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by Catherine Sutton
one of many practices that help us to transform our lives through cultivating an
awareness of ourselves and what brings about our negative states — and also
what is required to create a more positive state. Its roots are in ancient
Chinese massage, which employs theories and techniques from Chinese culture and
philosophy to create wholeness and well-being. The Japanese word shiatsu
means finger pressure: shi — “finger,” atsu — “pressure”.
In shiatsu, the fingers, thumbs, elbows, knees, and hands are all used to
stimulate or sedate the energy flowing through the body to promote health and
Shiatsu encourages a positive
state of mind; its theories and techniques are a backdrop to physical
communication through touch. Like acupuncture and other Asian medical practices,
shiatsu works with the body’s energy system. The Asian concept of energy can
be loosely understood as “vitality” or “vital force”, which we cannot
see but can sense or feel. For example, if someone walks into the room we
immediately pick up on his energetic state, whether he looks full of life and
energy or the opposite. In this book, I will use “energy” and ki to
describe this vital force.
According to Asian medicine, our
energy, or ki, moves along specific pathways (meridians) around the body.
These meridians relate to our internal physical organs and our emotional,
psychological, and spiritual state. The organs and functions in the body are
divided into six pairs and all are linked by ki. For the Chinese, all
parts and functions of the body are interrelated; no problem can successfully be
treated in isolation. In shiatsu, the connecting point of the organs and
functions in the body is the meridian system.
The meridians are like a closed
circuit of water channels, and the water flowing through the channels is
equivalent to the ki. There can be many interruptions along the way —
sticks, stones, and leaves silt up the channels, with a resulting blockage. If
this keeps happening, the water will continue to be disrupted and blocked. On
one side of the blockage, there is too much water and on the other too little.
The difference becomes more apparent the longer the blockages remain. Similarly,
if we continue to deny the causes of our blockages, our energy will decline. Our
blockages can be felt as stagnation in the body, with the “full” side as a
pain or discomfort and the “empty” side as a weakness or apathy. Inefficient
flow of ki around the body results in tiredness, physical pain,
depression, emotional upsets, stiffness, headaches, and many more common
problems. Various shiatsu techniques are used to correct these imbalances.
Along the meridians are tsubos,
or specific energy points, where the ki is more active; it is in here
that blockages can be felt most clearly and where the energy can also be
released. The tsubos are the same as Chinese acupuncture points. There
are approximately 365 in total, although far fewer are used in shiatsu practice.
Shiatsu has a diagnostic element
and can be used as a treatment or in the prevention of disease. The practice of
shiatsu can still be very powerful, even without any true understanding of
Chinese philosophy, the meridians or the energy system.
Much of the healing takes place
through compassionate touch and listening, as well as the person allowing
himself the time for treatment such as shiatsu. We can see this in the way a
child wants a hug when she is in pain or feeling insecure — that magic kiss on
a sore knee is better than any pain killer. As adults, we experience comfort
through touch, particularly when in difficulty. This touching is not learned
behavior, but rather something instinctive.
A large part of the
effectiveness of shiatsu is the trust between the practitioner and the receiver.
With trust, the receiver can relax and, in this state of relaxation, the body no
longer needs to “hold on”. Once this happens, the reason for the holding on
can come to the surface. Shiatsu can therefore be useful in getting to the
underlying causes of physical and emotional discomfort. The more we push against
the way things are, the more resistance is built up; the more support we get the
more trust we build.
There are many examples in daily
life of the body tensing up, with resulting physical discomfort. If you talk to
the bank manager about an overdraft or witness an unhappy scene, your body will
tell you that this is not your favorite pastime! Different people have different
areas that tend to hold tension when they find themselves in an uncomfortable
situation. If the tension is felt in the shoulders, for instance, it is only a
symptom of the cause — although they may be in agony, the shoulders themselves
are not the problem. Tensions can be stored in different areas in the body for
years, building up. Eventually a chronic state develops, resulting in permanent
discomfort and disease. The shiatsu practitioner seeks to discover these
tensions and blockages; once the cause is acknowledged healing can begin.
Shiatsu Be Practiced?
Shiatsu can be practiced on two
different levels. The first is a “do it yourself” form — on friends,
family, and neighbors. It can be learned at a beginner’s class or from a book.
Although this form of shiatsu does not employ elaborate techniques, it can still
be very effective. It can be used for a variety of ailments — for example,
headaches, stiffness, aches and pains, tiredness and tension-related disorders.
