Massage Therapy: Japanese Massage – Shiatsu

Shiatsu is a Japanese word made up of two written characters meaning finger (shi) and pressure (atsu). The word Shiatsu literally means “finger pressure”. It is a traditional Japanese healing art and a form of physical manipulation. But it is very different from most forms of massages practised in the West, since there is no kneading, friction, or smooth flowing strokes. Instead, pressure and stretching are used almost exclusively. The practitioner uses the palms, fingers, thumbs, knuckles, elbows, knees, and even the feet to work on the hundreds of ‘tusbos’, or acupuncture points, along the body’s meridians or energy channels.

Shiatsu is often described as acupuncture without needles because the principles, philosophy, diagnostic methods and treatment points are similar. Shiatsu works on the flow of energy or ‘qi’ that circulates through our bodies in specific energy channels or meridians. Essentially, we all have a ‘life force’ or ‘life energy’, which created our physical structure and regulates physical, emotional, mental and spiritual stability. This life force is called ‘qi’ in Chinese and ‘ki’ in Japanese. It is supposed to maintain the homeostatic balance in the body.

The flow of qi can be disturbed either through external trauma, such as an injury, or internal trauma such as depression or stress. This is when symptoms like aches and pain start to occur and we start experiencing a state of ‘disease’.

In Shiatsu, the physical touch is used to assess the distribution of ‘qi’ throughout the body and to try to correct any imbalances accordingly.

Touch is the essence of Shiatsu and a wonderful means of communicating our love and compassion for others in a very direct way. Touch can be of very different quality, ranging from aggressive, abusive and mechanical to more nurturing, caring and intuitive. We all need to be touched in some way and Shiatsu helps to fulfil this need. The caring touch used in Shiatsu will help to trigger the self-healing process within.

Origin of Shiatsu

The roots of Shiatsu go back thousands of years, probably to before the beginnings of acupuncture. In the earliest recorded writing on Chinese medicine, The Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Internal Medicine, written over 2,000 years ago, the Yellow Emperor asked the master of Oriental medicine, why there were so many methods to treat one illness and why each method was effective. The master replied that environment was the main reason for using different approaches.

In the east where the people lived close to the sea, tended to eat more fish and protein and suffered skin diseases, acupuncture developed as an effective treatment. In the west where there are mountains and deserts, the people tended to be fat and eat too much animal protein. This caused problems with their internal organs, which were best remedied by herbal medicine.

In the cold northern mountainous regions, ‘moxibustion’ was most effective in driving out respiratory disorders associated with the climate, such as coughing and mucus. In the flat central regions, the people developed symptoms of general weakness, which was most effectively treated with ‘an ma’ and corrective exercises.

Shiatsu is in fact simply an extension of our natural response to pain, of the impulse that makes us ‘rub it better’ when hurt. It developed from the ancient Japanese massage known as ‘an ma’, which consisted of pressing or rubbing the hands and feet with the fingers and palms of the hands.

How Does it Work?

Shiatsu works on the body’s energy system. Practitioners apply pressure to points or ‘tsubo’ on the meridian to stimulate the ‘ki’, the Japanese word for qi or energy. Diagnosis is similar to the Chinese method. There are several strands in the diagnostic process :

• Bo-shin (Looking)
• Setsu-shin (Touching)
• Mon-shin (Asking) and
• Bun-shin (sense diagnosis). This also involves intuition.

A Shiatsu session usually lasts for about an hour with the actual treatment taking between 35 to 45 minutes.

In the first session, the practitioner will ask you many questions about your state of health, your lifestyle, any symptoms, likes and dislikes you may have, to build up your case history. An assessment based on oral diagnosis will be compiled. Apart from this oral diagnosis, your practitioner will use visual diagnosis, looking at posture, movement and facial diagnostic areas; and touch diagnosis, feeling the body and the different meridians for areas of excess and deficiency. As touch is the most essential aspect of this therapy, this diagnosis continues throughout the whole treatment, your practitioner gaining new information about you as the session progresses.

You will usually remain clothed during treatment, but your practitioner may need to examine skin surfaces for discoloration and swelling at some stage. As the treatment involves stretches and different movements for you to practise in between sessions, it is advisable to wear loose, comfortable clothing, preferably of cotton. Avoid receiving Shiatsu after you have eaten. Digestion will draw energy to the abdomen and disturb your practitioner’s reading of the energetic movements in your meridian system.

There should be as little outside disturbance as possible to maintain the balancing effects of the treatment. You will also be asked to refrain from consuming any alcohol on the day before your treatment, as well as the actual day and avoid strenuous exercise following the Shiatsu session.

Treatment involves different techniques to relieve pain and release energy blockages causing you particular problem. The therapist treats your whole body using various methods for different areas. For example, he may rotate and manipulate your leg to relieve associated back pain, or use his elbow to stimulate points on the spine that related to the chest, digestion or circulation problems. He will often rub and apply finger pressure to specific points to open up a blocked meridian and may even walk on the soles of your feet to stimulate the kidney meridian.

A course of treatment usually involves four to eight sessions, preferably on weekly basis. A long-term imbalance might need more treatments. Shiatsu is also a preventive therapy, aiding the maintenance of good health, so a lot of people continue with the sessions, after the initial course of treatment for general health and well-being.

Benefits : Shiatsu can help in improving general health by relieving stress, calming the nervous system and stimulating the circulation and immune system. It is particularly effective for stress-related tension and illnesses, insomnia, back pain, headaches and digestive upsets.

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