What is Shiatsu?
Shiatsu is a traditional Japanese healing technique based on touch that stimulates the body’s self-healing processes. The word shiatsu means finger pressure and the technique is administered mostly by thumb, finger, and palm pressure on neuromuscular pressure points on the body. The technique includes stretching and holding, and is based on the practitioner leaning their body weight into specific points on the recipient’s body in order to improve energy flow, blood circulation, flexibility and posture. It is deeply relaxing as well as invigorating as it releases physical and emotional stress and distress, and improves blood and lymph circulation.
Development of Shiatsu
The development of shiatsu started early in the twentieth century. When he was a child Tukujito Namikoshi’s mother developed multiple rheumatism of the joints. He and his siblings rubbed her sore joints, but she found his rubbing and pressing to be particularly beneficial. After some years of his intuitive work on her body, his mother’s condition was cured. From this experience Namikoshi developed a deep belief in the body’s ability to heal itself. He studied amma and western massage techniques as well as developing his own style of work based on the intension of stimulating the body’s self-healing processes. This latter technique he called shiatsu. In 1925 he opened The Shiatsu Institute of Therapy which later developed into a training centre as well. In 1940 he opened another institute in Tokyo (Japan Shiatsu Institute) which, over time, brought widespread recognition to his work. In 1955 the Japanese government gave legal recognition to shiatsu as part of the amma tradition. In 1964 it was recognised as an independent form of massage.
Namikoshi explained shiatsu in terms of western anatomy and physiology – perhaps to ‘sell’ it to the Japanese government as compatible with the western medical model that the government had adopted? Being based on anatomy and physiology makes the theoretical basis of Namikoshi shiatsu easier to master than the zen shiatsu which developed later, and is based on Traditional Chinese Medicine. The Namikoshi shiatsu technique is physical and symptomatic, working on neuromuscular pressure points and focussing on areas of pain. Namikshi does include an holistic approach in his principles of good living based on diet, elimination, exercise, sleep, and laughter, and the need for meaning in one’s life. Although the theory does not include the Traditional Chinese Medicine information about meridians and energy flow, a good practitioner of Namikoshi shiatsu does feel energy flow or stagnation in the recipient’s body.
The essence of shiatsu is communication through touch, and requires sensitivity to the recipient’s body. It is important to apply pressure by leaning rather than pushing as this allows for two-way communication between practitioner and recipient. Poor technique can result in pushing on the tsubos (Japanese term for pressure points) which creates an aggressive energy and the recipient’s body may then block the healing effect of the treatment. Static pressure on the tsubos enables tight muscles to release. Pain on the surface of the body may be a reflex message’ from an inner organ, so conversely, pressure on the body’s surface relays neurological impulses to the organs, facilitating improved functionality. The pressure used on the body also stimulates the circulatory, lymphatic, and endocrine systems, regulates the autonomic nervous system (both sympathetic and parasympathetic), and releases toxins. This stimulation of the body’s systems activates the body’s self-healing processes. As stimulation of the lymph system causes toxins to be released into the bloodstream, some people may experience symptoms of detoxification after a shiatsu treatment. These symptoms usually pass within a few hours. Drinking plenty of water and resting helps.
Learning shiatsu is more than learning the technique: it is also about learning sensitivity to the recipient’s needs and how to meet them. Trust between practitioner and recipient is an essential part of the healing process. Because emotions produce physical responses in the body, relaxing physical tension also releases emotions and the recipient needs to feel that they are in an environment where it is safe to ‘let go’. The depth of relaxation experienced ensures that most people sleep more deeply the night of their treatment, sometimes with significant dreams.
The Shiatsu session
Treatment is usually given on a mat on the floor as this enables the practitioner to best control the angle and strength of pressure used, and to perform the stretches that loosen tight muscles and joints. It is less taxing on the practitioner and more comfortable for the recipient. A good practitioner is able to control and regulate the pressure of their work according to the needs and sensitivity of the recipient. This means young children, the elderly and the frail can also benefit from shiatsu.
Shiatsu is administered through clothing, and usually also a towel or sheet. The use of a towel keeps the recipient warm (body temperature drops when lying down), and makes them feel less vulnerable. Working through fabric enables the therapist to focus on the feel of the tsubo without being distracted by skin texture or visual impressions. A shiatsu session starts with taking a detailed case history from the client. As the practitioner applies shiatsu, through their trained sense of touch, they further assess the recipient’s physical, emotional, and energetic state. Diagnosis and therapy happen simultaneously as the practitioner adjusts the treatment according to what they sense in the recipient’s body. The length of time a point is held, and the degree of pressure used, depends on the feel of the tsubo. As emotions, thoughts and memories can be stored in the body tissues, release of physical tension may be accompanied by emotional release, helping the person deal with deep-seated psycho-emotional conditions. Also, because the practitioner works over the whole body, shiatsu helps restore the recipient’s awareness of their physical self, the interconnectedness of their various body parts, and the relationship between mind and body. At the end of a session, the recipient feels deeply relaxed and has an improved sense of well-being. They are also better grounded, more present within themselves and their environment.