Shiatsu is from the Japanese word shi meaning finger and atsu meaning pressure. It is characterized by the systematic application of pressure with the fingers, thumbs, palms, elbows, forearms, knees and feet on specific points (tsubos), and areas (meridians) on the body. Unlike acupressure, Shiatsu uses not only the main acupuncture points located on a meridian, but also the spaces in between those points. It does not use typical massage mediums such as oils or creams, and as such can be done through clothing. Shiatsu is traditionally practised on the floor on a thin futon.
The basic premise of Shiatsu is that pressure is applied at a perpendicular angle to the plane of the body and held for approximately 3 to 7 seconds. In many styles of Shiatsu there is a support hand which remains stationary, and a working hand which applies pressure along the meridian. The most common application of pressure is with the palm and thumb. The depth of pressure or weight is gauged according to the client's condition and constitution.
The sustained application of pressure during a Shiatsu treatment activates the mechano-receptor cells in the body and the parasympathetic nervous system, often resulting in a change of brain wave patterns. This allows the body to relax, promotes the smooth flow of blood and qi (ki in Japanese) or vital life force, and activates the natural or innate healing power of the individual.
Shiatsu uses the primal sense of touch along the body's largest organ (skin) to exact change on a cellular level. In doing so, stored traumas and emotional issues can often be released and resolved.
Shiatsu's roots can be traced to China and a style of massage known as Anma. In the 6th century A.D., there was a migration of Buddhism from China to Japan, along with a concurrent migration of Traditional Chinese Medicine, including Anma massage. Anma, the precursor of Shiatsu, underwent considerable refinement in Japan, and flourished during the Edo period (1603-1868).
Shiatsu's popularity was increasing by the 1900s, and underwent further refinements as Japan became more Westernized. Tamai Tempaku wrote Shiatsu Ryoho - Finger Pressure Way of Healing in 1915 and Shiatsu Ho - Finger Pressure Method in 1919. Then in 1925, Tokujiro Namikoshi started the Clinic of Pressure Therapy in Hokkaido and the Japan Shiatsu Institute in 1940. Shiatsu gained official recognition as a treatment modality in 1955, and in 1964 emerged as a form of bodywork distinct from Anma and Swedish massage. It was introduced into Canada in 1971.
The main effect of the modernization of Shiatsu was in the ratio of pressing to rubbing. Anma massage held a ratio of 80% rubbing to 20% pressing. Shiatsu reversed this to 80% pressing and 20% rubbing.
Standards of Practice
The minimum standard of practice for professional Shiatsu therapists is 500 hours. This standard is used in Britain, Europe, Australia and some parts of the U.S. Shiatsu is unregulated in Canada, and there are both longer and shorter programs available. A prospective student should look for things such as course curriculum, experienced instructors, quality of teaching and a supportive learning environment when selecting a school.
Therapeutic Benefits of Shiatsu
Shiatsu can be used to treat a wide variety of conditions, pain being the most common. Often pain, particularly in the soft tissues, is treated by Western medicine with muscle relaxants and pain killers. Shiatsu seeks to treat the underlying cause of pain, as well as the symptoms.
In my own practice, I have seen numerous cases of Shiatsu's unique healing properties. One particular client's recovery using Shiatsu was especially rewarding. Several years ago, this client visited me with severe TMJ (temporomandibular joint) pain. It was so severe she could not open her mouth fully and was restricted to eating soft, mushy foods. She had been feeling pain in the jaw for about 1-1/2 years, and now she was experiencing severe headaches as well. She had gone to see several specialists who recommended surgery.
Shiatsu done on her neck and shoulders provided considerable relief after just one treatment. By the end of the third treatment all pain and accompanying symptoms were gone. She couldn't believe the results and was now even able to manage a smile! I was especially surprised that the recovery came so quickly, as I had anticipated at least 6 to 10 treatments.
The role of the Shiatsu therapist is to help activate the natural healing and recuperative powers of the patient. Regular treatments are important when there is a chronic condition, but Shiatsu is most effective when used preventively. The cumulative effect of treatments helps to strengthen the immune system, tonify organs, and keep the qi and blood flowing smoothly.
Shiatsu is very old, powerful medicine with its roots at least 5,000 years in the past. Yet it still remains an important and potent way for people to connect with themselves, their health, and their environment in the fast-paced 21st century.