I studied Shiatsu at the Swedish Institute in New York City. Shiatsu is a contemporary therapy with its roots in Oriental traditional medicine. It is sometimes described as Japanese physiotherapy. The actual treatment approach and philosophy is similar to acupuncture in its usage of the meridians (energy channels) and tsubo (pressure points) as well as diagnostic methods, but without the use of needles. Unlike most other forms of bodywork, in shiatsu the receiver remains clothed for the treatment and no oil is used for the massage.
Shiatsu is a Japanese word made up of two written characters meaning finger (shi) and pressure (atsu). The application of pressure is the underlying principle of shiatsu. Shiatsu is often called accupressure, although technically it is not correct. We can say Shiatsu is a variant of accupressure, as it involves the stimulation of the acupoints with pressure. However, this is not the only thing nor the principal technique used in Shiatsu. In Shiatsu, the pressure is sometimes applied over a wider area, not just over the acupoints; sometimes, the pressure is applied precisely over the acupoints. The practitioners use fingers and thumb for applying pressure precisely at localized points. For applying pressure over a larger area, they use palms, elbows, knees, and feet.
In addition to the pressure itself, shiatsu involves gentle stretch and manipulation techniques. These may have been borrowed from modern physiotherapy rather than from the ancient oriental massage. But shiatsu differs from Western massage in technique as well as in theory. While Swedish massage therapists use long, flowing hand movements to knead muscles, shiatsu practitioners apply rhythmic and gradual pressure to the meridians and tsubos. Sometimes, very light 'holding' techniques may be used, usually with the palm, almost like the laying on of hands as in spiritual healing. Stretching exercises and other corrective techniques creates flexibility and balance in the body, both physically and energetically.
Shiatsu works on the flow of energy or qi that circulates through our bodies in specific energy channels or meridians. Traditional Oriental Medicine suggests that 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, called qi or chi in Chinese and ki in Japanese, maintains a homeostatic balance in your 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 to experience 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. Touch is 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. All living things responds to touch and shiatsu helps to fulfill this need. The caring touch used in shiatsu will help to trigger the self-healing process within.
Thus, modern shiatsu incorporates a mixture of different approaches - ancient and modern. It includes pressing, hooking, sweeping, shaking, rotating, grasping, vibrating, patting, plucking, lifting, pinching, rolling, brushing, and in one variation called barefoot shiatsu, it involves walking on the person's back. Legs, and feet. These all share a common theme, namely touch. Shiatsu is thus a 'hands-on' therapy.
Shiatsu has become a respected alternative therapy in the western countries and is offered in many hospital settings as a complementary therapy for the treatment and prevention of many common ailments. It is a very safe and effective treatment.
Shiatsu originated in China at least 2000 years ago, when the earliest accounts gave the causes of ailments and the remedies that could be effected through a change of diet and way of life. The use of massage and acupuncture was also recommended. Thus acupuncture, massage and herbal medicine evolved side by side to treat the range of diseases encountered. The traditional massage of ancient China was known as 'anma' and found its way to Japan to be adopted and adapted by the Japanese, who also called it 'anma'. The therapy that is known today as shiatsu has gradually evolved with time from anma under influences from both East and West.
Amma (anma in Japanese) has been used for centuries to deal with many common ailments, aches and pains as well as treating more serious "diseases". New influences from traditional Eastern medicine and Western science have gradually shaped it into what is today called shiatsu. There are several main styles of shiatsu found in the West: barefoot shiatsu, macrobiotic shiatsu, Namikoshi style, Ohashiatsu, Shiatsu-Do and Zen shiatsu. These are all valid and effective therapies using the basic shiatsu principles but with differing emphasis placed on techniques or philosophy. In Japan there are more than 87,000 registered shiatsu practitioners. This fact alone goes some way towards demonstrating its effectiveness in the prevention and treatment of disease.
It is only very recently that it has gained recognition and popularity, with people becoming aware of its existence and benefits.
Although East and West have different viewpoints on health and life, these can complement one another. The Eastern belief is of a primary flow of energy throughout the body, which runs along certain channels known as meridians. It is also believed that this energy exists throughout the universe and that all living creatures are dependent upon it as much as on physical nourishment. The energy is known by three similar names, ki, chi and prana in Japan, China andIndia respectively. As in acupuncture, there are certain pressure points on the meridians that relate to certain organs, and these points are known as tsubos.