It used to be landscapes that rooted in me a sense of belonging - always those devoid of human markings, spacious and rarified as desert or mountain. That was until I visited, in the hills a few hours north of San Francisco, a sacred Indian site where naturally hot waters burst to the surface. And it seemed to me then that those waters, that climate, those dry northern Californian slopes had fostered a humanity that dissolves all boundaries.
A single woman camping alone in a clothing-optional community - sure it breaks boundaries! Yet there, amongst apparent strangers, I felt safer and more accepted, acknowledged, recognized than ever before. For the first 24 hours, I wandered around cautiously waiting for the signs of threat, the warnings to retreat - they never came. Meanwhile, something extraordinary was happening to my guarded English heart. I was approaching my fortieth year and ready for something new.
What follows here is an edited and ecstatic extract from my journals after my first visit to Harbin to train in Watsu back in September 1998. It was a significant step in my water quest - one I'd like to share with you to begin this blog about aquatic bodywork and its essential medium, water. In the ten years since then, there has been much water under the bridge of my life but the memory of magic still remains. The venue itself has become more popular and perhaps more business-like but healing spirits are still its guardians.
I was there (at the School of Shiatsu and Massage founded at Harbin Hot Springs) to learn an unusual form of water therapy invented on site more than two decades previously by poet turned bodyworker, Harold Dull. Although Watsu (water-based shiatsu) is an effective therapy for physical, mental and emotional pain, this practice appeared to me to be a kind of cultural phenomenon. The ‘water family’ it spawned seemed to be tapping into our species' oceanic origins.
The watery medium and the warmth are a crucial part of this transcendence. Somehow the boundaries between individuals and between people and the immediate environment or larger universe are removed, at least temporarily. Water as cleanser, supporter, protector, eases the transition from separation to connection. In this place I fell in love with all types of people instantly and innocently. For the most part, the sense of safety was validated.
How is it achieved? You learn to hold another, or are held, suspended in spring-fed pools shaded with fig by day, lit by stars at night. Matching breath to breath you follow the free-flowing patterns of movement that arise spontaneously in liquid bodies. And after a while, if you let go of doing, remain present and aware, something magical happens. Perhaps it is this magic that evaporates out of the water and suffuses the air of that place. Perhaps the water itself hold the memory of all that joy.
Stepping out on to land, people are ready to play, eat well, dance, laugh, be creative, be themselves. There is no need to act the purist, radical or fanatic here because ordinary human activities seem somehow washed clean of prejudice. Originating in the primal soup, nurtured in the watery womb, made mostly of liquid substance ourselves, the aquatic experience can be a kind of homecoming. I returned for a 3-month sabbatical the following year and immersed myself in learning aquatic bodywork.
It's been too many years now since I was there; I plan to remedy that soon and write an update here (April 2009: Harbin Hot Springs: a quintessential spa retreat). I'd love to gather here the first experiences of others who went on to train in aquatic bodywork after visiting Harbin Hot Springs. You can write a comment directly below or email me.
Click here for a poem written after that first encounter.
For a fascinating blog including reflections on Harbin counter culture by Scott Macleod, click here.
Image: Warm pool celebration at Harbin.