What is shiatsu?
Zen Shiatsu is a Japanese type of bodywork that woks to balance “Qi” or vital energy in the body, and stimulates each client’s capacity to heal. Literally translated, the Japanese word shiatsu means “finger pressure.” Shiatsu therapy involves the application of manual pressure to points and areas on the body along energy paths called meridians (the same used in acupuncture). What makes shiatsu so wonderfully unique is that by using manual pressure the therapist is actually able to feel where energy is lacking or in excess, and therefore is able to assess the balance of Qi and treat the imbalance within the same session. Stretching of the body is also an important part of the treatment. Once a general area is worked, the therapist usually applies a stretch, with the breath, to aid in re-circulating the energy throughout the area and meridians. Zen Shiatsu can treat a wide variety of conditions, provides a regulatory influence on the autonomic nervous system, promotes healthy organ function, and reduces muscle tension and pain.
Another wonderfully unique aspect of shiatsu is its ability to affect and regulate the client’s emotional life. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the body and the psyche are not separated. Each meridian is connected to a specific organ function, as well as an emotion. So, by treating the balance of energy through meridian work, we can affect emotional health as well! As you will see in the Testimonials section, many clients experience these benefits.
In Japan, where Zen Shiatsu Therapy originated, the therapy has evolved over 3,500 years of oriental medical wisdom. It is based on the same fundamental principles as acupuncture, without the use of needles. My training also incorporates the knowledge of conventional anatomy, physiology and pathology. An interesting note — Shiatsu Therapy is fully incorporated into the modern public healthcare system of Japan, and has been regulated as a distinct therapy by the Japanese Ministry of Health since 1964!
Shiatsu therapy is effective in the management of many acute and chronic conditions including:
- back pain
- neck and shoulder pain
- painful menstruation
Injuries and conditions such as:
- carpal tunnel syndrome
- thoracic outlet syndrome
- repetitive strain injuries
- muscle tension and spasm
- sprains, strains and other sports injuries
Chronic conditions such as:
- digestive problems
- menstrual irregularities and endometriosis
- fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome
- anxiety and depression
People of all ages, from babies to elderly, experience lasting, beneficial results from therapeutic shiatsu treatment. Shiatsu therapy can be an important part of a preventative or rehabilitative health care program.
A traditional shiatsu treatment is performed on a mat on the floor, or on a low treatment table. No oils or lotions are used, and clients wear loose, comfortable clothing. To begin each session, the therapist will palpate the client’s abdomen, or hara, to get a sense of the energy of the organs and meridians at the current time. At the initial session, a comprehensive medical history is taken along with a thorough assessment of your condition, based on Traditional Chinese Medicine and Zen Theory principles. Emphasis is placed less on physiological structures, but is focused mainly on energy imbalances within specific meridians and areas of the body. Progress and changes are recorded at each subsequent visit. Treatments are usually offered in 30, 60, or 90 minute sessions.
After treatment, most people experience relief from their discomforts — relief from pain, increased flexibility, calmer mood, and clearer mind. Many people find that deep, restful sleep comes more easily for several nights. A small percentage of people may feel tired or headachy for a few hours, or may temporarily experience minor localized muscle stiffness. This is a normal reaction to the treatment as the body adjusts and re-balances, and will pass within 1 to 2 days.
Many people ask me if shiatsu is the same as ‘deep tissue work’ (aka very painful) — a massage therapy term — to which my answer is always ‘absolutely not!’ As each shiatsu treatment is entirely unique, focusing on the body’s needs at the time of treatment, this is a misnomer. Shiatsu is not ’tissue work,’ nor is shiatsu pressure always heavy and deep. In my experience, some clients make this assumption, ask for ‘heavy pressure’ and are not prepared for the strong after effects of such a treatment, and dismiss all shiatsu as deep tissue work that is very painful. Pressure may be generally heavy, generally light, but in most cases, it is varied depending on the condition of the part of the body being treated. Also, I check in frequently with all my clients about the pressure I apply, and encourage everyone to be very vocal about how they feel during the treatment, to avoid this scenario. A good treatment focuses on what the body needs, not ‘the way I prefer to treat’ — in essence, it’s all about you!
Is there evidence for shiatsu?
Having worked for many years for Cochrane, an international organization publishing systematic reviews of healthcare interventions, that pioneered the emergence of evidence based medicine, I believe in healthcare research that allows us to use healthcare interventions more appropriately and efficiently. However, the fact is that comparing treatments like Zen Shiatsu (based on a Traditional Chinese Medicine system) to taking a certain drug for a certain ailment (conventional Western healthcare system) is like comparing apples and oranges. Many researchers have attempted to lump shiatsu therapy in with massage interventions. This, in my opinion, is a mistake. Although shiatsu is a manual therapy, it is nothing like massage, and should be considered as a distinct intervention, as the two are based on entirely different principles and theories. This is one of many reasons why current research on the effects of shiatsu are lacking.
If you must read some studies to be convinced of the efficacy of shiatsu, I understand. Here are a few that I have gathered — not to be confused with a thorough search of the literature — to help you to make an informed decision about pursuing shiatsu as a part of your personal wellness toolkit.