What Is Shiatsu?
Shiatsu, is a specific form of healing touch, which offers us a way of supporting our body at all times of our life. It is a complete health care system which works with the body’s own resources. This is both its strength and weakness. If the body is really sick and out of balance, then sometimes more interventionist measures, such as those offered by conventional medicine are needed. However whatever is happening, our body can always be supported to process it in some way. The only time it can not really be included is during emergency medical procedures. It can support both before and after as there are no reactions with drugs as it is only ever supporting the body in its processes.
Shiatsu could be considered a form of massage, which is often done through the clothes and incorporates simple points and holds. Its essence is simple to learn and effective. Shiatsu includes awareness of body posture, breathing and exercise. Like acupuncture, Shiatsu stimulates the body’s vital energy (known as Qi or Ki). Shiatsu is calm and relaxing in nature, yet dynamic in effect; the body begins to re-adjust itself and healing takes place. The receiver is supported to become more aware of their body/mind as an integrated whole, on either a conscious or subconscious level. They become aware of areas of tension or weakness on either a physical or emotional level and through this process healing occurs.
As well as the points and meridians of acupuncture, work with the physical body, muscles, joints, blood and so on, is included. Massage type strokes like kneading or effleurage are part of shiatsu. It is characterised by extensive use of pressure techniques over acupoints often done using thumb or palms. The pressure varies according to the person, the area of the body, and what the work is being done for. It can be very deep, and help ease out physical tensions. It can be very light and feel soothing. Breathing and visualisation may be included. Usually there are some stretches and mobilisations, so it can feel a bit like Thai massage or having yoga done to you. It is often done on a futon on the floor rather than a massage table. The practitioner will suggest suitable self care stretching or postural awareness exercises as appropriate.
Shiatsu has its origins thousands of years ago in Japan and was more recently formalised into its modern form over a hundred years ago. It draws on much of traditional Chinese knowledge for its theoretical base, using the same meridians and points as in acupuncture and tuina. It is now quite widely practised in the UK and throughout the world.
Shiatsu is constantly evolving as our understanding of the body evolves and different styles draw upon other bodywork traditions, including massage, cranial-sacral and soft tissue work. Some practitioners support the integration of change by including within the session other modalities such as exercise and breath awareness, dietary therapy, psycho-therapeutic and meditative practices.
Suzanne Yates did her original training in Healing-Shiatsu with Sonia Moriceau (Blog post in memory of Sonia) . This approach was developed out of Sonia’s extensive years of training and practise in Zen Buddhism. By understanding the whole being, through the breathing pattern, posture and mental attitude, practitioner and client can reach to the origin of the dis-ease, be it mental or physical.
How does Shiatsu work?
All forms of work with the body: exercises, stretches, breathing, different types of massage and body work support our health and well being. In most traditional cultures their importance was considered a fundamental part of health care and we have devalued their importance to our detriment. It is becoming increasingly clear that it is not possible to separate the body from the mind. How we are physically in our body affects how we feel. If we have poor posture or hold tension that will affect our emotions. Touch is our first sense which develops. Already at 8 weeks after conception we have reflex responses to touch before we can hear or see: senses which only develop much later. We experience the world through touch and we store our memory of the world in our body. Any form of supportive touch can be immensely healing, as any form of abusive or violent touch can be immensely damaging. This can help explain why body work can have such a profound effect not just on the physical body, but on the emotional and even spiritual level.
All forms of bodywork: massage, osteopathy, cranial sacral work, rolfing (structural integration), pilates and yoga (to name but a few) support the body in this way. Shiatsu, and any modality which includes awareness of meridians and energy (Qi/Jing) additionally offer a very specific way of understanding how our whole experience is stored in the body.
What exactly are the meridians of Chinese medicine and how do they work? There are various theories ranging from fascial/tissue connections, nerve and hormonal relationships. However, I believe the key to understanding the meridians lies in understanding how our bodies developed. Many of the connections of the meridians make sense when we understand how we developed embryologically. Three key meridians (Conception, Governing and Penetrating Vessel) lie along the physical mid-line of the body. We develop from the mid-line and our core strength, both physical and, I would argue, emotionally, comes from the mid-line.
How did the ancients know this? We can only conjecture. They did not know about embryological development in the way we now do. However they clearly had a stronger intuitive, more developed right brain, than us. The more I study about Chinese medicine, the more I feel it has so much to teach us, although of course, there are aspects which are not relevant today.
Sadly the power of touch and its simplicity has been largely forgotten in the development of modern medicine. We must not undervalue the advances technology has brought us, but often this has been at the price of disconnecting us from our bodies. Pregnancy and birth are times when women are offered an opportunity to experience their body in an intense and powerful and often healing way. This aspect is often neglected in the medical approach to looking for what might be wrong with the body: which of course is also important to be able to recognise.
Shiatsu, massage and touch can offer powerful tools in supporting women to contact the wisdom of their bodies in pregnancy and birth and for parents to bond with their developing child.