Water womb

How Watsu water therapy is being used to treat trauma

Viktoria Simonyan administers Watsu water therapy (photo credit: ETZ V MAYIM)
Viktoria Simonyan administers Watsu water therapy
(photo credit: ETZ V MAYIM)
Viktoria Simonyan believes in the healing power of water. As a certified Watsu and Waterdance therapist, she harnesses the womb-like, assuaging properties of water every day. Simonyan, 32, who was born in Lithuania and raised in Seattle before coming to Israel in 2010, has been something of a mermaid from the time she was two weeks old.
“I’ve been in the water for most of my life,” she says. “Then I had a life-changing experience in the Dead Sea with water therapy. It became very clear that it was what I was meant to do. This was seven years ago. Since then, I’ve worked very hard to train. Every day I’m in the water. I’ve worked hard to develop my practice. It’s something really special.”
Simonyan now practices water therapy at the Etz v Mayim pool in Beit Zayit, which, at 13, happens to be the oldest therapy pool in Israel. There is more Watsu and water therapy per capita in Israel than anywhere else in the world. Watsu was originally developed in California by a hippie who was playing around with friends in the hot springs. Now it has become a massive movement.
Watsu is defined as a combination of elements of shiatsu, massage, muscle stretching and dance done in water that is kept at approximately body temperature. To become a Watsu practitioner takes many years. It is an internationally accredited discipline, but in Israel there aren’t many accredited teachers.
Luckily for devotees like Simonyan, there are teachers who come to Israel specifically to train other enthusiasts. “They rent a pool and we learn,” Simonyan says. “It’s a lot of practice. I can’t tell you how many thousands of hours I’ve done. The status in Israel isn’t the same internationally, but after Watsu 1 and 2, I was able to practice here. By now, I’ve done much much more than that.”
Under the umbrella of water therapy are a number of variations. Watsu is the most well-known and popular. Simonyan practices mainly Watsu and Waterdance.
With Watsu, the treatment takes place with both therapist and client’s heads above the water. Waterdance is, in some respects, the next level, taking both of them under the water. “With Watsu, we’re holding the person while they lie on their back,” Simonyan explains. “Their ears are under the water, so they don’t hear anything. It’s a kind of sensory deprivation.
“When one of your senses goes away, your others get bigger. So already, you’re immediately having a different kind of experience. We hold the person, move them, stretch them, all these different techniques. But most importantly, the person ends up having a relationship with the water. That’s really what’s giving to the person. It’s very special.”
Each session is between 40 minutes and an hour. Simonyan is with the client the entire time, holding them as she gives a body treatment. Some people who come to Simonyan for treatment are not comfortable in the water and have never had any kind of meditative experience.
She emphasizes that, when the first Watsu session ends and it’s time for them to open their eyes, they don’t right away; relunctant to leave the anesthetized state they have entered.
Waterdance was developed independently of Watsu in Switzerland. While wearing nose clips, the client is guided underwater, where he or she is pulled and swayed by the therapist.
“Imagine putting your life in someone else’s hands; that’s Waterdance,” Simonyan adds. “I’m taking someone and putting their head under the water. The level of trust, safety, release and letting go is so extreme.
“They end up being completely free and ‘flying’ under the water. The flying could be slowly or quickly, but they’re completely enveloped in water. I have men two times the size of me in my arms, upside down in a fetal position. That feeling is almost impossible to give over. Someone could be lying on their belly and I’m holding their feet. Essentially I’m pulling their body by their feet like that worm dance all along the pool. It’s like being flung.”
Simonyan stresses the point that she can take Waterdance only as far as the client is ready to go, and as much as they trust her and have let their guard down. She does not force anyone to do anything; that would be traumatic and antithetical to the entire process. Simonyan adds, “Every level we get to is because the person has uncovered and let go in order for us to get there together.” Hence, Waterdance is truly a partnership.
Simonyan works with a diverse array of people, although most have some sort of physical injury. Her favorites are soldiers and she is quick to point out that most Israeli citizens were soldiers at some point and she claims that all suffer from PTSD.
“That’s one of the reasons why the water is powerful, because it’s not just the regular tension that Americans may get from the nine-to-five workday or a hectic life,” Simonyan says. “Living in Israel adds a whole different component. What the water gives is a profound sense of safety.
“Where I can get to with a client in the water takes three to five months with other forms of therapy, because of the amount of trust that the person must feel; not just because a stranger is holding them in their arms, but because their body has a memory. Originally, we were all in warm water in our mother’s womb.”
