Hypnosis in a bathing suit
The California retreat, Harbin Hot Springs, invented a powerful form of deep trance work variously called watsu and water dance
BY PAUL KAIHLA — I first heard of watsu when I went to Harbin Hot Springs with an ex because of its rep for having the best mineral baths north of San Francisco. We were surprised to discover that the place was actually a New Age hangout.
When my significant-other saw people in a pool doing what we later learned was watsu, she almost sounded like a socialite encountering lepers — “Ewww, who are those people?”
At first glance, it did look somewhat sideways: What seemed like a bunch of aging hippies in the nude, paired up and cradling each other as if they were attempting some kind of re-birthing exercise.
Perhaps it was our relationship that deserved the “Ewww,” not watsu. And the fallout from it led me through a path of serendipitous discovery that brought me back to Harbin to try this powerful and mysterious technique myself in the hands of a trusted practitioner and new acquaintance, Inika Spence.
You can take watsu on two levels. You can simply enjoy it as a massage in water (the origin of the name is “water” stitched together with shiatsu, the Japanese pressure-point massage). But if you want to take it deeper, watsu is really about being inducted into a meditative trance.
The hypnotic rhythm and sensuality of water is what gives watsu its juice — way beyond traditional hypnotherapy, counting down with eyes closed on a psychologist’s couch. Watsu immediately demands a far higher threshold of surrender and intimacy. After all, you’re handing control of your body — stripped of clothing and social setting — over to a practitioner in a medium that can technically kill (drown) you.
Inika, one of those rare silent types who is channeling an enormous amount of spiritual power, formed a circle with me using our arms, and we held hands. She bobbed me gently, inviting me to feel my weight in the water. It felt more like a weightlessness. She cued me to breathe into the bob, and extend my breathing into my bones, to extend those bones with my breath. She again shifted my awareness with an inventive image: “When I breathe, I smile at my organs.”
She then floated me into her arms, and I barely sensed her wrapping flotation foam around my ankles.
At times she held me in a concentrated pose, pouring presence and energy into our shared space, and during other passages swooshed me around like so much peasant’s laundry in a river.
The experience triggered something archetypal —a feeling of plunging into the depths of one’s own being, kind of like that image in Lord of the Rings where the wizard Gandalf falls into a bottomless abyss in the Mines of Moria.
This is where watsu asks for a secondary threshold of surrender: once you’re in a deeply meditative state . . . allowing layers of thoughts, memories, images and lumps in your throat or stomach to well up and have a place in your reality. Allowing all of those things that have been buried beneath the mental noise of the office and city living to arise. Without judgment, without trying to get rid of them, without trying to make sense of them, or doing a single thing with them.
After dwelling in that place for who-knows-how-long, I suddenly felt this euphoric awakeness. “I” wasn’t aware of myself as a personality but simply a sphere of awakeness, as if there wasn’t even a person there at all.
The mind would slip back in, start talking to itself about a thought that had come up, or an incident or a clogged pain.
And then I felt Inika’s presence again, and it gave me a booster shot to surrender even deeper: ‘I’ll hand these things over to Being‘, I silently resolved. ‘I don’t need them, you have the power to dissolve them.’
I wasn’t aware of time passing or even that I was a body in a pool anymore by the time Inika propped me up against the side of the basin and pressed my feet down onto its floor to literally ground me. She disappeared, and I don’t know when I got out of the pool. But I do recollect sitting on a deck chair and experiencing the most profound moments of my life.
I was facing a hillside of small trees and wild shrubbery. It was spring, and the branches were still bare, save for some sprouts and dead leaves. “What playfulness consciousness exhibits in living things,” I realized, observing the flamboyant patterns the intelligence behind the plants had produced. “It has an extravagant sense of humor, and I’m now in on the joke.”
A sublime awareness enveloped me: the tree forms were consciousness presenting itself to me, and I was another aspect of consciousness looking back on itself. That hillside, this place, only existed for the very moment that these two fonts of consciousness interfaced. The second my consciousness withdrew from here, the forms would no longer exist.
In a Heisenberg-like trick, it was my consciousness that had given the objects in my field of vision form and “reality” for that brief period. As soon as thoughts like this tried to reconstruct the experience, which arose out of a knowing that lay precisely beyond the act of thinking, the portal was closed.