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Chicago Tribune
Wade through the pain with Watsu treatment
Gentle, soothing therapy used to ease variety of maladies

By Robert K. Elder
Tribune staff reporter
January 11, 2007

Apparently, when you turn 30, your warranty starts to run out. The joints start to creak, muscles can go on strike.

And when my back went out just before the New Year, the At Play staff asked, "Have you ever heard of Watsu?"

My first guess--water kung fu?--was only half right. Instead, Watsu combines Zen Shiatsu massage with aquatic therapy to treat everything from lower back pain to arthritis and cerebral palsy.

Operation Fix Rob had begun--I suspect, because my colleagues were tired of hearing me stifle yelps of pain whenever I got up from my chair to do the Quasimodo shuffle to the drinking fountain.

So, early last week, I met with Ingrid Keating, the occupational therapist at Galter LifeCenter (5157 N. Francisco Ave.), a medical fitness facility in Albany Park. According to Keating's Web site,, the therapy takes place in a 94- to 96-degree pool, using Shiatsu stretching and "acupressure point work" to take pressure off of your joints.

The therapy was developed by Harold Dull in California's Harbor Hot Springs in 1980. Watsu therapy is used to treat a laundry list of chronic and temporary conditions (it's best to visit Keating's Web site to find out if it could work for you); back pain is a common one. It's only recently made its way to the Midwest, Keating said.

Watsu requires a physician consent form for a treatment, but I also had to fill out paperwork ("Do you have a history of motion sickness?") and have an initial assessment with Keating.

"How did you injure you back?" asked Keating, 30, a trim practitioner of Watsu.

Ah, yes. The most embarrassing part of this ordeal.

I went to lunch.

That's it. Just lunch.

I did not wrestle alligators, jump from an airplane, rescue damsels in distress. No, I ate trout for lunch and when I tried to get up, my knees buckled under the pain shooting up my spine. After a chiropractic session, a CAT scan of my spine and a weekend emergency-room visit, I was sent home with Valium and impressive pain meds.

No ruptured disc, my doctor said, nothing permanent. My problem was "muscular/skeletal," meaning I needed to strengthen and loosen up my lower back muscles, or I could look forward to more crippling back spasms. Joy.

Watsu could help, Keating said. It could help increase my flexibility and joint mobility, and help "interrupt the pain cycle."

So, after changing into a T-shirt and swimming trunks, I met Keating in a private pool adjacent to Galter's east swimming pool. Since Galter facilities sit adjacent to Swedish Covenant Hospital, the building feels like a cross between a medical facility and a spa. Community members swim laps, use the immaculate locker rooms and showers, etc.

Upon entering the pool, Keating attached two floating straps to my legs and gave me wax to push into my ears, I leaned back into the warm water.

She shook out my limbs, moved my lower back with her thumbs--all the while moving us in clockwise and counterclockwise circles in the pool. I could see how people with motion sickness could be made queasy.

"Gentle" is the watchword of Watsu, a very intimate therapy--I essentially become a rag doll that Keating bent and stretched. It turned me to mush, though I could never completely relax my neck, for fear of my nose and mouth dropping under water.

But Keating didn't let this happen as she rested my head on her shoulder, using her arm and knee to stretch out my left side. It was quite a change from a massage I once received in which I basically paid for a man to mug me.

For most of Watsu, my eyes stayed closed and I was one Enya song away from slumberland. I was never completely able to turn off my mind, however, mostly because I had to remain aware enough to write this piece.

"Do people ever just fall asleep?" I ask Keating after the standard 60-minute session.

"Sometimes, but I encourage people to stay in a meditative state," she said.

Although I was not sore or stiff after the therapy, I was extremely hungry, so during the 20 minutes it took to settle the bill (the Galter front desk is busier than an air traffic control center) I ate some tuna and crackers from a vending machine.

I'm already looking forward to future sessions, as the worst part was later--pain that had faded returned the next day.

A few more sessions and some strengthening exercises should ensure that my colleagues don't have to listen to me creak and groan when I get up from my chair after deadline.

An initial Watsu assessment and treatment costs $125, though multi-session packages are available from $325 to $355. The therapy is covered by some health insurance plans.

For more information on Watsu in Chicago, visit or contact Keating directly at 773-878-9936, ext. 3122 or

©2008 Chicago Watsu