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Health & Grooming: On the Waterfront

Roger Cox

Anyone who has ever sought out the water jets in a hot tub to relieve back, muscle, or joint pain will immediately appreciate Watsu, a massage treatment that is rooted in Japanese shiatsu and is performed in a pool of body-temperature water. Think of it as a floating massage. The warmth and buoyancy of the water allow the muscles to relax completely, making it easier for the therapist to treat the sources of pain caused by injury or stress.

The treatment was originally developed two decades ago by Harold Dull at Harbin Hot Springs in northern California, but it remained little known east of the Mississippi until July of last year, when northeast Florida’s Amelia Island Plantation opened a spa and began offering Watsu as its signature treatment. Almost instantly it became a hit with vacationers and stressed-out executives alike.

At Amelia Island, Watsu treatments take place in an enclosed saltwater pool on a tiny island in Red Maple Lake. Dressed in a robe and swimsuit, you pad across a wooden footbridge to reach the island, where Jomi Trotter, the Watsu practitioner, leads you into the 3-foot-9-inch-deep pool and then explains much of what she will do during the 30-minute session. “All I need you to do,” she begins, “is breathe and let go.”

In Watsu, you float on your back, eyes closed, with your head supported in the therapist’s arms so that the water just covers your ears. Trotter begins pulling you gently around the 12-by-20-foot pool, waiting, she says, for you to “give up control.”

“It’s the only modality where the body is completely supported,” explains Trotter. “That weightlessness allows the muscles to relax, and the movement through the water creates a traction that elongates the spine and joints.” Once the muscles relax and the spine and joints are stretched, she uses her fingers to probe the pressure points at the base of the skull, neck, and spine.

Trotter herself was first exposed to Watsu in New Mexico when she sought treatment for a knee injury. She was so taken with the results that she became a practitioner herself, first at New Mexico’s Ojo Caliente Spa, where she trained, and later at Château Élan near Atlanta, before going to Amelia when the spa opened there.

From the beginning, it was Watsu’s healing properties that attracted her. “It’s very good for postoperative rehab,” she notes. “With the water supporting the limbs, it’s easy to isolate an injury and do very gentle stretching.” Watsu is being touted as a useful treatment for everything from anxiety and stress to arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic back pain and other orthopedic problems, muscle soreness, and various degenerative diseases.

“People have very personal reactions to Watsu,” says Trotter. “Some say it’s like floating on a cloud; others say they feel like a piece of seaweed. They lose sight of the therapist. If there’s one adjective to describe Watsu, it’s ‘freeing.’ ”

The Spa at Amelia Island Plantation, 877.843.7722, www.aipfl.com

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