As these water treatments free you of gravity's pull, devotees claim they can buoy you—mind, body and spirit—into bliss
By Rose Spinelli Photograph by Martha Williams
August 25, 2005
There's a good reason why soaking in a hot tub has long been a cheap and easy cure to relieve the daily stresses of modern life: Warm-water immersion awakens in us primordial memories of being in the womb. Though their methods of getting there are diametrically opposed, the following aquatic therapies try to re-create that sense of harmony and restore calm to the central nervous system. One creates full-sensory interconnectedness between you and your therapist; the other is carried out in solitude, denuding you of all external distractions. Ultimately the results can be the same: Once you are weightless and unrestricted by the effects of gravity, your senses are free to soar.
Watsu was developed in the 1980s by Harold Dull, a Middletown, California–based practitioner of Zen shiatsu—the Japanese pressure-point massage technique.The practice has taken a solid hold on the West Coast, where even grannies are into alternative practices. But this is the Midwest, and because Galter LifeCenter is largely a rehabilitation fitness center and not a spa, it's a hidden treasure. With so many "fusion" treatments out there, watsu seems more marketing ploy than sound science, so we were skeptical—and wrongly so. It's high time the secret is revealed.
The water temperature in the Galter pool that's dedicated to watsu hovers around 95 degrees, and the depth is a reassuring four feet. Ingrid Eichberg, director of the watsu program, shows up with floaties, which she secures around clients' calves, and natural fiber–filled pillows that she discreetly employs, on and off, beneath their neck and knees, leaving her arms free to move clients around while keeping them supported. For the next hour, with her assistance, clients float shut-eyed on their backs in a deeper state of relaxation than they've ever known.
Before stepping foot in the pool, Eichberg, an occupational therapist, takes a detailed history of any physical or psychological issues her clients may have. There are countless applications for this technique besides general wellness and she's found it to be useful for people with chronic pain such as arthritis and fibromyalgia; children with cerebral palsy, autism and spina bifida; and even for those who suffer from mental and emotional disorders. Cradling them in her arms—and often using her shoulders, head and torso as supports—her hands do double duty: First, she moves her clients, body part by body part, to and fro, the effect of which is a hypnotic rhythmic swaying. Intermittently she employs shiatsu, finding points with her fingers—or sometimes her whole hand—to massage tight muscles. With ears submerged the experience becomes even more ethereal: breath and heartbeat are amplified and in seeming harmony with each swoosh of the water.
The movements begin passively, but as we keyed into Eichberg's rhythms we began to initiate some of the movement. If you've ever had a really good dance partner you'll understand the sensation. We struck such a flow that we weren't even sure who was moving whom, and as long as we didn't think too hard and wonder if we were doing it right, we were able to revel in the peaceful ambiguity of our water dance.
Later, Eichberg affirms that our sensations were on target. "The intention is for you to lose track so that you can move through the water and be put in positions the practitioner intuits you need," she says. In the process, she was able to increase our joint mobility and range of motion as she reduced our stress. We felt limber, loose and totally lulled by the experience. Galter LifeCenter, 5157 N Francisco Ave at Foster Ave (773-871-5145, www.galterlifecenter.org).
Even if you're not claustrophobic, when dipping your foot into an 8' x 4' x 4', ten-inch-deep salt-water tank that's pitch-black, you might feel a tug in your gut that says, I don't want to do this.
Floating in a tank sounds unappealing for a number of reasons: Some clients are skeptical about the cleanliness of the water (the tank water is not replaced after each client), their ability to handle an hour in these cramped quarters (there's only enough room to sit up, not stand up) and a sinking feeling of abject aloneness (sure, you can open the three-pound door and put an end to your self-imposed quarantine anytime, but you still feel like you're entering a world of the forgotten).
Apparently these thoughts are in the normal range of emotions for first-time floaters. To cope with them, this client opted to take it in five-minute increments—or an estimate thereof, since there's no clock, and you wouldn't be able to see it if there were one anyway. That's the whole point of flotation tanks, which are often called sensory-deprivation or isolation tanks: no outside distractions.
The receptionist at SpaceTime Tanks, Chicago's oldest flotation center, talked us through what to expect. At the time, we felt she went on too long, but once you're in the tank, her tips work like a mantra to ease anxiety. The first helpful suggestion is to interlock fingers behind your neck and use your hands as support, which makes the floating quite comfortable. The water is sterilized electronically after each use. Still, it tastes funky, if you happen to get some in your mouth by accident. It's heated to 93.5 degrees to add to the feeling of oneness with your body temperature. We never quite achieved harmony; all that drifting in darkness—in what direction or how much is hard to tell—was too disorienting. We gutted it out for what turned out to be 20 minutes and hightailed it out of there.
Eric Polcyn, owner of SpaceTime Tanks, has heard all this before. "Everyone goes through it," he says of first-time floaters' reactions. "They're instinctual biological responses. Am I safe? Can I get out? Am I in control?"
Flotation tanks became the rage in the 1970s when, inspired by the experiments of Dr. John Lilly, the 1981 film Altered States was released, depicting William Hurt floating with hallucinogenic results. Lilly used the tanks as an observational tool into our psychological hardwiring, but unexpectedly found that people experienced a profound sense of relaxation from floating.
Polcyn says clients often float for hours at a time. Quitting smoking, problem solving or creative visualization—such are the possible positive outcomes, as long as you can take the isolation. "One guy comes in for about three hours every day. I never ask him what he's doing". Polcyn says his philosophy is to let people just come and do their own thing. "I tell people to try it three to five times to fully understand what all the fuss is about, and why it's been an industry for over 30 years." SpaceTime Tanks, 2526 N Lincoln Ave between Lill Ave and Altgeld St (773-472-2700, www.spacetimetanks.com).