Watsu Body Mechanics

Correct body mechanics serve both giver and receiver. With a good technical foundation a practitioner supports sensitively and effectively, moves flowingly, and is relaxed. Giving the session is enjoyed. Under these conditions a receiver is more likely to have an experience that is pleasurable, nurturing, effective as bodywork, and spacious for inner exploration.

If a client is particularly heavy in the water or cumbersome to work with, a knowledge of body mechanics prevents or reduces muscular soreness and injury. Tall men with long arms have an easier time with the technique of Watsu than short buoyant women. Yet, the judicious use of floats and weights enables even tiny women to practice Watsu successfully and offer their unique presence and qualities of compassion.

Some physiques are more prone to injury than others, being more mutable and less substantial. Those of a sturdier build, born to the profession, with greater vitality and stamina will not need to pay as much attention to how they execute moves, to pacing, or to adjusting to heavy or large clients. Nevertheless, a knowledge of how to economize on energy and honor the body is a factor which will extend an active, injury-free career.

For the bodyworker, injuries are often part of the path by which honoring of self and refinement of approach is learned. Many of my colleagues have shared how physical troubles arising through massage became their teacher, directing them into gentler, more energy-oriented modalities. Bodyworkers are drawn into Watsu for the same reasons. Watsu is kinder to the practitioner, but even so can be difficult, even injurious without practicing proper body mechanics, compensating for one’s limitations and adapting the work to the client.

As movement, Watsu most resembles Tai Chi. Its postures, slow and deliberate tempo, meditative mood, and awareness of the breath are much like the practice moves of this Chinese martial art. The first four principles of body mechanics have much in common with Tai Chi.

The stance taken in Watsu has the feet pointing forward. The knees bend forward over them, the hips drop down and the spine ascends vertical to the pelvis. This is the horse stance of Tai Chi, only wider. The buoyancy of water makes this wider stance possible without the added effort it would cost us on land. Giver and receiver share a common center of gravity which is quite high and often lying outside of either body. A top-heavy and unstable structure is the outcome. This extra broad base compensates then, giving the added stability needed to move another at chest level. Stand like a mountain.

Buoyancy is the key factor affecting body mechanics in water. Standing up out of the water, the body gains weight. When bending the knees and immersing up to the chin, it gains buoyancy. Anything lifted out of the water becomes heavier. Submerged, it is lighter, buoyed up according to its specific gravity. Standing up or working in shallow water increases groundedness on the pool bottom and hence the leverage to move. Sinking low or working in deep water produces the opposite effect. Reduced groundedness is the drawback to buoyancy; its blessing is the ease with which it allows us to support another.

The weight shift is a push off from one leg to the other to the front, side or back. Leverage is dependent upon the foot having traction on the pool bottom. The push begins isometrically, overcoming inertia. Once movement begins it acquires momentum. As the weight transfer finishes and stabilizes on the second leg, that knee bends to absorb force. The initial push is on a downward diagonal, producing a lateral displacement of the body in the opposite direction. The leg communicates its force to the pelvis. The trunk rides across above the pelvis. Muscles of the torso contract isometrically to keep it positioned over the pelvis against the displacing factor of water resistance. This stabilizing contraction of the torso also provides solid leverage for the arms to support and move partner.

In typical Watsu body mechanics, a weight transfer combines with pelvic rotation. The pelvis rotates in toward the femur of the leg receiving the weight. Rather like a bullfighter turning with a cape, the movement continues around farther to create a longer arc. When we generate movement from the legs and hips in this way, the arms and back are not overburdened. The arms remain directly in front of the shoulders. If they are not it means the spine is twisting, destabilizing to vertebral alignment and straining to the back muscles.

Gravity is fully operative in water. The buoyant force in water counters gravity. (It is an outcome of gravity, actually, a result of water pressure increasing with depth.) Holding objects or people up in water is easier than on land, but moving them laterally is more difficult--the mass of objects encounters the greater viscosity water has than that of air. The power to move partner sideways through the water comes from shifting the weight from leg to leg, rotating the pelvis and stabilizing the back and arms. Twisting the back is faulty body mechanics as it burdens the deep paravertebral rotaters (the transversospinalis group: rotatores, multifidus, semispinalis) with the task of shifting the entire body mass of partner against the resistance of the water, a role for which they were never designed.

A weight shift often broadens into a step, either to the front, side or back. The step is taken softly, and toe first, for a jarring heel on the pool bottom can be felt right up through the giver’s body by the receiver. The foot actually slides lightly in contact with the bottom. The challenge in taking steps in water is to maintain back and hip placement. Destabilizing factors are 1) the giving up and refinding of support, and 2) the water resistance offered by the mass of partner’s body and our own. With every step we take, whether on land or in water, the nervous system is making adjustments without conscious involvement. However in water, these skills must first be learned and imprinted before they become automatic.

Small backing up "Geisha" steps with the knees together are another way to travel. Whether taking large or small steps backwards, we avoid arching back. . Leaning back when not supporting partner on our shoulder is safe, however, if it is done with a "neutral back", that is with the back straight and the pelvis tilted under. We never lay partner on our chest - this a bio-mechanically unsound position in which to support weight

The step is a metaphor for transition and uncertainty. From a place of familiarity and support, a step reaches out into the unknown, already reducing support by half. It then falls into the unknown, where balance and security must be rediscovered. Just as transitions are the most difficult of life phases, steps present the greatest body mechanics challenge for Watsu students to master.

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