Annunciata Walton takes a dip into the world of Watsu – an innovative aquatic Shiatsu treatment – at London’s exclusive South Kensington Club
I’m floating on my back in a luxuriously heated saltwater pool. The lights are dimmed, soft music plays. I have floats strapped to my thighs and a strange man is holding onto my head.
This isn’t something I do often. But it is certainly one of the more unusual – and enjoyable – spa treatments I’ve experienced.
At the South Kensington Club, London SW7, ancient rituals are drawn upon to promote good health and spiritual discovery, and all in state-of-the-art facilities. The building is innocuous on the outside – a smart townhouse typical of the area – but inside is a cabinet of curiosities worthy of Lewis Carroll’s imagination, with each new room bringing one surprise after the next.
Round the corner from the Tea Library, where you can enjoy a cup of one of the world’s rarest blends, from Kerala or Nicaragua perhaps, by the roaring fire, is a Russian banya and Turkish hammam, for unwinding in the ‘steam-shrouded raw elements of water, fire, wood and stone’.
There are also two private banyas, each with a balcony and plunge pool, plus a sky-lit gymnasium, Pilates and fitness studio, hot-yoga studio, juice bar, barber shop, Voyager Club room (oh yes, they organise bucket-list expeditions here, too), Mediterranean restaurant, cocktail bar, numerous cabins for spa experiences, a roof terrace with a jungle of trees and, finally, the Watsu pool room, where I find myself one hungover Saturday morning, floundering about in warm saltwater with the charming Steve Karle, unassuming king of Watsu.
“I find myself whooshing about, my body undulating like an eel’s. I’m sure I don’t look like one, but I feel a bit like a mermaid.”
Steve is the founder of the British School of Aquatic Bodywork. He invented ‘Watsu’ – the name is a combination of the words water and Shiatsu – and has a number of strings to his bow that have influenced its development, from music and drama (RADA and LAMDA) to Pilates, osteopathy, craniosacral and underwater-sound therapy and travels from East to West. His website will tell you more about this innovative and quite incredible individual, because I know I can’t explain it all properly. But there is a science to Watsu, I know that much.
‘Don’t be alarmed if you find yourself laughing uncontrollably, or even crying,’ he says during our pre-Watsu pep talk. My eyes widen. My hangover can’t take the possibility of too much drama and he promises to go easy on me. Ensconsed in a fluffy white bathrobe, I happily drink lemon-infused iced water as he continues to explain the treatment.
In layman’s terms (I don’t know any other), I lie on my back in the silent water, with my ears under (music is optional), and Steve moves me around for 45 minutes, always supporting my head, gently massaging shoulders and limbs, subtly pulling one arm one way, the other arm or leg another. He moves quite quickly and I find myself whooshing about, my body undulating like an eel’s. I’m sure I don’t look like one, but I feel a bit like a mermaid. It’s hard to describe how this can go on for 45 minutes (or longer), but it does, there is seemingly no repetition and the whole experience is enormously relaxing. Aches and pains are teased away in a therapy that is good for one’s posture, flexibility and state of mind.
Luckily, there are no tears or gurgling laughter, and afterwards we chat about the experience, Steve sharing different techniques and discussing how the treatment works (again, please don’t ask me to explain it, just trust the expert). I leave the Watsu pool room a most definite convert and continue to float up to the banya for a steam. Sensibly, I avoid the crushed-ice rub and iced-water barrel, but pluck up enough courage to dip into the cold plunge pool. It’s a 4.5 second soujourn, rather than 45 minutes (and really not as relaxing as Watsu), but enough for me to emerge, rejuvenated and hangover free, to continue with my Saturday as a better version of myself.
General membership of the South Kensington Club costs £365 pcm, or £540 for a couple (there’s a joining fee of £1,000 or £1,500 respectively, and a 20% discount for paying a year in advance). There are also under-30s and lifetime options membership options, while members can invite non-members in for treatments. Visit www.southkensingtonclub.com for further information.