the only time I get touchy-feely is when I'm caressing a jeep. In short, Angel had her work cut out for her.

In the pool, she wrapped my lower legs with buoyant sleeves. (Because my body fat is so low, I sink like lead.) Then she embraced my torso, cradling my head in her arms. She began to gently rock and swish me through the water, as a mother might to comfort a cranky baby.

Then she guided my limbs through a series of dancelike movements, stretching and kneading my muscles and joints. Periodically, she stopped, still holding my head, so I could savor the sensation of surrender and profound relaxation, hear my heartbeat and the long, deep comings and goings of my breath. More than once, I vented a true sigh of relief.

Angel milked the tension from my hands and feet and smoothed the furrows on my brow. My floating body liberated my floating mind. The power of touch was never more sensuous and soothing. The stress drained from every fiber. No epiphanies percolated up, but I reveled in kinesthetic bliss. Gone was the savage beast.

"If this is what heaven is like," I thought, "I can take an eternity."

"Body Language" appears Mondays in The Inquirer.
Contact staff writer Art Carey
at 215-854-4588 or acarey@phillynews.com.

To contact Julie Angel, call 215-836-9779. For more
information about Watsu, visit www.watsuwoman.com and www.waba.edu.