What is Shiatsu?

Although Shiatsu is a relatively modern therapy (developed in Japan in the twentieth century), it can trace its roots to Traditional Chinese medicine, introduced into Japan over 1000 years ago. In China, tuina massage (meaning ‘push-hold’) and known in Japan as anma was used mainly for relaxation. The therapeutic possibilities were rediscoverd by Tamai Tempaku and coined the name shiatsu ryoho, meaning ‘finger pressure way of healing’.

As the technique developed and came to incorporate knowledge of physiology and anatomy from Westerm medicine, its name became shortened to just ‘Shiatsu’. The practice also gained recognition in Japan, where it is practised alongside acupuncture and herbalism.

The official definition given by the Japanese medical department of the Ministry of Welfare (Current Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare) in December 1957 was:

“Shiatsu technique refers to the use of fingers and palm of one’s hand to apply pressure to particular sections on the surface of the body for the purpose of correcting the imbalances of the body, and for maintaining and promoting health. It is also a method contributing to the healing of specific illnesses.”

Based on the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shiatsu practitioners hold that ‘life energy’ (ki in Japanese and qi in Chinese), circulates around the body along channels called meridians. These can be accessed at certain key points, acupoints or tsubos, and a variety of ‘finger pressure’ movements (which may also include using the palms, elbows, knees and feet), are able to balance and harmonise the flow of energy. This has the result of relieving the symptoms of arthritis, headaches & migraine, digestive or circulatory problems, backache, asthma and general fatigue.

What to expect

It’s advisable to wear loose, comfortable clothes when going for treatment, which will be carried on a mat or futon on the floor, or on a treatment table. Some practitioners will ask for a medical history, others will rely on what they can see, hear and feel for themselves, when they touch you, on the understanding that your body will tell its own story. A Shiatsu practitioner may also use hara diagnosis, for which he or she will lightly touch your lower abdomen and ‘feel’ the activity of the energy centres. Part of the diagnosis may also be questions about your emotions, diet, responses to food and your lifestyle; the practitioner may also feel your pulse and ask to look at your tongue.

The actual Shiatsu treatment is a kind of conversation between the practitioner and the energies in your body. The therapist will move around you, sometimes kneeling, sometimes standing, using their own body weight, and their own ki – as well as applying varying degrees of pressure with fingers, thumbs, palms, elbows, even feet, in order to unblock  excesses of ki or stimulate areas that are lacking. A wide range of expert techniques are used to balance the meridian energies; this could be stretching, squeezing, rocking, pressure from hand, knee or elbow, even walking on the soles of the feet.

The session will last from 40 to 60 minutes, during which you may experience a variety of sensations and also emotions (crying, laughter, joy, serenity, stillness are quite common)  as blocked energy is released.

After a Shiatsu session most clients feel that their body is freer, looser, more energised with a greater sense of tranquillity and general well-being.  Some feel fully invigorated and inspired to action, others feel very tired and in need of a sleep.

Effects and Benefits

Shiatsu can be applied to an extensive range of conditions, and it can also give the opportunity to become aware of the way we live and move inside our bodies. Ancient Chinese philosophy holds that Yin and Yang or life balance, depends on the life energy ki flowing freely through the pathways of the body. Illnesses or disease, immune deficiency and exhaustion can occur when these channels become blocked. So by freeing these meridians, Shiatsu aims to restore energetic balance to the  body and enable it to heal itself through its own natural processes.

Shiatsu has been used in the following conditions,  and many others besides:

  • backache and pain
  • breathing disorders, asthma, bronchitis
  • headache, migraines
  • muscular tension or stiffness, sports injuries
  • depression or anxiety, insomnia
  • exhaustion or fatigue
  • digestive difficulties, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome.
  • PMS, PMT, dysmenorrhea  and endometriosis
  • high blood pressure
  • dysfunction of the immune system
  • pregnancy and childbirth

Shiatsu has the advantage of working well with other forms of treatment, it is gentle and adaptable and can be modified to suit your individual condition.  And there are certain basic exercises that, when learned, enable you to practise on your own without assistance to maintain your health.

