Shiatsu is one of many practices that help us to transform our lives through cultivating an awareness of ourselves and what brings about our negative states ? and also what is required to create a more positive state. Its roots are in ancient Chinese massage, which employs theories and techniques from Chinese culture and philosophy to create wholeness and well-being. The Japanese word shiatsu means finger pressure: shi ? ?finger,? atsu ? ?pressure?. In shiatsu, the fingers, thumbs, elbows, knees, and hands are all used to stimulate or sedate the energy flowing through the body to promote health and healing.

Shiatsu encourages a positive state of mind; its theories and techniques are a backdrop to physical communication through touch. Like acupuncture and other Asian medical practices, shiatsu works with the body?s energy system. The Asian concept of energy can be loosely understood as ?vitality? or "vital force", which we cannot see but can sense or feel. For example, if someone walks into the room we immediately pick up on his energetic state, whether he looks full of life and energy or the opposite. In this book, I will use energy and ki to describe this vital force.

According to Asian medicine, our energy, or ki, moves along specific pathways (meridians) around the body. These meridians relate to our internal physical organs and our emotional, psychological, and spiritual state. The organs and functions in the body are divided into six pairs and all are linked by ki. For the Chinese, all parts and functions of the body are interrelated; no problem can successfully be treated in isolation. In shiatsu, the connecting point of the organs and functions in the body is the meridian system.

The Meridians

The meridians are like a closed circuit of water channels, and the water flowing through the channels is equivalent to the ki. There can be many interruptions along the way ? sticks, stones, and leaves silt up the channels, with a resulting blockage. If this keeps happening, the water will continue to be disrupted and blocked. On one side of the blockage, there is too much water and on the other too little. The difference becomes more apparent the longer the blockages remain. Similarly, if we continue to deny the causes of our blockages, our energy will decline. Our blockages can be felt as stagnation in the body, with the ?full? side as a pain or discomfort and the empty side as a weakness or apathy. Inefficient flow of ki around the body results in tiredness, physical pain, depression, emotional upsets, stiffness, headaches, and many more common problems. Various shiatsu techniques are used to correct these imbalances.

Along the meridians are tsubos, or specific energy points, where the ki is more active; it is in here that blockages can be felt most clearly and where the energy can also be released. The tsubos are the same as Chinese acupuncture points. There are approximately 365 in total, although far fewer are used in shiatsu practice.

Shiatsu has a diagnostic element and can be used as a treatment or in the prevention of disease. The practice of shiatsu can still be very powerful, even without any true understanding of Chinese philosophy, the meridians or the energy system.

Trust and Touch

Much of the healing takes place through compassionate touch and listening, as well as the person allowing himself the time for treatment such as shiatsu. We can see this in the way a child wants a hug when she is in pain or feeling insecure ? that magic kiss on a sore knee is better than any pain killer. As adults, we experience comfort through touch, particularly when in difficulty. This touching is not learned behavior, but rather something instinctive.

A large part of the effectiveness of shiatsu is the trust between the practitioner and the receiver. With trust, the receiver can relax and, in this state of relaxation, the body no longer needs to ?hold on?. Once this happens, the reason for the holding on can come to the surface. Shiatsu can therefore be useful in getting to the underlying causes of physical and emotional discomfort. The more we push against the way things are, the more resistance is built up; the more support we get the more trust we build.

There are many examples in daily life of the body tensing up, with resulting physical discomfort. If you talk to the bank manager about an overdraft or witness an unhappy scene, your body will tell you that this is not your favorite pastime! Different people have different areas that tend to hold tension when they find themselves in an uncomfortable situation. If the tension is felt in the shoulders, for instance, it is only a symptom of the cause ? although they may be in agony, the shoulders themselves are not the problem. Tensions can be stored in different areas in the body for years, building up. Eventually a chronic state develops, resulting in permanent discomfort and disease. The shiatsu practitioner seeks to discover these tensions and blockages; once the cause is acknowledged healing can begin.

How Can Shiatsu Be Practiced?

Shiatsu can be practiced on two different levels. The first is a ?do it yourself? form ? on friends, family, and neighbors. It can be learned at a beginner?s class or from a book. Although this form of shiatsu does not employ elaborate techniques, it can still be very effective. It can be used for a variety of ailments ? for example, headaches, stiffness, aches and pains, tiredness and tension-related disorders.

The second form is professional shiatsu, which is practiced by those who have undergone a professional training program and have a recognized qualification. After two to three years training the professional therapist should be competent to deal with a wide variety of conditions.

In Japan, shiatsu is used much of the time as a preventative measure rather than as a treatment to ?cure? illness. In the West, it is still used mainly for people who have been unwell, and cannot seem to improve through conventional therapy. Shiatsu is slowly becoming appreciated as a positive way to maintain good health and happiness. Frequently, those who have experienced its benefits for a specific ailment use it regularly to enhance their well-being.

The Physical Benefits of Shiatsu

Shiatsu helps to maintain overall health and encourages people to listen more keenly to what the body is saying. With this increased awareness, it becomes easier to see what is wholesome and what is destructive, giving us choices about which path to follow. The body has a great ability to self-heal, but sometimes it needs assistance to remove the objects getting in the way of the healing process. Shiatsu is one technique that can help to remove these blockages.

