By Nishtha Shukla
Derived from a 5,000-year-old eastern healing tradition, shiatsu is now a relatively modern therapy gaining ground in the West
When Anma, Japanese for massage, was increasingly becoming popular as a technique for relaxation and pleasure, some practitioners were keen on preserving the gamut of massages as therapeutic, healing art. Consequently, the art of shiatsu (meaning ‘finger pressure’) soon evolved as a technique of its own, involving gentle manipulations and stretches through pressure exerted on fingers or the thumb.
Though derived from an eastern healing tradition dating back around 5,000 years, it is now a relatively modern therapy gaining ground in the West. In fact, it was in the early part of the 20th century that the pioneering work of Tamai Tempaku brought traditional Japanese bodywork back into the mainstream. With his book Shiatsu Ho (1919), he inspired later practitioners like Tokujiro Namikoshi, Katsusuke Serizawa and Shizuto Masunaga, teachers who developed different practical and theoretical aspects of the therapy.
Shiatsu is a non-invasive manual therapy that stimulates the body’s inherent ability to heal itself, using the philosophy of the yin and yang, the five elements and the ki energy. It is believed that the vital energy ki flows throughout the body in a series of channels or meridians and can stop flowing freely for many reasons, producing a symptom. Based on the treatment of the essential life energy, it can work from the very specific injuries to the more general symptoms of poor health.
As the concentrated ki flows through the body’s meridians, there is often an imbalance of energy resulting in tension, tightness, fullness or a weakness and emptiness. Most acupuncture points lie on meridians, and shiatsu sometimes works on specific points, pressing or holding them. Shiatsu stimulates certain nerve meridians, motivating the body to heal itself. The pressure also releases endorphins that act as pain inhibitors.
Shiatsu differs from acupuncture and acupressure in that it is more usual to work on the meridian as a whole, rather than on isolated points. Also, the technique does not use any needles.
The meridian is not merely a pathway connecting the various organs, but a concentration of a particular functional energetic quality of the body. So if your Shiatsu practitioner tells you that your heart meridian needs attention, it doesn’t imply there is something wrong with the physical organ but conveys the message that you need emotional support.
A peaceful art, this is best done in a serene environment. It requires being relaxed, closing the eyes, relaxing the muscles and refraining from talking, unless necessary. Meditation, breathing and mindfulness are some things that can help you gain the maximum out of the treatment. Because of the holistic approach of shiatsu, the practitioner also takes into account the explanation of the patient, his behavioural patterns and the physical appearance.
The diagnosis begins with the abdomen (the Japanese hara), which is considered the central, soft and relatively unprotected area where subtle imbalances reveal themselves more easily. In a booklet titled Secrets of Shiatsu, Cathy Meeus says that the hara is the pivotal point of the body in terms of weight distribution and is the centre of its life force. In shiatsu, the aim is to utilise energy from the hara for pressure, not simply relying on its muscular strength.
The therapy involves using the thumb, fingers and elbow, etc, depending on the size of the area to be treated and the kind of touch needed. Thus systematic pressure is applied to certain points on the soft tissues of the body to assess as well as treat a variety of conditions. The practitioner also uses the important energy centres of the hand that can transmit feelings while giving shiatsu.
The kind of technique employed will depend on the person’s health, symptoms and the body constitution. These include gentle holding, pressing with palms, thumbs, fingers, elbows, knees and feet on the meridians and, when appropriate, some more dynamic rotations and stretches. By applying pressure to the problem areas known as tsubos (pressure points), shiatsu is able to influence the flow of ki.
The primary deficiency of energy in a particular channel is termed kyo, and this provokes a compensatory state of over-activity (jitsu) elsewhere in the channel or a related channel to restore equilibrium. The basic shiatsu depends on tonifying, or strengthening, the flow of ki by applying firm and stationary pressure. Calming helps jitsu places by light, stroking movements. The session lasts about an hour and is done on a padded mat or futon at floor level and on a chair if you can’t lie down.
Jerry Teplitz, a strait-laced lawyer turned successful shiatsu practitioner, says that the treatment is really effective for ordinary ailments. In the book Whole Body Healing, he explains that the hard pressure exerted by the thumbs may cause extra blood to circulate through the painful area. Blood acts as the natural cleanser of the body, bringing antibodies and oxygen to the area and removing waste products and carbon dioxide.
It is said that some people may feel tired or headachy for a few hours after undergoing shiatsu treatment, or may temporarily experience minor localised muscle stiffness. That is part of detoxification and the body’s reaction as it tries to readjust and rebalance itself in the next few hours. Other post-treatment symptoms are stiffness, stomach upsets or lethargy. Emotional releases may take longer to work through and one may discover deep-seated emotional patterns. It, therefore, also requires meeting the practitioner more often for counselling.
Much like massages and other forms of bodywork, the use of physical pressure and stretches reduces muscular tension. But unlike them, the person is clothed during the treatment and the principle aim is not to work on localised muscles and joints, but on the overall energy system.
A development of the ancient oriental wisdom, it also incorporates the modern western sciences of anatomy, physiology and pathology, which have been incorporated into the modern public healthcare system of Japan.
The therapy is particularly effective in acute and chronic conditions of headaches, back and neck pain, sciatica, carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive strain injuries, muscle tension and spasm, insomnia, constipation, digestive problems, menstrual problems, chronic fatigue syndrome, arthritis, asthma, anxiety and depression and sports injuries.
Shiatsu is also effective as a mood lifter and pacifier and can help one get rest. People have experienced peaceful sleep for several nights after a treatment. It has, therefore, also become an important part of preventive and rehabilitative health care. Across the globe, there are different basis on which people practise the same therapy and hence there have developed different styles of the same-Zen shiatsu, Macrobiotic shiatsu, healing shiatsu, Namikoshi shiatsu and Hara shiatsu.
The aim is to assist the body’s natural healing process rather than letting the energy go haywire. The practitioner becomes a friend. If he feels your problem is the way your lifestyle has been structured, he could ask you to alter your diet, your sleeping patterns or your physical activities. So it also acts as a self-development course sensitive to the subtle changes within you.
Shiatsu stimulates certain nerve meridians, motivating the body to heal itself.
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