Sitting in the house over a stream in which I sleep to the sound of running water, I look back on the sources of Watsu and see a child surrounded by water out on the tide flats of Whidbey Island, running up another flock of gulls, still following their flight up into that bright sky. I stoop over to scoop up another handful of sand to build another castle, knowing full well that, like all those before, it will soon disappear under the rising tide. Water takes so many shapes. Water has no shape.
I search my way through three college majors, Physics, Pre-Law, Philosophy, and finally find myself in the Creative Writing department at the University of Washington. I am a poet. And like most poets in 1957, on graduation, I head straight for San Francisco and, with great joy and great seriousness, dive headlong into the scene which us poets call the 'San Francisco Renaissance.'
In the poems that come to me, water or the sea and its waves are as common as being in love:
How I am drawn back into that dark
to stand on the shore
before the mystery at the prow of Venus's bark
as it scrapes sand and foamy dress thrown off
she steps out.
How I am drawn back to that spot
I heard, running towards her new flowery dress, her cry and laugh
Oh beauty born in the deep of night
Oh beauty born of sexual delight.
I live on California's north coast, teach Pomo Indians in a one-room grade school and write. I cross another sea to Europe and immerse myself two years in its art and languages. I return to San Francisco. . . and the ocean at Stinson Beach:
Sanosa como la mar
esta la nina
Ay, Dios! Quien le hablaria?
When she rode in on the wave and walked back smiling "It's
beautiful. You really ride on top of the wave." I felt
as good as if I had ridden in
and when after several failures trying as she said to 'get right there
where the wave breaks' a wave carried me all
the way in on top of it and I walked back to her she
looked as happy as if she had ridden in
but when that 'right wave' I had waited so long for broke
over me and the board broke under me against my balls and
I jumped up in pain with only the top of the board in my
hand in the froth beside me holding up the bottom she
"You broke it and I never got my turn again! You
hogged it! You're so selfish! You would never let me have
my turn and now you broke it!"
and all the way up the shore
all the way up to the men's showers she ran after me
waving the bottom shouting riding on top of the crest
of the wave of her anger
Two years at Stinson Beach, three days a week I drive into San Francisco and study linguistics to complete my Masters in Teaching English as a Second Language. All year round, I go into the waves and bodysurf (without a board), without a wetsuit, though Northern California waters are cold. But there is such ecstasy riding on these waves. I focus on the brightness in each wave and my body does not feel the cold. And one day, sitting out on a log over the ocean, the brightness of each wave's breaking becomes words breaking out of my mouth in languages I had never heard before, over and over, until all my questions are answered in one clear statement: "Your voice is everybody's voice."
But that voice weakens- one year in Canada and three teaching at a University in Mexico City, the connection with that Ocean and the San Francisco Scene gradually dissolving. Without other poets to read and publish with, the poems come further and further apart. Returning to San Francisco, I feel even more isolated- North Beach emptied of its poets. I am not a flower child. I have always avoided psychedelics and psychotherapy and religion and whatever else might muddy the waters at the source of the poems, that clarity when the poem is writing itself with light. But that light is dim and those waters- more and more stagnant.
One day I discover that water comes in still another ecstatic form: hot springs. Out in the middle of the woods. How absolutely delicious to lie back in a pool of hot water naked under trees and sky, total peace. The next two years I scour the woods and mountains of California seeking out the wild ones. One day I ask a woman in one of the pools I find if she would like a massage. I am forty years old and have never received a massage in my life, let alone given one. She says yes and I start working on her back. She notices I'm not very experienced and shows me how to lift the shoulder blade to work under it. She knows massage. We become friends and, over the next few months, she teaches me. Having just built a hot spring like pool in my backyard, instead of buying a table, I set up a padded board just under its surface and massage people in warm water. I call it 'Wassage'.
My friend takes a course in Zen Shiatsu and sits me on the floor to give me a sample. I love it. I study with Reuho Yamada at his Temple of the Lotus Flowers, and Wataru Ohashi. I love the connection we feel when we lean into a point at the bottom of the breath. It is not unlike the peace at the center of the ecstasy in Tantra.
Hot springs create spontaneous community. They are wonderful places to find people to practice on. An offer to share Zen Shiatsu is always welcome. My favorite is Skagg's Springs. It is wild again after the last vestiges of a resort that had been condemned to make way for a reservoir have disappeared. One morning, sleeping beside the pool, I have a dream that wakes me to write:
its diamonds in the water
and all our loves
shine and come out to play
its diamonds in the water
and all we have
shimmers and flows away
its diamonds in the water
Another morning before dawn I wake and go down to the pool. A woman is in it. I give her a Shiatsu while she sits in the water. When I finish she turns her head from side to side and says she hasn't been able to move like that since she had been in an accident. She says she felt healing in my hands. I thank her. My joy at hearing that stays with me as I stride up the side of a mountain, in awe that something like this could happen through me. At the top the circle of trees are filled with light. God is here. I drop to my knees. He bends down and lifts me. Holding my arm, He walks at my side along the ridge. He guides me down a stream. The streambed below is tangled in brush. There is an easier path along the gully's side. "Which way do I go?" "Whichever way you go I am with you." -words that never leave me. I sit out on the bank over the pool - such brightness- the pool, the children splashing in the water, the trees, the birds singing in the branches, are all sitting in God's hand. We are all sitting in God's hand. I look down at my own, open to hold others.
