Thursday, January 19, 2012
Eyes shut, I can’t see the meditating gold frog perched beside the pool. But I can hear my own heart, and the water flowing past my ears, and a low hum from the chest of WaterDance therapist Patricia Branum.
I’m in a dream state through most of the one-hour session, while Branum gently manipulates my limp form so I’m swirling and stretching like kelp in a calm sea. She rolls me into slow underwater somersaults and massages muscles made weightless, timing her movements to the rhythm of my breath so I’m submerged for exhales, surfacing for inhales.
There’s a potential awkwardness to this experience; a woman I’ve just met is cradling me against her bosom in a body-temperature bromine pool. But hydrotherapy is about letting go physically and emotionally. When I surrender to it, the water absorbs thoughts and stress – a purifying feeling that evokes pre-memories of being held by my mother as an infant.
Branum, owner of the new Aqua Wellness Day Spa in Pacific Grove, says every WaterDance client has a unique experience with it. Her own 14-year-old daughter calls it “the mermaid” and begs to be whipped around in underwater spirals. A terminally ill client who hadn’t been touched in a decade reconnected with her need for nurture, Branum says, and a hyper little boy recovering from open-heart surgery became uncharacteristically calm.
“When you find that beautiful space under the water when you don’t need to inhale or exhale, it’s meditation,” Branum says. “It’s peace.”
WaterDance was developed in Germany in the late 1980s. Just a few years earlier, the director of Harbin School of Shiatsu and Massage in northern California coined the name Watsu to describe his practice of aquatic shiatsu (a key difference being that the client doesn’t go underwater). Branum studied both at Harbin, and says they’re especially effective at helping injured or disabled clients restore movement and flexibility.
Aqua therapy also invites an emotional release. “The water is a natural healer,” she says. “It can absorb whatever you throw at it.”
Aqua Wellness offers typical spa menu items like massages, mani/pedis, body wraps, waxing and facials. Price points are tailored to well-heeled customers, ranging from $20 one-hour sauna rentals to $320 90-minute Swedish intuitive massages.
But it’s the pool that most sets Branum’s spa apart. In addition to WaterDance and Watsu, customers can try aqua yoga and ai chi classes, private therapeutic soaks and sauna sessions.
Branum, a soft-featured blonde with a Mississippi lilt, moved to P.G. from Humboldt in 2005 as a single mother of two. Over the next five years she traveled to Harbin for weeks at a time to earn her certifications in bodywork and aquatic therapy.
Her WaterDance teacher, Richard Bock, says she came to his classes with an innate sensitivity to the human body. “She was our favorite student over the last few years,” he says. “She would just pick stuff up so fast.”
With thousands of hours of training on her résumé, Branum took a business class and made a “wishboard” of the elements she wanted to manifest in a spa.
Getting a pool approved in notoriously water-limited P.G. was an intense source of stress even for a master of relaxation. But Branum managed to line up the permits for a former tanning salon with water credits and an accommodating landlord.
With $170,000 in loans, Branum and her fiancé, Kevin Silva, set about remodeling the space. Over the span of six months, they demoed walls, floated bamboo floors and hung drywall. They painted ceilings, installed sprinklers and dug out the 12-by-12-by-4-foot pool. Finally, last September, Aqua Wellness opened its doors.
One loyal customer, Christi Doyle, says she and her husband – both physical therapists – had been waiting for a local spa to offer Watsu and WaterDance, which they’d experienced at Harbin.
“I love the stretching and the use of the water as resistance. It makes me feel like I’m back in the womb,” she says. “Now we don’t have to drive four hours just to get it.”
My afternoon of pampering begins with an aqua yoga class with Hatha instructor Michelle Downing. As New Age music from Sirius Satellite Radio’s “Spa” channel pipes softly through the speakers – the Enya track is inevitable – she leads me through a series of mild asanas with foam noodles as props.
The space is just big enough for Downing and me to mirror one another while maneuvering our noodles, though she says the pool can accommodate a class of up to five. The close proximity makes me shyly gaze into the water rather than stare at her pretty face.
As a regular student of land yoga, I feel unchallenged at first by the water poses. The shift in gravity lightens the weight of my body, so it takes less strength to hold the poses. But as the class progresses, I begin to notice more subtle benefits. The cushioning water erases the strain that often creeps into my neck and wrists. Yet there is a new challenge in holding still in the ripples, a more finely honed and widely distributed muscle control. I finish the class feeling smoother in the joints.
After the yoga and WaterDance sessions, Branum gives me a private interlude to shower. The eco-luxury in even the smallest details feels like a fantasy for a working mom – perfectly steeped tea in a Japanese pot, chilled lemon water, trickling fountain, spray of orchids. After a shower with eco-friendly toiletries, I slip into a plush robe and head to the sauna.
Euclayptus-scented water ladled over hot lava rocks steams up the sauna and releases the earthy essence of fresh cedar wall panels, though it doesn’t quite reach that intense level of heat some saunas attain. A quick rinse in the adjoining shower gets my pores ready to receive a facial.
The Éminence products esthetician Zenith Ironside uses are about as high-end eco as skin care gets: organic, biodynamically farmed, free of toxic additives and packed with vitamins. After the series of expertly applied scrubs, peels and serums, my face feels hydrated and fresh as a cucumber.
Leaving the spa, I reflect that my to-do list hasn’t changed. I’ve still got a queue of deadlines, dishes and laundry at home, financial headaches and the many other mini-dramas of life. But they don’t weigh on my shoulders, or show on my face, the way they did this morning.
And when a stressful thought creeps back in, I’ve got a new tactic: Breathe deep, visualize liquid, and throw it at the water.
AQUA WELLNESS DAY SPA is open seven days a week, 9am-6pm, at 1199 Forest Ave., Suite 1, Pacific Grove. 643-AQUA, www.aquawellnessdayspa.com
The Mermaid Treatment