The second form is professional
shiatsu, which is practiced by those who have undergone a professional training
program and have a recognized qualification. After two to three years training
the professional therapist should be competent to deal with a wide variety of
In Japan, shiatsu is used much
of the time as a preventative measure rather than as a treatment to “cure”
illness. In the West, it is still used mainly for people who have been unwell,
and cannot seem to improve through conventional therapy. Shiatsu is slowly
becoming appreciated as a positive way to maintain good health and happiness.
Frequently, those who have experienced its benefits for a specific ailment use
it regularly to enhance their well-being.
Physical Benefits of Shiatsu
Shiatsu helps to maintain
overall health and encourages people to listen more keenly to what the body is
saying. With this increased awareness, it becomes easier to see what is
wholesome and what is destructive, giving us choices about which path to follow.
The body has a great ability to self-heal, but sometimes it needs assistance to
remove the objects getting in the way of the healing process. Shiatsu is one
technique that can help to remove these blockages.
Conditions Can Shiatsu Help?
Because shiatsu works on the
energetic system, it can be useful in helping a wide range of disorders. Bear in
mind that not recognizing the laws of nature, and living in an inharmonious way,
is contrary to what shiatsu promotes. A shiatsu treatment will be of maximum
value if it is supported by an understanding of the cause of the condition, and
if the person follows a moderate outlook and lifestyle.
Shiatsu can specifically help
• arthritic conditions
• emotional difficulties
• intestinal disorders (irritable bowel syndrome,
colitis, constipation and diarrhea)
• menstrual problems
(heavy periods and premenstrual syndrome)
• muscular tensions
• reproductive problems (including endometriosis and fibroids)
• respiratory difficulties
(asthma, bronchitis and recurrent chest infections)
• stress-related disorders
Shiatsu is a catalyst in the
healing process. Healing is not something that just sometimes “happens” —
it is a continuous movement toward harmony, balance and wholeness.
Happens During a Shiatsu Massage?
When shiatsu is given, the skin
surface is immediately stimulated, triggering a response in the nervous system.
Any sensory stimulation is automatically picked up by the nervous system, and
then taken to the brain for interpretation.
The autonomic nervous system is
the subconscious part of the nervous system and coordinates all involuntary
movements and functions of the body. It is divided into two parts: the
sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. Our way of being and
feeling changes considerably depending on the relative balance of these two
systems. Many influences — both internal and external — can tip this balance
and cause dominance in one or other of the parts of the autonomic nervous
system, resulting in a feeling of being out of sorts. The sympathetic branch of
the nervous system is concerned with the stress response and preparation for
fight or flight — when something stressful comes our way, the body tries to
defend itself by either fighting or running away.
The changes that take place when
the sympathetic nervous system is dominant are:
• the muscles contract to
prepare for escape
• there is a feeling of alertness
• the pupils dilate
• the blood vessels contract
• the digestive system temporarily contracts
• the heartbeat increases
• the secretions in the mouth dry up
• the hair on the skin stands up
• the liver releases more glucose into the muscles
All these responses prepare the
body for action. Once the immediate danger has gone, the parasympathetic nerves
become the more dominant. All the systems start to return to normal and there is
a feeling of relief, letting go, and relaxation. The parasympathetic response is
sometimes known as the peacemaker. There is a very fine point of balance between
the two systems. We are constantly trying to maintain this balance, both
consciously and subconsciously.
Much of the stress that we
encounter today is not from an immediate and identifiable source — it is in
the background, constantly niggling away. With this persistent, low-lying
stress, the body is on the alert a lot of the time. As a result, the systems are
always on the defensive, and a feeling of total relaxation is difficult to
experience. Through shiatsu, we can encourage the body and mind to relax and let
go of tension — to switch from sympathetic to parasympathetic dominance. Then
it is possible to feel at peace, with clarity the oneness that is blocked so
much of the time. This “being in the present moment” is the most restful
place to abide. Using quiet and gentle movements, we can encourage the
parasympathetic response; through more active, vigorous movements we can
stimulate the sympathetic nervous system.
We can, through shiatsu, become
aware of what happens with pain and soreness in the body. If pain is
experienced, the immediate reaction is to tense up against it. This tightens the
body, adding to the discomfort; it blocks the energy paths to the area so that
valuable energy is not getting through to where it is needed. Shiatsu techniques
help to relax muscle tightness, enabling the vital energy flow to be restored.