My beloved Skagg's is disappearing under the waters of a reservoir. Someone there once told me about another. Harbin Hot Springs is not wild (though some find it so), but it is a New Age workshop/retreat center with many people to practice Zen Shiatsu on. I complete my studies in Japan with my first two teachers' teacher, Shizuto Masunaga, and offer Zen Shiatsu workshops at Harbin. One night I float somebody in its warm pool and she floats me. My body starts to vibrate. I stand up and the vibrations are waves that rise up my back, all the way up into a world of light. I want to float others. I want to take others to that place. I float others and gradually incorporate stretches and moves from Zen Shiatsu, I call it Watsu.
The Water Dance
Full Moon, July, 1983
If you happen to find your way into the warm pool at Harbin Hot Springs
and an old man with a white beard drifts up to your side
and, casually mentioning he comes up every weekend to teach the Shiatsu classes,
asks if you would like some in the water - 'Watsu' he calls it "something I developed in the pool here. . .I like to practice it every chance I get. . ."
and you will find yourself being floated
your neck in the crook of his arm your sacrum in his hand
as he rocks you back and forth. . .back and around. . .back into a world without sound. . .back into the waters of the womb
as he swirls and sways you the way dolphins play
as he stretches leg and arm and back every way water allows
or drapes your legs over his shoulders and lifts you clear of it
the way an old man plays with the daughters of creation
and sets you down astraddle his held out leg
so that the chakra in your perineum is held from below by his thigh
and your hara by one hand
and your lower back by the other
so that the energy locked in that bowl is free to rise all the way up your spine
and join that old man's
two intertwining dragons spiraling heavenward. . .
Maybe he is just another lecherous old man
to all the pretty girls in the pool
I just want to be by myself. . ."
will find another
The sky is filled with dragons
That was fifteen years ago, in Watsu's Dragon Days, but in the days since, as Watsu spreads out into the wider world, most of those dragons are left up there with their tails hanging out of the sky. And rightly so. Each person's experience takes that form in which Spirit is ready to take, and it might not be a dragon. I've had to learn a lot about boundaries (which, had I learned earlier would've stopped me from floating anybody. In the nineties I'm not comfortable going up to a stranger.) One of the first lessons I learned was that what I perceive as waves of energy rising up into light, is not necessarily perceived that way by others. I used to end each session holding my partner to share those waves rising up. Then one day I held someone who had had a history of abuse. I quickly changed that ending to today's, where we leave a person in their own space against the wall and focus on the connection we still have without any physical contact. This is right. I had made that rising of light at the end a goal. Watsu has no goal.
There was little stillness in the Dragon Watsus. There was no Water Breath Danceâ¦no listeningâ¦ no Follow Movement. These came later- the stillness that the other can drop deepest into and find where their own wave and rising begins. And if they do, it is then, resonating to that, being with the other, that our own wave can reach its highest. And if they don't, we stay in the stillness with them. This is right. Watsus are still poems written in water, but they are poems we write together
A footnote on the Body Wave
Those who see it or feel it in another without having experienced it in their own body, may interpret it as sexual or worse. In the Middle Ages, women who had these kinds of waves were burned as witches. In the 19th century Anton Mesmer had to cut short his pioneering work with energy in Paris because the medical establishment, seeing a woman he touched go into waves, made a law against it saying it was unhealthy for both the patient and the practitioner. Recently in India, a Yoga teacher known around the world for the control over the body he exhibits and demands, after repeatedly telling a student to stop her belly's vibrating when she went into a pose, walked up and kicked it.
The wave is a letting go of control; the wave that connects us to those we hold close to our heart, the wave that rises up out of the void we drop deepest into in meditation. Wherever control is let go of in the continuing creation that is this universe, a new order spontaneously arises. That wave or spiral up into light is that most basic principal of creation being actualized within us again and again- light in water. This is where Watsu began for me.
A footnote to the footnote
Where Watsu began for me . . . and where does it stop? Where do the ripples sent out from that first pebble stop. Ripples? Hardly had that pebble hit the water and someone picked up someone in their arms and jumped in, and those in their arms picked up someone and jumped in- and at this moment, and at every moment, someone, somewhere around the world, is picking up someone in their arms and jumping in. So much light in the water. It never goes out. A wave that never breaks. A World Wave that we are all in the arms of- the whole Water Family.