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Mind & Body

Kristin Hovious, a Watsu therapist, helps Ingrid Ross relax through slow, rhythmic movements in warm water.

Water therapy soothes the mind and muscles

Logan Square woman finds relaxation and back pain relief through Watsu aquatic therapy during her pregnancy
Anne Stein
Contributing writer
Kristin Hovious, a Watsu therapist, helps Ingrid Ross relax through slow, rhythmic movements in warm water.

At eight-and-a-half months pregnant, Ingrid Ross, 33, was feeling big, heavy and uncomfortable. Whether she was sleeping or awake, moving or not moving, the Logan Square resident just couldn’t quite relax.

Then she tried Watsu, a gentle aquatic therapy that takes place in a shallow, warm-water pool. “It was one of the most amazing hours of my life,” says Ross, who returned to Galter’s small therapy pool just three weeks before her due date for another blissful session. “During Watsu I had no discomfort in my body. It was completely soothing.”

Watsu therapist Kristin Hovious slowly rocked and rhythmically moved Ross’s body through the 95-degree water, stretching Ross’s spine and easing her aching back and hips. “I was so relaxed and happy afterwards. It also helped clear my mind,” Ross says.

Watsu, or water shiatsu, was developed in 1980 by Harold Dull, who took his Zen Shiatsu (acupressure massage) training into California’s Harbin Hot Springs, where he ‘floated’ and stretched clients.

He found that the warm water offered support and relaxation to painful joints, and allowed the Watsu practitioner to move clients in a way they couldn’t be moved on land, especially those in chronic pain or with limited mobility.

At Galter, there are three Watsu practitioners (Hovious, Diane Novak and Ingrid Keating) with backgrounds including massage therapy, occupational therapy, yoga and Chinese medicine.

A typical appointment first involves discussing any health issues. Clients then step into the shallow therapy pool, where soft flotation devices are put on both legs and around the neck. The client remains totally passive during the entire one-hour session because the practitioner does all the stretching and supports the client’s body, sometimes cradling the head and neck. (To watch a video of a Watsu session, visit GalterLifeCenter.org/integrative-therapy/watsu)

“It feels euphoric to float and hear your breath and heartbeat under water,” says Ingrid Keating, a Galter Watsu practitioner. “Clients are able to shut off their worries, concerns and stresses,” she says, and practitioners even synchronize their breath with their client’s breath.

Those who can benefit include people in acute or chronic pain, those suffering from fibromyalgia, spinal cord injury, arthritis, lower back pain, neuromuscular disorders, sleep disorders, anxiety, cerebral palsy, autism, cancer, as well as people who simply want an hour to relax and escape from everyday stress.

Benefits include: Reduced stress, increased range of motion, reduced anxiety, decreased pain/holding patterns, better sleep, increased flexibility, decreased muscle tightness, and increased joint mobility and strength.

In a study published in 2005 by the Aquatic Exercise Association, for example, 16 retirement community residents in their 70s and 80s had twice-monthly Watsu sessions for 18 months. Residents had ailments including arthritis, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, hip and knee restoration and/or replacement, cancer, spinal fusion, and Parkinson’s disease.

After 18 months, the vast majority ranked physical pains and emotional stress at much lower levels than before treatments started. Comments included: “I sleep better. I have a sense of well being. My blood pressure is so much lower that my medication has been cut in half,” and “Not pain-free at the end of a session but feeling so much better and knowing that I will sleep better than any other time.”

Says Keating, who specializes in treating people with limited mobility and those in pain: “There’s a freedom that water brings that land doesn’t have because of gravity. In the water, our body, mind, spine and spirit are freed. There are no barriers.”

For more information on Watsu and to watch a video, visit GalterLifeCenter.org/integrative-therapy/watsus

For appointments and questions, contact: Kristin Hovious at (773) 878-9936, ext. 7446, or e-mail khovious@swedishcovenant.org; Ingrid Keating at ext. 3122, or e-mail ikeating@swedishcovenant.org, or Diane Novak at ext. 7723.

Ingrid Keating’s Watsu site: ChicagoWatsu.com

General Watsu information: watsu.com

Photo by Steve Matteo Photography.