Shared Stories: A retreat for the body and soul

Daniela Kanz thought a unique form of underwater massage would help her aching back. The clothing-optional rural retreat also nurtured her soul. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Daniela Kanz

My aching back has troubled me for years. When I learned that Wassertanzen (water dance in German), and/or Watsu, might prove therapeutic, my curiosity was peaked. I searched the internet and learned this bodywork in warm water combines Shiatsu massage and muscle stretching. The water dance is done under the water with the receiver of the treatment wearing a nose-clip.

One Friday morning at 7:30 am, we were off to Napa and the Wine Train. We had some difficulty finding our way as my co-pilot (I was driving) led me astray. We switched drivers, asked directions, and finally ended up on the right road again. We went over a toll bridge twice that we didn’t need to go on.

The wine train in Napa was just as I envisioned. We had a fancy dinner in a car decorated as an old fashioned dining car. The service and food were good and it was fun. I think I would enjoy going during the day and being in the ‘dome car.’

Then we were off to Harbin Hot Springs outside of Middletown. This is where Harold Dull developed the Watsu body therapy.

The hilly terrain and the stairs I climbed to our room presented some difficulty, but it was well worth the effort. After settling in, we put our bathing suits on and were off to check out the pools. We seemed quite out of place since we were the only ones there with swim suits on. 

Harbin is a clothing optional retreat. When we finally gathered up the courage to slip out of our bathing suits and slip into the pool, we were struck by how no one paid any attention, and there were no sexual overtones.  Most guests wore sarongs out of the water - unless they were sunbathing.  I was surprised to see a few children there as well. 

Loud voices are discouraged. There are several pools - one with lanes for doing laps, and a smaller heart-shaped pool with warm water and a low-normal voice range permitted. 

Another larger warm water pool has an adjoining smaller, hot covered pool that serves as a sanctuary. The warm pool requests you to ‘whisper’ and silence is required at the hot pool. 
A cold pool is a few steps up from the hot pool. There is beautiful foliage surrounding the area and decks provide a place for sunbathing or stargazing.

I met Michael (my ‘giver’ – and I was the ‘receiver’) at the massage hut where he explained how he liked to begin with a prayer to Mother Earth and Father Moon. He asked me a few questions and I told him my experiences with watsu in Palm Springs. 

I relayed that I wanted a watsu as well as the wassertanzen, especially after watching another couple in the warm pool earlier in the day. Michael told me we would meet at the small heart shaped pool.

When we were in the water, he asked me to get my hair wet and to hold my nose as I went under the water. I went under the water and he remarked “but you didn’t hold your nose!” I learned that when I took water ballet. 

Michael stated I was ready for wassertanzen and had me try the nose clip. He told me he would slip the nose clip on my nose during the session so I could have an initiation to wassertanzen

The 60 minutes went swiftly. The sensations were different from my previous experience.  In my first session, I felt like an embryo with the feeling of well-being and nurturing of a mother’s love. The new sensation I felt when I was completely submerged was that I was playing with the dolphins and whales.

There are no clocks or radios at Harbin, so after dinner we were in bed by approximately 8:30 p.m. 

In the morning, I awoke about 4:30 a.m. I wanted to check out the ‘star gazing’ deck and when I looked up into the sky, I was pleasantly greeted by Orion – the only star constellation I know. 
I entered the warm pool with several other people although not nearly as many as the previous afternoon. I tried the hot water pool and it was so hot, I felt I was burning my skin.  I didn’t get in much past my ankles.

I returned to the warm water again, but wanted to do something different. As I exited the pool into the hot pool area, I saw a woman coming out who was there since my first attempt to get in. 

I whispered, “How do you stand the hot water?” She replied, “Go in the cold pool first.” So I did – and I thought I would freeze, and couldn’t get past my waist – then I tried the Hot again, and did manage to get in for a few minutes. It did feel good on my back. 

Then I went to the heart shaped pool where I had my watsu/wassertanzen. There was only a single male soul there and he appeared to be mediating, so I slipped in the water as quietly as I could. 

I looked up into the sky and finally could see Orion again. In the other pools Orion was hidden from view by the foliage. I added some salty tears to the pool as I had myself a good cry. It really was a good cry - a cleansing of sorts. 

Then I began to remember the feelings of swimming with the whales and I thought to myself, how come no one ever asks a whale to get thinner? How come they are accepted just as they are? Why can’t I (and other people) accept me as I am? Maybe I’m supposed to be big. 

I acknowledge that I am tired of fighting the ‘battle of the bulge’ and that perhaps it would be better for my back if there was less of me, but for the moment, I need to worry about nurturing my soul. The body will just have to wait.

As we were leaving the retreat and going to our car, a young man was coming up the hill with two deer following him – a mother and fawn that reminded me of Bambi.  The deer are very tame near Harbin because they know no one will harm them. There were also many beautiful birds. 

Our time at Harbin was much too short and I want to return, but on September 12, 2015, the Valley Fire destroyed the majority of Harbin structures. The rebuilding is ongoing and I look forward to news of their reopening.