Natural Awakenings Publication: Introducing Shiatsu

Shiatsu is a bodywork modality that originated in Japan in the 1940s. Literally, the word “shiatsu” means “finger pressure”, pressure being the essential element in the practice of shiatsu. Generally there are two schools of thought and practice of shiatsu: the Namikoshi and the Masunaga schools. The Masunaga school of shiatsu has had the most impact in the US and the West in general.

Masunaga’s method uses the framework of Chinese medicine for assessment and treatment. In Chinese Medicine, health is the result of the life force (also known as “chi” in Chinese or ‘ki’ in Japanese) flowing smoothly through channels or meridians which travel throughout the body.

Shiatsu helps many conditions of imbalance and illness of the body. Milagros Paredes explains that common conditions she sees in her practice are low back pain, sciatica, neck and shoulder soreness and range of motion limitations; tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, physical stress and injury from intense training and repetitive use (runners, cyclists, yogis, dancers, musicians and hairdressers);  anxiety and depression; digestive and immune weaknesses; tinnitus; female reproductive irregularities like excess bleeding, swollen breasts, cramping and pregnancy-related issues. Shiatsu also supports improved recovery and is an excellent modality for athletes and dancers.

To assess the condition of  the body, the shiatsu therapist usually begins a session by palpating the abdomen, which, in shiatsu, is referred to as the ‘hara’. In the tradition of shiatsu, and in Japanese culture in general,  it is said that health ‘begins and ends in the hara’, making this a key place for assessing the condition of the body before and after a shiatsu session.  Reflex areas in the hara reflect the state of energy in the twelve meridians  that course throughout the body.

masunaga's hara diagnosis map

In shiatsu, the weak areas are referred to as ‘kyo’ while excess areas are referred to as ‘jitsu’. Jitsu areas are easier to find because they are often the places where pain and discomfort manifest. The root of the problem however tends to be hidden, less ‘noisy’, and  often kyo.

For most people in the west, this is a different way for a bodywork session to begin. Assessment of the hara is important because it allows a trained practitioner to tailor the treatment according to each individual. Hara diagnosis is not a straightforward matter. It takes a great deal of experience to develop an accurate sense of weak and excess ki in meridians as they manifest in the hara. Beyond sensing the quality of the tissue in the reflex areas (tight, hard, soft, empty) a trained practitioner also senses their energetic state and then compares them to other reflex areas to determine what is most out of balance. From here, the shiatsu practitioner applies pressure along the meridians that show the greatest imbalance.

Chart of hara reflex areas

Milagros Paredes, certified shiatsu therapist, explains, “Many new clients expect me to work directly on their area of complaint early on in the session. This is a kind of ‘fix it” philosophy that denies the body's own process. My approach however tends to be less direct because I have come to see that this is how the body prefers to be approached.

Milagros Paredes, certified shiatsu therapist, explains, “Many new clients expect me to work directly on their area of complaint early on in the session. This is a kind of ‘fix it” style. My approach however tends to be less direct because I have come to see that this is how the body prefers to be approached. I like to begin by addressing the root imbalance and to focus on areas distal from the main complaint before working directly on the most painful area that my client wants resolved.  This approach allows the body to shift to a more relaxed, trusting and open state. It also feels more nourished.. With this the body will be more receptive to pressure in its vulnerable places. I also believe that this approach enables the body to sustain the effects for a longer period of time. Having said that, I also listen intuitively for when someone would benefit from gentle pressure or touch on the area of complaint from the very start. I stay open and flexible.”

The nature of the pressure applied in shiatsu is also important. It is a relaxed “lean on” pressure, coming preferably from the practitioner’s hara. The practitioner simply leans in towards the center of the body, letting the pressure be the result of gravity acting on her weight. This kind of pressure, in contrast to a pressure that comes from using strength and muscular effort, is much easier to receive and is also more sustainable for the practitioner in the long-run. In this way, the practitioner is using her whole body rather than just her arms, and is also allowing gravity do much of the work. That shiatsu is most often and traditionally done on a futon/mat on the floor further eases the practitioner’s work as long as the practitioner is agile and flexible enough to move around on the floor. This lean-on pressure is held for various lengths of time, depending on what is needed - on how long it takes for ki to flow into kyo areas or how quickly stagnant ki starts to disperse and flow. In addition to fingers, palms, elbows and knees are used to apply pressure.

The pressure that is used in shiatsu not only restores a smoother flow of ki in the body, it also acts to regulate the nervous system. In our culture, where productivity, doing, rushing and a pressured lifestyle are normal,  inordinately valued and often addictive, the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for fight and flight, dominates our way of being. This can feel good  in the short-run but in the long-run this way of living compromises health on all levels.

Through the holding pressure of shiatsu, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, allowing the organism to shift to a state of profound relaxation, where blood and ki are redirected to the organs, fascia and muscles lengthen and open, the mind also quiets and anxiety calms.  Milagros Paredes states “Ki flowing more smoothly in the body is experienced viscerally and described in various ways by my clients.  Many describe a remarkable and unusual state of clarity in their entire system after a session. Others describe their felt  sense using words like ‘all connected’, whole’, ‘light’. Very commonly, clients feel a desire to substitute destructive habits with healthier choices about eating, mindfulness and movement. This desire arises spontaneously and I think it is what happens when the natural flow of ki is restored and the need for touch and focused attention is met.”

Shiatsu is a deeply therapeutic modality too little studied and requiring more in-depth research for scientific validation. Even without this however,  Milagros feels grateful having seen the impact of shiatsu in her clients’ lives over the last 20 years of practicing. She says,  “Thanks to the Chinese medicine framework of shiatsu and to the power of touch, shiatsu is a profound modality that directly affects the body on both the energetic and physical levels. Depending on one’s intentions as receiver and on skillfulness of the practitioner, it has the capacity for deep transformation and evolution.” ~published in Natural Awakening