Mental Health Benefits Of Japanese Hydrotherapy, Watsu

Most Asian healing techniques put the spotlight on increasing bodily awareness to relieve stress and promote relaxation. Nowhere is this perhaps more evident than hydrotherapies like watsu, where the absence of most sensory stimuli, but water allows you to tune in closely to the inner rhythms of your body.  

A portmanteau of the words “water” and “Shiatsu,” watsu is a form of aquatic therapy that applies pressure on various parts of the body. Watsu uses techniques from the Japanese bodywork shiatsu – loosely translated as finger pressure – to facilitate healing and restore balance. 


Origins Of Watsu

Watsu originated in the 1980s as a brainchild of massage therapist Harold Dull. After studying Zen Shiatsu in Japan, he set up a school in Northern California where he experimented with shiatsu stretches on a massage table located in a thermal water pool. 

During his experiments, Dull realized that shiatsu techniques were more effective in water and that by keeping clients submerged in the water, there was no need for a massage table. Watsu offers a novel way to try out specific stretches and maximize joint movement, without the limitations of a massage table or gravity. 

The watsu, as we know it, draws inspiration from various Eastern and Western techniques like yoga, Thai massage, and physiotherapy. 

Today, watsu is part of a treatment plan for a wide range of conditions affecting various age groups. It can complement rehabilitation programs for orthopedic conditions like back pain, slipped disk, sports injuries, and neurological disorders like stroke, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and cerebral palsy. 

Likewise, hydrotherapy can strengthen the respiratory systems of patients who have asthma, cystic fibrosis, and chronic pneumonia.  According to sources, the specific physiological effects of watsu include: 

  • Decreased heart rate
  • Controlled breathing
  • Higher lung volume exchanged capacity
  • Easier digestion
  • Stimulation of the immune system
  • Improved function of the lymphatic system

How Does Watsu Work?

Watsu is an assisted type of therapy done in a pool or a hot tub. The water should be a comfortable temperature of 95°F (35°C), and you can wear floaters on your legs if necessary. 

Once you settle in and close your eyes, your therapist will gently guide your body through the water, keeping your head just above the surface. Your therapist will stretch your body, rotate your joints, and apply finger-tip pressure to tight areas like your neck, shoulders, and back. You can also expect periods of stillness where your body is just floating in the water.  

A typical watsu session lasts about an hour, and most patients report improved health outcomes. In an 18-month study of senior residents who received 30-minute watsu sessions twice a month, 73-100% reported minimal pain, reduced stress, enhanced flexibility, and quality relaxation. Up to 78% said that the benefits of the session extended up to three days or longer.


Mental Health Benefits Of Watsu

In addition to the physical benefits, watsu can reduce stress and anxiety by providing immediate relief from pain and tension-type headaches. This result is because aqua therapy decreases muscle spasm and activation and improves the visco-elasticity of soft tissue. 

Watsu is also useful in soothing children with attention disorders and improving their concentration by quieting the autonomic nervous system. 

If you’ve ever taken a long shower or washed your face after a long time staring at a screen, you might notice marked improvements with the way you’re feeling, right?  That’s the calming power of water. It can sharpen your cognitive abilities and improve your mood in an instant. 

This is what watsu tries to harness. By limiting sensory input to the bare minimum, watsu strips away non-essential thought patterns and allows you to focus on the present moment. 

Watsu can also help patients that have gone through psychological abuse and individuals who have post-traumatic stress disorder. The rhythmic movement of the water on the body can treat people suffering from insomnia and sleep disorders.   


In some cases, watsu can help treat patients with water phobia or trauma. With the support of a therapist, patients can reclaim negative experiences through a slow and phased re-introduction to water and its cleansing benefits. 

Final Thoughts

Before you dive into water therapy, it’s best to check in with your doctor, especially if you have open wounds, respiratory disease, osteoporosis, spinal problems, and balance issues. 

Once you receive the go-ahead from your doctor, contact your local spa or wellness center to ask if they have providers licensed in watsu or aquatherapy. Keep in mind that watsu requires close contact with the therapist, which means you might feel uncomfortable at first. Still, the immediate and long-term benefits far outweigh the initial inconvenience.  

In today’s fast-paced world, watsu offers a way to slow down and reconnect with your body. With water as your only material anchor, you can better appreciate the various bodily systems that work day after day, recognize signs of potential issues before they develop into severe conditions, correct harmful behaviors, and give your body the nourishment it needs. Try out water therapy and see the benefits for yourself.