The Water Poet

A Conversation with Harold Dull

By Karrie Osborn

When you see the lyrical rhythm of Watsu in motion, it quickly makes sense that a poet created this gentle, aquatic bodywork.

It was 1980 when Harold Dull discovered the synergy of putting Zen shiatsu into the water. Now, at 82, this poet-turned-water-whisperer shares his memories from those early years of discovery when he created the healing artistry we know today as Watsu.

A Renaissance Man

Soft-spoken and calming in his tone, this tall, now white-haired man has lived a bouquet of lifetimes. Navigating through three college majors—physics, pre-law, and philosophy—at the University of Washington, Dull wound up finding his home in the Creative Writing department. He was hooked. After graduation in 1957, he made his way to San Francisco where he quickly found home in the poet community, enjoying a time he remembers as “magical” with fellow writers exploring their craft. It was the start of the beatnik movement, and in this bay city, it was what became known as the “San Francisco Renaissance.”
His mother, though never fully understanding this child of hers, supported Dull’s desire to write and let him follow his heart to San Francisco. “That’s where all the poets were going, and I wanted to join the poets. It was a very exciting place and I was very fortunate to partake of that scene,” Dull remembers of his time spent with fellow poets like Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan. “It was before the flower children and at the beginning of the beatniks. It was incredible. We were a pack—we read our poetry to each other, met in bars every night, and went to the beach during the days. It was an exciting scene.”
Life took many turns for Dull: he moved up the coast to drive a school bus one year and teach in a one-room Pomo Indian school the next. He saved enough with his partner to spend two years in Europe immersing in art and languages and having twins, a family that ultimately did not hold together. He pursued a master’s degree so he could teach English as a second language. But, tired of hearing the cacophony of jets overhead as they departed for the Vietnam War, Dull pulled up stakes and taught a year in Canada and three in Mexico City before eventually settling back in San Francisco in 1969. “It felt so good to be back home,” he says of his return, but the poets had left, the vibe was gone, and the scene that had inspired his poetry had completely changed.
But then he discovered the hot springs. Almost as if he found a new conduit for his creative energy, Dull admittedly became addicted to the soak and loved meeting people in the warm pools as he drove around the state. “Hot springs spoke to me,” he says. His favorite spot was Skaggs Hot Springs outside of Cloverdale, California, before it was turned into a reservoir. The resort there had long been condemned and torn down, but the springs still ran and formed pools where people of all paths in life had access day and night. Dull says it was the beautiful valley and the creative mix of people who came to Skaggs that made it his favorite spot to soak.
It was during his time discovering hot springs that Dull was exposed to Zen shiatsu. And a lightbulb went off.

Zen Shiatsu Lights the Way

Having taught academics for years in Mexico and Northern California, Dull knew immediately this “new” bodywork was something he wanted to learn and share. “I enjoyed teaching, but I found something else in Zen shiatsu.” Having practiced energy work on his own over the years, he was immediately drawn to this work. “I had learned to feel the energy in a partner and get locked into it. I found that happening when I held clients in shiatsu. I locked into it. I loved that feeling, connecting that way. That’s what really drew me to shiatsu.”
First studying with the two students of Shizuto Masunaga (the founder of Zen shiatsu) who brought his work to America—Reuho Yamada, who had the laid-back style of the California he brought the work to, and Wataru Ohashi, who developed a much more active Zen shiatsu—Dull was later able to study with the master himself in San Francisco, and then again in Japan. “In Tokyo, I attended all the levels Masunaga offered during those last three months he taught. I loved the creative, eclectic quality of his work.”
Dull began practicing Zen shiatsu and used all the people he would meet at the hot springs as his practice models. He even set up a heated pool in his backyard, complete with a makeshift massage table in it, to work with people in the water. He called it Wassage, not yet knowing how close he was. Although the Watsu path was laid out in front of him, Dull had yet to fully put all the pieces together. Then he found Harbin Hot Springs.

