When was the last time you were really touched by another person? Not in a loving way by your partner or by a child with their sleepy limbs heavy on yours, but held tight and caressed without expectation or intent? This was the strangely intimate situation I found myself in at the Thermae Spa in Bath.
I had embarked on a last minute adventure to Bath with a friend, J; she experiencing a lull between freelance contracts and me, heartbroken and listless following the loss of the puppy. I am not usually one for pampering and spa days but the rooftop pool overlooking Bath’s historic buildings looked too tempting a proposition to miss, so we booked a day pass. The package included a spa treatment of which J read out the options to me over the phone. There was the usual full body massage and body scrub treatments, but being wary of treatments that might be uncomfortable on my injuries and scar tissue, those didn’t appeal. The last treatment she listed was Watsu. What the heck was Watsu I wanted to know? She was unsure, but said it was something to do with mobilising your joints in warm water. Okay, I decided, that sounded fine.
We spent the early afternoon visiting each of the spa’s pools from the crowded rooftop pool to the quieter basement pool, each with a temperature that allowed for no greater physical exertion than leaning against the side until fingers and toes crinkled. We then spent an hour alternating between steam rooms and the ice room, where handfuls of ice could be vigorously rubbed against protesting skin, until pink cheeked we made our way in robes to the treatment floor. Here it was quiet compared to the mob of tourists getting sun scorched in the pool overlooking the Georgian buildings. There were about 8 of us awaiting treatments and one by one, spa practitioners came out and claimed their victims until I sat alone in the waiting area. A petite, twenty something woman appeared in the door with a gentle expression and in a softly accented voice and introduced herself to me as Manon.
Manon led me to an incredibly beautiful private pool with a domed glass ceiling and deep steps leading in. It was about the size of the pool where I had had my hydrotherapy sessions in the early days after the accident and it was clearly used similarly, as the hoist above our heads hinted at. This was no NHS pool though, the cheery dolphin murals of the hospital replaced with immaculate Roman inspired tiles.
Manon bade me sit on the top step with my lower legs submerged in the warm water while she stood in the chest deep water and explained what was about to happen. She was slightly vague indicating that I was to trust her and relax completely. Now trusting and relaxing are two things that I am not entirely comfortable with, so I made sure to show her the full range of movement that my joints were capable of and stressed that although eager to try, being in recovery from PTSD and having no clue about what was to come did present a barrier to total relaxation. She frowned although due to disapproval or difficulties in understanding my fast, anxious speech was unclear. She beckoned me in to the water and fixed floats to my lower legs.
What followed was one of the more truly strange hours of my life. Submerged in the water and instructed to keep my eyes closed at all time, Manon cradled me in her arms and started gently moving me in the water. At first I was acutely conscious of our bodies in the water and preempted movements that I thought she wanted me to take, but after a while the bizarreness of the situation receded and I began to relax more. Manon tumbled me in the water releasing my hips and lower limbs until I felt that my body was as loose as seaweed buffeted on a current. The only sounds were of water lapping and the movements became more hypnotic as my spine was gently stretched and stroked. My eyes closed, my cheek pressed against hers, we circled slowly in the warm pool locked in a soft embrace. Manon gently manoeuvred me into a position straddling her with my head on her shoulder, in the manner of a toddler who has become too tired to continue walking and has fallen asleep in your arms. She stroked my head and pressed key pressure points on my skull as we drifted together before tumbling me over again and holding me like a baby, folding my body up until I fitted neatly in her arms. Finally she lifted me onto a seat in the corner of the pool and released me.
As soon I opened my eyes, the intimacy between us was gone. I felt exposed and awkward like a nightclub when the lights are rudely turned on at the end of the night interrupting a slow dance with a stranger, exposing your flaws and drunkenness with a 100 watt glare.
I smiled shyly at Manon, whose was now efficiently tidying away the floats. It must be hard, I said, being that close to strangers in such an intimate way. She smiled back, this time a genuinely warm smile. It was only then, she said, that the thoughts in her head were truly quiet.
I found my Watsu experience strangely disquieting, but have no doubt about it’s therapeutic potential. For chronic pain or for those unable to bear weight, it could provide blessed relief. I would be interested to hear the thoughts of anyone who has used Watsu as a successful treatment, do comment below.