Expect in a Shiatsu Session
A shiatsu session is a dynamic
interchange of energy on many different levels. There is no rigid formula, but
at first it is useful to have a framework within which to work. This framework
gives confidence to the practitioner, and a flow to the treatment. For the more
experienced practitioner, the approach and style very much depend on his or her
training, personality, and area of interest. The aim is the same: to create
balance physically, mentally, and spiritually, and to allow the client space to
open up, and see the true cause for his or her present condition. This will take
varying amounts of time, depending on the condition.
Shiatsu is done through the
clothes, and a treatment — usually taking a little over an hour — is
normally given on a thick mat on the floor. One session is not as beneficial as
three or four spaced out over a period of four to six weeks. The number of
sessions needed for any one individual depends on his or her particular problem.
If the energy is very deficient, a number of sessions are desirable in order to
monitor the changes taking place, and to ensure that any advice given is of
A session normally starts with
the taking of a case history in order to get a picture of the present complaint
in the context of the person’s life. Questions are asked about the present
complaint, past medical history, lifestyle, food habits, exercise, relaxation,
and anything else that may be significant.
Diagnosis of the problem is
assisted in the following ways:
Visual Diagnosis: This
will include visual observations, posture, mannerisms, skin color and walk.
Auditory Diagnosis: This
will include seeing how the voice sounds — shaky, tense, timid, loud, etc.
Touch Diagnosis: This is
to access the quality of energy in the person.
The latter is normally done
through a specific type of diagnosis called hara diagnosis. The hara,
or abdomen, is palpated very gently to detect the areas of fullness and the
areas that lack energy. A diagnosis can also be made by looking at different
areas on the back, and by feeling the quality of energy in the meridians —
again to detect areas of fullness or emptiness.
When a diagnosis has been made,
a number of different techniques can be used to change the quality of the
energy. The techniques are basically stimulating or sedating.
The whole body can be worked on
in shiatsu — with increased awareness and sensitivity, the practitioner is
drawn to the areas that need most attention. In obviously tense areas, the ki
is dispersed; in areas lacking in ki, stimulating and holding techniques
are used to encourage the flow of energy back to that area.
Often a weak area needs to be
held for two or three minutes before the energy starts to fill it. It may appear
that nothing is happening, but on a subtle level changes are taking place.
Sometimes it is possible to feel such changes immediately, and other times it is
not until later that more energy is felt. The easiest area to feel and hear
changes is in the abdomen when it starts to relax — a gurgling noise may be
heard and a lot of movement is felt, which is the parasympathetic nervous system
taking the dominant role.
A combination of techniques
including stretching, pressing, holding, and rotating are used to work on
different areas of the body. Sometimes tense areas are present as a protection
against an underlying emotional weakness; when the tension is dissolved the
emotion may come to the surface, to a conscious level, often with an outburst
followed by a sense of relief, tiredness, shivering, or crying. When responded
to compassionately, these feelings subside, and a sense of well-being and peace
takes over. The receiver will always feel better if the treatment is given with
a loving, gentle attitude, and a genuine wish for this person to be well.
The primary encouragement to
anyone receiving shiatsu is to try to live in a more harmonious way, with a
mindfulness of daily actions and relationships. With a strengthened awareness,
we are more in control of what we do and say, and have a greater chance of
performing positive actions, rather than ones that harm ourselves, others, and
the world around us.
Usually at the end of a session
the client will feel relaxed and energized, with a sense of calm, or sometimes
wanting a long sleep. Normally, there is a noticeable increase in flexibility
and a decrease in muscular aches and pains. If the shiatsu treatment has
triggered some emotional discomfort, there may be feelings of sadness, anger, or
fear and the receiver may feel chilled (a blanket and a hot drink can help). The
cooling down is due to letting go of tensions held in the muscles. There can be
a feeling of lethargy because of deep work and release of energy, feelings, and
emotions. If those things that have been blocking the healing process are
removed, then over the next days and weeks changes will start to take place both
on a conscious and subconscious level, with a resulting feeling of vibrancy and
In order for the healing to
continue, the practitioner may give advice on diet, lifestyle, environment, or
On leaving the treatment room
the receiver should keep warm, and if possible rest for a short time.
Info/Order this book
Catherine Sutton runs a
private shiatsu clinic in Dublin, Ireland. This article was excerpted
with permission from "Discover Shiatsu" published by
Ulysses Press. Ulysses Press/Seastone Books are available at bookstores
throughout the US, Canada, and the UK, or can be ordered directly from
Ulysses Press by calling 800-377-2542, faxing 510-601-8307, or writing
to Ulysses Press, PO Box 3440, Berkeley, CA 94703, email [email protected]
Their website is http://hiddenguides.com
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