The Birth of Watsu

Having always been a child of water, Dull remembers his time spent on the shores of Washington’s Puget Sound during his youth. “My family always had a place on Whidby Island. We fished, played in the sand, built sand castles, and made dams. My biggest memory is chasing gulls.” There is a gentle fondness in his voice as he recalls these days by the sea. The framework for all that came later in his life seems to have been built in those castles in the sand.
After the closing of his favorite hot springs at Skaggs, and with Zen shiatsu now in his pocket, Dull found Harbin Hot Springs. He found a new home. And it found him.
Dull began teaching Zen shiatsu at the Niyama School of Healing Arts located on-site at Harbin. There, he found the creative outlet, and the bodies, for his work. On the weekends, you could find Dull in Harbin’s warm pools. “One night, someone floated me in the pool and I experienced this wave; it was very strong. There was a rising up into the light, and I wanted to take others to that place. That’s where it started.” That was Watsu’s first spark. The meditative, heart-centered calling of that moment was the piece that informed everything else for Dull going forward.
The creativity and the quest for inner knowledge that had guided the poet decades earlier was certainly at play as Dull put all the pieces together in the warm Harbin pools. He knew that in the energy of the body’s movement in the hot springs, the stretches of Zen shiatsu would be able to reach a whole new level of depth in the body. As he began working with his students in the pool, and uncovering and discovering the evolution of this new path, others took notice. “As the stretches released the energy in the body, when that was happening in the pool, students would ask me, ‘What did you just do?’ Students wanted me to teach them.” In these pools, the new poem found its voice.

From Harbin’s Heart

For years, Harbin Hot Springs was the canvas on which Dull could discover all the aspects of Watsu. In fact, he believes Watsu couldn’t have been created anywhere but at Harbin. It’s where he envisioned new forms of the work, where he trained others, and where he could play with the artistry. It’s where he realized that to teach others, he had to slow the work down, and in doing so, uncovered where the true power of the energy in Watsu movements lived—in the breath. It’s where Dull and his wife, Pavana, purchased and then ran the massage school (renaming it the School of Shiatsu and Massage until it sold in 2007), and where the couple called home, living just a few miles away from the hot springs until fire swept through the community in 2015.
“I do miss Harbin. I would very much like to live in a place with a pool close enough to an urban center where I could teach, and train others to teach, for the rest of my life. Harbin was special,” he says.

A Legacy Endures

Along the journey, Watsu derivatives have been created, some with his blessing, some without. But Dull says he is like a “proud parent” when he looks out at all the work being done. He calls this collective group the Water Family, and he sees their role being more important than ever. “People need empathy and compassion. People need physical intimacy.” Watsu, he says, offers that in a nonthreatening, therapeutic, compassionate way.
From its birth at the communal lifestyle of Harbin Hot Springs to its place in hospital and rehabilitation programs today, Watsu continues to broaden its reach and Dull continues to teach the work. In fact, with a teaching schedule that might challenge the youngest of educators, Dull travels nationally and internationally to continue sharing Watsu with others. In 2017, he taught 21 workshops, with six in Italy, two in France, two in Costa Rica, one in the Czech Republic, and one in Poland.
Watsu may have been born in the United States, but its presence abroad is significant. Dull says one reason for that is simply opportunity. “There are more hot springs in Europe, particularly Italy.” And while here in the states Watsu might be challenged by our country’s Puritanical upbringing, internationally—from Tuscany to St. Petersburg, Watsu continues to grow, with some pushing it onto a more medical path. “Most of the Watsu movement in Poland has been clinical,” he says, with a greater emphasis on rehabilitation and recovery.
To date, Dull says he feels fortunate to have taught in 30 countries—and to have seen some pretty incredible museums along the way. And even that continues to inform the work of the poet: “When I am teaching abroad, on my days off, I get to as many museums as I can. I love paintings. I have come to know the work of so many masters, masterpieces, in which I see the wholeness that is greater than the sum of the parts. It’s the same wholeness I feel when someone is in my arms in Watsu.”

Meet Me at the Pool

Watsu, although enjoying continued success around the world, has not made Dull a rich man. But it was never about the money. It was always about the work and the connection. In fact, he says from the home he rents in Berkeley with the sea breeze wafting in, he considers himself full of fortune. “I’m fortunate to be in this place.”
Much of his time today is spent working on the registry for the Worldwide Aquatic Bodywork Association (WABA). This database maintains all the records of Watsuers around the world, serves as a network for the water community, and lists authorized practitioners and classes. “Every day, I spend some time at the computer writing and designing books and web pages. I write a lot of code for the registry, and I respond to inquiries from Watsu instructors.”
After he is no longer able, Dull plans on his wife and his 28-year-old daughter Calias to run the registry. “They will take over. And in terms of Watsu and its effectiveness, it doesn’t need me. I feel it’s on its way.” It’s obvious, however, that Watsu wouldn’t be, without the man, the poet, who wrote its verse.
And where would he like to see his Watsu poem headed next? “I would like to see a pool on every block,” he says with a smile in his voice, “where people can meet anytime … and Watsu.”

Karrie Osborn is senior editor for Massage & Bodywork.