Simonyan shares that over 95% of her clients describe feeling like they are back inside their mother’s womb during water therapy. The water flows undeterred yet gently past a person’s defense mechanisms. This process of release gives them a sense of safety and healing. It is then that they truly let go in the water’s loving embrace. For soldiers in particular, who must be constantly on alert in order to survive, this therapeutic reprieve is vital for healing trauma.
“They’re just receiving: both love from me, from the water, and from themselves,” Simonyan adds. “The water is a profound mirror, where they get to see who they essentially are. For soldiers specifically, this is invaluable. The soldiers need to be on all the time. This is a space where it’s safe and okay to shut off. The incredible thing is afterwards, because this was a felt experience that is stored in their body, they can tap into it and feel that sense of safety wherever they go. Maybe not to the same extent, but they can access it.”
The therapeutic methods of water therapy are given and received in a somewhat indirect manner, unlike more traditional therapy. It is precisely this indirect nature that Simonyan believes makes water therapy so effective; the defense mechanisms don’t feel the need to respond.
Most soldiers come with physical injuries, as do many others who come, ranging from minor to severe. But it is what remains under the surface that Simonyan has a vested interest in treating. Her niche is the emotional, psychological and spiritual elements addressed through the physical.
Simonyan and the water form a team that treats the intangible through the body. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had high-ranking officers say that they really need this,” she recalls. “I see trauma every day and work with it every day. It isn’t just soldiers. That’s the reality of living in this country.”
As a therapist, Simonyan admits that some ethical questions are raised regarding the treatment of soldiers and veterans, even if they’re not on active duty, due to the fact that they could be called up at any time. For someone to be in therapy for trauma and risk having that healing space threatened could potentially be harmful to the patient. Overall, however, Simonyan believes that the effectiveness of water therapy is paramount and worthwhile, and that the benefits far outweigh the risks for soldiers and reservists alike.
She hopes that one day it will be mandatory for all soldiers to undergo water therapy after they finish their service, and that it will be covered under health insurance. Since this type of therapy is still very new, there is no telling what the future may hold. There are currently many soldiers receiving hydrotherapy as part of their physical therapy treatment. Perhaps water therapy will be added on.
Simonyan emphasizes that, in an ideal situation, water therapy is accompanied by psychotherapy. “With hydrotherapy, there’s no follow-up, no team work with another psychologist or therapist, and it’s not done in a therapeutic setting,” she says. “When I get soldiers privately doing Watsu, they see how important it is to treat PTSD with a therapeutic approach. They always tell me afterwards that they need to tell the rest of their unit and friends to come. When I tell them about my goal, they all agree that this needs to exist.”
According to Simonyan, the water works on a multitude of levels. If on the physical level of pain, a person has a much wider range of movement in warm water than on land, and the muscles can move and relax in a way that would not be possible on land. Additionally, there is the sense of losing gravity; of complete weightlessness. The body, in turn, has a surreal experience where it can heal and release pain.
On the mental level, since the person doesn’t hear anything, their mind begins to quiet down. Some people fall asleep, but most enter a state between sleeping and being awake, where they can hear their breathing and heartbeat. This deep, almost meditative state is where the healing takes place.
“The important thing about being a water therapist is what I call being a breathing scientist; to know a person’s breath as well as my own,” Simonyan explains. “There are so many techniques used: energy work, cranial/ sacral work, physical therapy. It’s a combination of mental, emotional and physical. It’s profound and it’s a process that’s different every time. Not just depending on how I’m feeling or how the person is feeling, but it’s different because each session builds on the ones before and is new.”
In Judaism, water is seen as having transcendent and restorative powers. Married, religious women immerse in the mikve once a month to become ritually pure for intimacy with their spouses. The splitting of the Red Sea is seen like a birth canal, where the Jewish people was born into a nation.
In this sense, it is perhaps not surprising that water therapy highlights the natural healing properties of water. Water therapy harnesses what nature has already given and utilizes it in combination with skilled and caring practitioners, like Simonyan herself.
“It’s really exceptional,” she declares. “Everyone has their idiosyncrasies, issues and baggage. Going to the water, all of those things float to the surface and for an hour, get to wash away. Or like a mirror, they get to see what it is and in a very gentle way, receive hints as to how to experience life without it; how to let go and feel love in place of that.”
For more information: www.good-water.net ; www.facebook.com/ Waters-Embrace-232563396813968/