Fascinating Facts about Shiatsu

  • The many names of Shiatsu: with its roots in tuina (‘push-hold’) massage from China, Shiatsu began being called shiatsu ryoho or ‘finger pressure way of healing’, then became shiatsu ho (‘finger pressure method’), and finally just shiatsu. This ancient and modern technique also gets called other names, for instance, ‘Oriental Physiotherapy’ (and may also combine techniques employed by Osteopaths and craniosacral practitioners).  And from it links with Traditional Chinese Medicine, has been dubbed, ‘Acupuncture without needles’.
  • During the 1970s, Shizuto Masunaga, a professor of psychology at Tokyo University, combined his understanding of psychology with Traditional Chinese Medicine and conventional Shiatsu as practised by his mother (a teacher at the original Namikoshi school), and created what he called Zen Shiatsu, a combination  of modern Western ethos and traditional Eastern healing methods.
  • In 1953, while the iconic filmstar Marilyn Munro was in Tokyo on her honeymoon with her second husband, fell ill, and failed to respond to normal Western medical Treatment. As a last resort Namikoshi Sensei is called in. He treated her every day for a week, after which she recovered fully.
  • Styles and schools or Shiatsu continue to grow and develop. All based on traditional Chinese medicine, they differ in their approaches, some focusing on acupoints and others working on the flow of ki energy flowing through the meridian channels. Today in the UK, a variety of Shiatsu styles are available: from Macrobiotic Shiatsu, Namikoshi Shiatsu, and Hara Shiatsu to Healing Shiatsu, the Five Element system, Movement Shiatsu and Zen Shiatsu.
  • In Japan, anyone who practices shiatsu therapy must be licensed by the Ministry of Health and Welfare. The course to become a Shiatsupractors requires at least three years’ study  (that’s about 2,200 hours) in an approved programme of shiatsu therapy in one of the authorized Japan universities or colleges which are by the Ministry of Health and Welfare and pass the national exam.
  • Stimulating the acupoints, or tsubos, is claimed to reduce an excessive build-up of ki where the flow is overactive or blocked – that is known as jitsu, or to re-energise it when it is depleted – in a state called kyo. The Shiatsu practitioner seeks to locate and balance the patterns of kyo and jitsu in the patient to promote self-healing.
  • During diagnosis, a Shiatsu practitioner may observe your posture, appearance, movement and listen to your voice. A thin, wheezy voice could indicate low lung energy; sharp, strident tone would be a sign of liver energy problems.
  • In 1945, General Douglas MacArthur of the occupation government banned all traditional Japanese forms of medicine. The official reason given was that returning prisoners of war told stories about being stuck with needles when they fell ill. The inspirational Helen Keller pleaded with US president Truman to revoke the ban because many blind Shiatsu and Anma practitioners would have lost their livelihood.
  • It is reported that in 1973, Boxing champion of the World Muhammad Ali ( formerly Cassius Clay) received  treatment from Shiatsu master,  Tokujiro Namikoshi.

Professional Organisations

The European Shiatsu Federation (ESF)

The ESF states that it is a non-party, nondenominational and non-profitmaking organisation, with the primary aim to advance Shiatsu as a healing therapy throughout Europe and to promote high standards of professional practice.  It also has the underlying aim of establishing throughout Europe the legal right to practice Shiatsu as an independent, self-regulating health-care method, legally available as a first choice treatment option to the public.

The Shiatsu Society

Established in 1981, the Shiatsu Society is the UK’s leading professional Shiatsu organisation. It is committed to the spirit and ethos of Shiatsu and the development of integrated and accessible healthcare. As part of the European Shiatsu Federation, it fulfils the role of a professional association for Shiatsu teachers; there are nearly 2,000 members of the Shiatsu Society of whom a third are on the Register of Professional Practitioners of the Shiatsu Society (MRSS).

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all reviews