What is Shiatsu?

Updated: May 12, 2020

Shiatsu is Based on Ancient Healing Traditions From Asia

For many thousands of years in Asia, there has been a tradition of cultural understanding that has defined the health and well-being of people. This ancient system takes many forms today, most notable acupuncture from China and Shiatsu from Japan which is widely practiced throughout the world.

Shiatsu has found its way into the west since the 1970s when training was first offered in the west. The word itself is a reference to the finger pressure that is used treatments. Shiatsu is not a massage in the western sense, as no oils or massage strokes are used. The client is usually clothed, and treatment is focused on stretching, holding, and applying the practitioner’s body weight and finger pressure along energy meridians in the body. These meridians are essentially the same as those used by acupuncture and are organized around the principals of yin and yang applied to the organs and life-force energy of the body. It is through the hands-s on the contact of the practitioner with the client that the energy is moved and transformed in the client’s body, by a joining of energies facilitated by this contact.

How Shiatsu works

Shiatsu is not to be considered medical treatment of any disease in the same context as allopathic medicine. Yet, it is concerned with the body’s organs and their energetic functioning. It’s more focused on the subtle energy called Qi, which animates the body, which in the traditional view is the source of health and well-being or of illness and decline. It is about the balancing of the energies of life in the body with the energies of life in the world. Shiatsu treatments are focused on either tonifying the meridian where that energy is too weak, or sedating where that energy is too strongly developed. Much of this concerns the workings of what we understand as the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, which runs through the entire body. It is about the network or matrix comprised of the very substance of the body itself. This includes the obvious Bones, ligaments, fascia, Muscles, as well as organs and neural connections that are animated by life-force and effected by its expansions and contractions.

In shiatsu, the sensation is experienced when contact points called tsubo are touched with the pressure of the hand typically, but a shiatsu practitioner. A tsubo is “where the cycling of electromagnetic energy gathers (Goodman)” It is a point along the line of an energy meridian in the body that circulates the bio-electric or bio-magnetic energy of Qi, or life-force. This sensation can vary from being light and painless to being highly sensitive to the touch, even at the same actual finger pressure when different points are touched. Sensitivity usually indicates an imbalance where there is either an unusual emptiness or a resistance protecting an imbalance of energy along that meridian. The sympathetic nervous system expresses a contractive or Yang force along the meridian, while the parasympathetic expresses an expansive or yin force. It is these energies that are sensed when the client experiences a tsubo as being sensitive or painful to the touch.

What to Expect from Shiatsu Treatments

The point here is not to cause pain, but rather to notice it when it happens and to support the client in shifting their energy through the contact that is made. This is achieved in part because of the energy that moves in a connected circuit between the practitioner and the client's bodies through the contact of the hands-on the body. Clients typically report the results of treatment to include greater relaxation, calmness, relief of pain, shifts of their energy and consciousness, such as feeling more grounded and centered, and can experience improvements in chronic problems that they may experience in areas like digestion, circulation, anxiety, respiration, elimination, muscular pain, to name a few.

There certainly is a philosophic and cultural orientation that shiatsu practice brings which supports a holistic view of the human body as an energy system, and seeks to maintain a balance as it is inhabited by the spirit and soul of a human being who is living in the world through his or her body and who is seeking to maintain a healthy balance. This is consistent with the emerging view of sustainability and holism that we find in our society today of people wanting alternatives to the western traditional models of treating disease as opposed to preventing it and interrupting its causes. This includes the psychic spaces of life as well as the material and physical spaces we experience.

Quoted Saul Goodman, “The Book of Shiatsu: The Healing Art of Finger Pressure” Avery Publishing Group, NY, 1990

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