What is shiatsu?
In this blog, I will explore what shiatsu is, how it works and what a shiatsu session involves. If you would like to see a shiatsu practitioner you can visit our find a practitioner page. Even though this is a list of practitioners who specialise in maternity work, they are all trained to work with all clients. Some will specialise more with certain kinds of clients: so please ask their expertise in an area of work (apart from maternity). Since they specialise in maternity work, their knowledge can be helpful if you have any issues relating to your early childhood and relationship with your mother or your birth, and for women, even many years after your pregnancies and births there may still be issues ( physical such as continued weakness in the back or abdominal area, or emotional such as unprocessed emotions) which can be supported. If you are a midwife or doula and want to learn more about shiatsu we have our courses Shiatsu for Midwives in person and on line.
What is shiatsu?
Shiatsu, is a specific form of healing touch, which offers us a way of supporting our body at all times of our life. It is a complete health care system which works with the body’s own resources. This is both its strength and weakness. If the body is really sick and out of balance, then sometimes more interventionist measures, such as those offered by conventional medicine are needed. However whatever is happening, our body can always be supported to process it in some way. The only time it can not really be included is during emergency medical procedures. It can support both before and after as there are no reactions with drugs as it is only ever supporting the body in its processes.
Shiatsu could be considered a form of massage, which is often done through the clothes and incorporates simple points and holds. Its essence is simple to learn and effective. Shiatsu includes awareness of body posture, breathing and exercise. Like acupuncture, Shiatsu stimulates the body’s vital energy (known as Qi or Ki). Shiatsu is calm and relaxing in nature, yet dynamic in effect; the body begins to re-adjust itself and healing takes place. The receiver is supported to become more aware of their body/mind as an integrated whole, on either a conscious or subconscious level. They become aware of areas of tension or weakness on either a physical or emotional level and through this process healing occurs.
If you want to get some idea of shiatsu, you can look at this video I made on shiatsu and massage in pregnancy. In this video the students are massage therapists who are incorporating some shiatsu into their work, so there is some work on the skin. However the positions and movements are like those included in shiatsu and this will give you some idea
As well as the points and meridians of acupuncture, work with the physical body, muscles, joints, blood and so on, is included. Massage type strokes like kneading or effleurage are part of shiatsu. It is characterised by extensive use of pressure techniques over acupoints often done using thumb or palms. The pressure varies according to the person, the area of the body, and what the work is being done for. It can be very deep, and help ease out physical tensions. It can be very light and feel soothing. Breathing and visualisation may be included. Usually there are some stretches and mobilisations, so it can feel a bit like Thai massage or having yoga done to you. It is often done on a futon on the floor rather than a massage table. The practitioner will suggest suitable self care stretching or postural awareness exercises as appropriate.
Shiatsu has its origins thousands of years ago in Japan and was more recently formalised into its modern form over a hundred years ago. It draws on much of traditional Chinese knowledge for its theoretical base, using the same meridians and points as in acupuncture and tuina. It is now quite widely practised in the UK and throughout the world.
Shiatsu is constantly evolving as our understanding of the body evolves and different styles draw upon other bodywork traditions, including massage, cranial-sacral and soft tissue work. Some practitioners support the integration of change by including within the session other modalities such as exercise and breath awareness, dietary therapy, psycho-therapeutic and meditative practices.
Suzanne Yates did her original training in Healing-Shiatsu with Sonia Moriceau . This approach was developed out of Sonia’s extensive years of training and practise in Zen Buddhism. By understanding the whole being, through the breathing pattern, posture and mental attitude, practitioner and client can reach to the origin of the dis-ease, be it mental or physical.
How does shiatsu work?
All forms of work with the body: exercises, stretches, breathing, different types of massage and body work support our health and well being. In most traditional cultures their importance was considered a fundamental part of health care and we have devalued their importance to our detriment. It is becoming increasingly clear that it is not possible to separate the body from the mind. How we are physically in our body affects how we feel. If we have poor posture or hold tension that will affect our emotions. Touch is our first sense which develops. Already at 8 weeks after conception we have reflex responses to touch before we can hear or see: senses which only develop much later. We experience the world through touch and we store our memory of the world in our body. Any form of supportive touch can be immensely healing, as any form of abusive or violent touch can be immensely damaging. This can help explain why body work can have such a profound effect not just on the physical body, but on the emotional and even spiritual level. You might want to read my blog The body keeps score for more information on this.
All forms of bodywork: massage, osteopathy, cranial sacral work, rolfing (structural integration), pilates and yoga (to name but a few) support the body in this way. Shiatsu, and any modality which includes awareness of meridians and energy (Qi/Jing) additionally offer a very specific way of understanding how our whole experience is stored in the body.
