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April 22

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What is Aquatic Therapy

According to the Aquatic Therapy and Rehab Institute, aquatic therapy is “the use of water and specifically designed activity by qualified personnel to aid in the restoration, extension, maintenance, and quality of function for persons with acute, transient, or chronic disabilities, syndromes or diseases.” Aquatic therapy can be offered by a diverse range of professionals depending on their area of interest and training. Anyone from aqua fitness professionals, massage therapists, physical and occupational therapists, to yoga professionals can become certified in aquatic therapy.

Types of Aquatic Therapy

Aquatic therapy modalities I’m trained in:

Ai Chi – Ai Chi is like doing Tai Chi in the water. It was developed by Jun Konno, a Japanese Olympic swimming coach. Ai Chi has been shown to improve balance and reduce falls in research. As a slow-moving, relaxing discipline, it’s best suited to warmer water. I have include elements of Ai Chi in moving meditations.

Aqua Pilates – Aqua Pilates takes the principles of land pilates developed by Joseph Pilates and applies them to the water. I really prefer pilates in the water because it emphasize strength and alignment without any bending in your mid-back (thoracic flexion).

woman in the pool doing side plank using the pool wall with aqua pilates moves like lifting her top leg up and down to show an example of aquatic therapy

Bad Ragaz – Shown in the picture at the bottom of the page. Bad Ragaz makes use of buoyancy aids to hold people in a supine position without any effort on their part. It’s good for people with muscle tension and reducing spasticity. I’ve used to help people with chronic pain with stress relief, gentle stretching, and muscle reeducation.

Burdenko – Burdenko was developed by Igor Burdenko to help athletes both reach their full potential and recover from injury. Unlike most programs of the time, it made use of the aquatic environment just as much as work on land. It focuses on the basic essentials needed for fitness – balance, coordination, flexibility, endurance, speed and strength.

I love taking exercises from other modalities and adapting them to aqua yoga. You get the benefits of both and it keeps the practice fresh and interesting. Suspended lunges are an example of how I’ve blended Burdenko into aqua yoga. Speed is the only element of Burdenko that’s hard to apply in yoga.

Woman doing a suspended lunge in the pool with a pool noodle under her ankle and an aquatic dumbbell in each hand to show how Burdenko techniques can be used in aquatic therapy

Unpredictable Command Technique – Unnpredictable Command Technique (or UCT) was developed by a physical therapist to help Parkinson’s patients. UCT is simple movements made hard through combinations. It’s like patting your head and rubbing your tummy while walking backward in the pool. If you’d like more information about UCT, read the article I wrote about What is Unpredictable Command Technique and How Can You Use it in Aqua Yoga.

Other styles of aquatic therapy:

AquaStretch – Is a fascial release technique used in the pool that is especially good for pain management.

Halliwick- Focuses on swimming skills. It uses a very specific 10-point program that was initially designed for special needs kids and adults. As its use has expanded, it’s great for anyone who wants to learn to swim.

Watsu – Is warm water aquatic massage in the tradition of hydrotherapy. It combines massage in the water with acupressure and gentle stretches. I haven’t had the opportunity to try it but I’ve heard it’s amazing.

Who is Aquatic Therapy good for

Aqua therapy is good for anyone who needs more specialized attention than is provided in a large group class or requires a system of movement that is more compatible with a health condition than the features of traditional aquatic exercise. For example, someone with hearing loss can’t hear the directions of an instructor over the music and background noise of a pool environment so they get more out of more individualized attention. Someone who’s recovering from a stroke or living with Multiple Sclerosis needs to improve their balance but may need a slower pace than a traditional aqua aerobics class.

The chief benefits of water therapy are derived from being in the water.

  • The buoyancy of the water offloads weight to reduce sore joints and the consequences of falls so it’s a safe environment.
  • The water provides more resistance than air. You can build strength equally in opposing muscle groups to reduce overuse injuries and build strength quickly.
  • The hydrostatic pressure of the water reduces hypertension, edema, and anxiety.
  • Each modality creates additional benefits based on the area of emphasis. That’s where the real power lies. All the great aspects of each program, combined with the benefits of being in the water.

How aqua yoga fits into Aquatic Therapy

You can see combining aquatic therapy into aqua yoga can be as simple as adding specific moves from other disciplines into aqua yoga and overlaying yoga philosophy. I call this ‘yogacising’. It helps keep aqua yoga fresh and means you get the most benefits out of working in the water.

Aqua yoga therapy combines the disciplines of yoga therapy and aquatic therapy to help clients meet their goals. Like other therapy styles, it starts with an intake to assess a client’s needs. From there, an aquatic program is set up to match the client’s needs with the appropriate parts of aqua yoga to meet those overall goals most efficiently. For example, as someone who specializes in aqua yoga for arthritis, if I see a client who wants to reduce their pain due to spinal arthritis, we talk about where the client is right now and where they want to get to. Then I suggest which parts of aqua yoga are going to help them best, such as specific poses, breathing techniques, and pain management strategies from yoga philosophy. When we start working, it’s a partnership to see which of those suggested techniques are working, which could be switched out for something more effective, and which needs to be changed.

Because of my interest in helping people who live with arthritis, becoming an aquatic therapist was a natural progression for me. I’m able to use the tools and perspectives of aquatic therapy to expand my scope of practice. That gives me the broadest suite of skills to help people meet their goals.

Joining me for aquatic therapy:

I’m running three aqua yoga workshops this summer from an aquatic therapy perspective – Aqua yoga for feet and hands, Aqua yoga for knees and hips and Aqua yoga for a healthy spine. You can register for those on my events page.

I also offer private sessions in-person and online. I’ve got a pool in my backyard with high-speed internet access so it’s amazing what we can accomplish long-distance these days. If you’re considering aquatic therapy as part of private aqua yoga with me, send me an email, christa@christafairbrother.com.

More Aquatic Therapy articles

If you want more information on aquatic therapy from me, read the aforementioned What is Unpredictable Command Technique, Aqua Yoga for Arthritis Research, Aqua Yoga for Lupus.

Wait, back it up, I need more info on what aqua yoga is. Read the Ultimate Guide to Aqua Yoga.

woman assisting a man wearing buoyancy devices in the pool during an aquatic therapy session


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