What is Shiatsu?

Using Finger Pressure To Restore the Flow of Energy

••• Shiatsu generally takes place on a padded mat with the client full clothed. Getty Images: Aifos

Developed in Japan, Shiatsu is a style of bodywork that uses finger pressure to specific points on the body, rocking movements, stretches and joint rotations to restore the healthy flow of energy (chi in Chinese, ki in Japanese) to the body.  Shiatsu is holistic, addressing the whole body rather than focusing on one area where symptoms are most obvious.  

Shiatsu's name comes from two Japanese words -- shi (finger) and atsu (pressure) -- but a practitioner may also apply pressure with other parts of the hand, elbows and knees.

  You wear loose clothing for shiatsu, which is usually performed on a mat on the floor.  No oil is used in this treatment. 

Shiatsu was formally named in the early 20th century, but it has roots in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).   The theory behind shiatsu, like acupuncture, is that the body has unseen energy pathways, or meridians, along which the body's energy flows.  

When you're healthy, energy flows freely along the meridians, supplying all parts of the body with vital energy.  But when the body has been weakened by poor diet, caffeine, drugs, alcohol and emotional stress, the ki  no longer flows smoothly.  It may be deficient in some areas and excessive in others.

The shiatsu practitioner knows these energy pathways as well as the points (called tsuobos in Japanese) that are located along the meridians.   They are essentially areas of high conductivity, and can be affected by a number of modalities: finger pressure in shiatsu; needles in acupuncture; heat in moxibustion.

Getting The Energy To Flow Again

By applying pressure to these tsuobos, the shiatsu practitioner identifies blockages and imbalances and gets the energy flowing smoothly once again.   If the energy or ki is deficient, the practitioner introduces energy to that area with her touch.   If the point is hard and painful to the touch, there is an excess of ki that they practitioner needs to drain.

  As with any treatment, you are in control of how much pressure you want.  If the point is too tender, you can speak up and tell the therapist.  A shiatsu session usually lasts between 45 minutes and an hour.

Making it a little more complicated for the Western mind is that each energy pathway is related to an organ (kidneys, lungs, liver, heart, stomach etc.) as well as an emotion or mental state (fear, sadness, anger).  It's interesting, but you don't have to worry about this.  If there is tenderness in your liver meridian, it doesn't mean you have liver disease.  It just means that your liver energy is unbalanced.  

The traditional Eastern model of health and wellness is very different from the Western model, and is more about restoring health and balance to the body before something goes seriously wrong.  It's also about preserving your ki, which gets weaker as you age. 

Try An Asian Chair Massage To Test Out Shiatsu

There are many spas that offer Shiatsu these days, but you might start out by trying a chair massage at one of the locations that have several Asian therapists.  I had an absolutely wonderful chair massage at a mall in Oklahoma City, to work out some tension while traveling, and was absolutely amazed by how much better I felt in fifteen minutes, for $15 or $20.

 He didn't say he was doing Shiatsu, but that's what it was.  What a great deal.

Another experience that made me a Shiatsu believer came when I was attending a business convention in Chicago before there were many spas.  My neck went into a painful spasm.  I was so incapacitated that I searched a phone book (the olden day) and went to a nearby Asian massage place.  I was nervous about the treatment, and the therapist couldn't speak much English, but she definitely got things moving again.  My neck recovered enough that I could finish the meeting and fly home in one piece.