Foundations of Shiatsu

Shiatsu is a Japanese healing therapy that literally translates as “finger pressure”—Shi (finger) and Atsu (pressure)—although elbows, knees, feet and palms are also utilized to apply pressure. While Shiatsu has its origins in Chinese medicine dating back over 5,000 years ago, it combines with modern Western osteopathy to form a system whereby the body is manipulated through a series of pressure along meridians or specific pressure points to release blocked energy channels.  It also incorporates stretches, joint rotations and manipulations, holding, and rocking.

The primary goal of a shiatsu treatment is to restore balance and vitality in the body, allowing the body’s chi to flow unobstructed throughout the body and connect with vital organs.  A key element in shiatsu is that the practitioner maintains contact with the client with both their hands, so that a circuit of energy can be created and exchanged. The practitioner usually has one stationary hand known as the support hand and the messenger hand which moves and performs the techniques. Throughout the course of the massage the hands may change roles, if they maintain contact with the client.

When shiatsu is used within massage, it can help prevent and relieve the buildup of stress or certain illnesses while strengthening the connection between the body, mind and spirit. The circuit of energy or bond created between the practitioner and client should also invigorate and benefit the practitioner as well.

Materials Needed for a Shiatsu Treatment

Shiatsu is traditionally performed on a futon, a thin cotton filled mattress, which lies on the floor.  These days there are many alternatives to futons, such as shiatsu or yoga mats that are easier to transport if you are performing mobile massage.  It is important that the futon or mat has plenty of cushion so that the client is comfortable while being stable enough so that it can provide enough resistance when pressure is being applied during a treatment.

A shiatsu treatment is done fully clothed, preferably in loose comfortable clothes to allow for a full range of movement and minimal friction. Natural fibers are best worn by the practitioner and the client as synthetic fibers inhibit the flow of chi. A thin cotton sheet or cloth is usually placed over the client that will serve as an additional layer of protection of unwanted energy and for hygiene.

The Hara

After the initial consultation (observations, review of contraindications etc) and treatment preparations have been made, it is crucial for both the practitioner and the client to calm their minds and focus on their Hara. The Hara or the Tanden is one of the most powerful energy centers in the body, which is located in the abdominal region below the navel. The Hara is comprised of yin energy which runs up the front of the body and yang energy which flows down the back of the body, when balanced it can provide tremendous support and a sense of grounding. However, when unbalanced, it can be the seat of deep emotions especially grief and sadness or stifled energy.

An easy way to tune into your Hara is to deep breathe into this space—inhale through your nostrils and exhale with your mouth for the same length of time—maintaining nice long rhythms.  Breathing alone into this energy center may produce profound effects like calming the nervous system, releasing trapped emotions or stresses, and moving blocked chi.

The massage practitioner and the client should continue to deep breath into their Hara, before and during the massage.  It is crucial for practitioner should physically and energetically use movements that come from their Hara and for their movements to be in rhythm with the breath. For example, when the massage practitioner and the client are exhaling is the optimum time to apply pressure or for stretching. The pressure and stretch should be done slowly, gradually and with great care—the greatest pressure is applied at the end of the exhale, but before the next breath is taken. This will enable maximum results and reduce resistance from the client.

Shiatsu Meridians

Merdians are channels of living magnetic energy that flow throughout the body. In shiatsu, static pressure is applied to specific points along these meridians to rebalance the flow of energy or chi. A skilled Shiatsu practitioner will be able to use touch to sense whether or not there is excess energy (jitsu) or deficient energy (kyo) within each of the 12 meridians.  Shiatsu incorporates different techniques to unblock or disperse energy evenly throughout the body, including applied pressure, holding, joint manipulations, and stretching. However, the main techniques in shiatsu are palming, rocking and thumbing. Each of these movements are usually held or performed for 1-10 seconds whereby the practitioner usually times it with the client’s breath.

Palming is the simplest and most widely used technique in the different schools of shiatsu. It is performed by relaxing the hand and allowing the fingers rest against the contours of the body while the palm is making contact with the specific point. The shiatsu practitioner will harness energy from their hara and lean their body weight through their palms until the energy circulates into their other palm. Then slide the messenger palm along the meridian without breaking contact with the client’s body and lean again through their palms. Palming should be performed slowly and methodically, creating a stable and perpendicular pressure.

Rocking is a shiatsu technique that is mainly used on large areas of the body such as the back or thighs to relieve tension. Rocking is done by placing both hands apart along the meridian and rocking slowing forward and backward with the exhale of the breath. The massage practitioner should energetically and physically come from the Hara, making sure that it is a nice controlled movement and not wobbly.

Thumbing is an effective technique where the thumb is placed along the meridian, with the rest of the fingers extended for support, and pressure is applied as a result of the practitioner leaning their body forward so the pressure is transferred through the thumbpads. Thumbing is used when precise and penetrating pressure is needed to unblock a meridian. It is imperative that a massage practitioner has short nails and angles their thumb properly to avoid hurting their client.

There are different schools and variations of shiatsu, but when the techniques are executed properly, regular shiatsu treatments can greatly reduce and prevent tension and its side effects like aches and pains, stress, reduced mobility etc. By working along the meridians, the massage therapist can access and disperse energy into the necessary areas to allow for the chi to flow freely throughout the whole body.

Shiatsu and Raynor Massage

At Raynor College, we have profound respect for shiatsu as a powerful healing therapy and philosophy, which is why Raynor Massage has incorporated many shiatsu techniques like coming from the Hara, utilizing pressure points or massaging with the rhythms of the breath. Find out more about Raynor Massage here.