What exactly are the meridians of Chinese medicine and how do they work? There are various theories ranging from fascial/tissue connections, nerve and hormonal relationships. However, I believe the key to understanding the meridians lies in understanding how our bodies developed. Many of the connections of the meridians make sense when we understand how we developed embryologically. Three key meridians (Conception, Governing and Penetrating Vessel) lie along the physical mid-line of the body. We develop from the mid-line and our core strength, both physical and, I would argue, emotionally, comes from the mid-line.
How did the ancients know this? We can only conjecture. They did not know about embryological development in the way we now do. However they clearly had a stronger intuitive, more developed right brain, than us. The more I study about Chinese medicine, the more I feel it has so much to teach us, although of course, there are aspects which are not relevant today.
To find out more about the meridians you might want to read some of the related blogs. Shiatsu and meridians The Extraordinary Vessels and conception, Our development in the womb and the Extraordinary Vessels.
Sadly the power of touch and its simplicity has been largely forgotten in the development of modern medicine. We must not undervalue the advances technology has brought us, but often this has been at the price of disconnecting us from our bodies. Pregnancy and birth are times when women are offered an opportunity to experience their body in an intense and powerful and often healing way. This aspect is often neglected in the medical approach to looking for what might be wrong with the body: which of course is also important to be able to recognise.
Shiatsu, massage and touch can offer powerful tools in supporting women to contact the wisdom of their bodies in pregnancy and birth and for parents to bond with their developing child.
Why would I want to have shiatsu?
Since Shiatsu is working with the whole person, rather than simply focusing on conditions, most people, ill or healthy, and of all ages from babies to the elderly can potentially benefit from it. Shiatsu is extremely useful in enhancing health and vitality and many people use it as part of a stress management or preventative health care programme. Shiatsu is also excellent if you are feeling unwell but are suffering from no known medical condition. However, if you do have a medical condition for which you may or may not require orthodox medical treatment, shiatsu can still offer a support to your body. It may simply be stress reduction or relaxation, or just being more accepting of where you are at.
People come to shiatsu for all kinds of reasons and they may come with specific ailments ranging from the acute to the more chronic from the more physical to the more emotional. They may come presenting with structural problems such as bad necks, backs or poor posture, as well as conditions like menstrual difficulties, skin disorders, digestive problems and migraines or with more psychological issues such as depression or stress. Often people seek out shiatsu during major times of change like adolescence, infertility, pregnancy, the menopause and adjusting to later life.
It is important to note that Shiatsu is seen as an addition to orthodox medicine. There are things which Shiatsu can not do: as it is just working with the energy of the body: so there are limits.This is also why it is “safe” : nothing is being put in from outside!
As shiatsu is simply working to support your body, then it can work alongside other approaches, whether they are more physically based or emotionally based.
What does a shiatsu session involve
Usually the shiatsu session begins with some time for sharing any relevant issues, whether physical or emotional. so that the treatment can be tailored to your needs . This is followed by 40 -50 minutes of hands on work, a short rest and then feedback. Suggestions may be worked out together for exercises or activities which support the work of the session.
The work is usually done on a futon, a light cotton mattress on the floor. If people don’t want to, or are not able to, lie down, sitting or other positions can be used. It is recommended to wear loose fitting clothes; tracksuit bottoms or light cotton trousers are ideal. Avoid having a heavy meal before the session. It is advisable to rest for at least one hour afterwards, as the process continues after the actual session is over. The effects may be experienced immediately, or after several days.
How often would I need to come?
The whole process is very individual and is tailored to each person’s needs. Most people begin coming for shiatsu at 2 or 3 week intervals. They may then decide to come monthly, or as they need to, which may only be every 6-8 weeks. In acute conditions, such as bad back, or severe depression, people will probably come weekly until they begin to feel better.
Why would I want shiatsu rather than massage?
At the end of the day, it is hard to give a definite answer as it very much depends on the approach and training of the individual therapist. If you are not sure, you might want to see a therapist who has been trained in both, or see two different therapists, depending on what you need.
It can work alongside massage. Some massage therapists are also shiatsu practitioners and some shiatsu practitioners use massage.
Shiatsu is usually done clothed, although some massage therapists include shiatsu in work directly on the skin with oil. Sometimes people decide that they want to remain clothed. Other times they might prefer the more physical and oil based approach of massage.
Shiatsu includes more static holding techniques: sometimes people want a more physical dynamic approach, although some shiatsu can also be quite physical. Shiatsu tends to include more stretches and mobilisations in the way that Thai massage does but some massage therapists include a lot of stretches in their work.
The main difference is that shiatsu includes use of the meridians and so can address emotional issues in a more specific way than massage, but all bodywork can address emotions on some level as all emotions are stored in the body.
Massage therapists trained with Wellmother will tend to include some meridian work in their massage.