What Conditions Can Shiatsu Help?

Because shiatsu works on the energetic system, it can be useful in helping a wide range of disorders. Bear in mind that not recognizing the laws of nature, and living in an inharmonious way, is contrary to what shiatsu promotes. A shiatsu treatment will be of maximum value if it is supported by an understanding of the cause of the condition, and if the person follows a moderate outlook and lifestyle.

Shiatsu can specifically help the following:


 arthritic conditions


emotional difficulties



intestinal disorders (irritable bowel syndrome, 

colitis, constipation and diarrhea)

menstrual problems 

(heavy periods and premenstrual syndrome)

muscular tensions

reproductive problems (including endometriosis and fibroids)

respiratory difficulties 

(asthma, bronchitis and recurrent chest infections)


stress-related disorders

Shiatsu is a catalyst in the healing process. Healing is not something that just sometimes ?happens? ? it is a continuous movement toward harmony, balance and wholeness.


What Happens During a Shiatsu Massage?

When shiatsu is given, the skin surface is immediately stimulated, triggering a response in the nervous system. Any sensory stimulation is automatically picked up by the nervous system, and then taken to the brain for interpretation.

The autonomic nervous system is the subconscious part of the nervous system and coordinates all involuntary movements and functions of the body. It is divided into two parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. Our way of being and feeling changes considerably depending on the relative balance of these two systems. Many influences ? both internal and external ? can tip this balance and cause dominance in one or other of the parts of the autonomic nervous system, resulting in a feeling of being out of sorts. The sympathetic branch of the nervous system is concerned with the stress response and preparation for fight or flight ? when something stressful comes our way, the body tries to defend itself by either fighting or running away.

The changes that take place when the sympathetic nervous system is dominant are:

the muscles contract to prepare for escape
there is a feeling of alertness
the pupils dilate
the blood vessels contract
the digestive system temporarily contracts
the heartbeat increases
 the secretions in the mouth dry up
the hair on the skin stands up
the liver releases more glucose into the muscles

All these responses prepare the body for action. Once the immediate danger has gone, the parasympathetic nerves become the more dominant. All the systems start to return to normal and there is a feeling of relief, letting go, and relaxation. The parasympathetic response is sometimes known as the peacemaker. There is a very fine point of balance between the two systems. We are constantly trying to maintain this balance, both consciously and subconsciously.

Much of the stress that we encounter today is not from an immediate and identifiable source ? it is in the background, constantly niggling away. With this persistent, low-lying stress, the body is on the alert a lot of the time. As a result, the systems are always on the defensive, and a feeling of total relaxation is difficult to experience. Through shiatsu, we can encourage the body and mind to relax and let go of tension ? to switch from sympathetic to parasympathetic dominance. Then it is possible to feel at peace, with clarity the oneness that is blocked so much of the time. This ?being in the present moment? is the most restful place to abide. Using quiet and gentle movements, we can encourage the parasympathetic response; through more active, vigorous movements we can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system.

We can, through shiatsu, become aware of what happens with pain and soreness in the body. If pain is experienced, the immediate reaction is to tense up against it. This tightens the body, adding to the discomfort; it blocks the energy paths to the area so that valuable energy is not getting through to where it is needed. Shiatsu techniques help to relax muscle tightness, enabling the vital energy flow to be restored.

 What to Expect in a Shiatsu Session

A shiatsu session is a dynamic interchange of energy on many different levels. There is no rigid formula, but at first it is useful to have a framework within which to work. This framework gives confidence to the practitioner, and a flow to the treatment. For the more experienced practitioner, the approach and style very much depend on his or her training, personality, and area of interest. The aim is the same: to create balance physically, mentally, and spiritually, and to allow the client space to open up, and see the true cause for his or her present condition. This will take varying amounts of time, depending on the condition.

Shiatsu is done through the clothes, and a treatment ? usually taking a little over an hour ? is normally given on a thick mat on the floor. One session is not as beneficial as three or four spaced out over a period of four to six weeks. The number of sessions needed for any one individual depends on his or her particular problem. If the energy is very deficient, a number of sessions are desirable in order to monitor the changes taking place, and to ensure that any advice given is of help.

Case History

A session normally starts with the taking of a case history in order to get a picture of the present complaint in the context of the person?s life. Questions are asked about the present complaint, past medical history, lifestyle, food habits, exercise, relaxation, and anything else that may be significant.


Diagnosis of the problem is assisted in the following ways:

Visual Diagnosis: This will include visual observations, posture, mannerisms, skin color and walk.

Auditory Diagnosis: This will include seeing how the voice sounds ? shaky, tense, timid, loud, etc.

Touch Diagnosis: This is to access the quality of energy in the person.

The latter is normally done through a specific type of diagnosis called hara diagnosis. The hara, or abdomen, is palpated very gently to detect the areas of fullness and the areas that lack energy. A diagnosis can also be made by looking at different areas on the back, and by feeling the quality of energy in the meridians ? again to detect areas of fullness or emptiness.

Shiatsu Techniques

When a diagnosis has been made, a number of different techniques can be used to change the quality of the energy. The techniques are basically stimulating or sedating.

The whole body can be worked on in shiatsu ? with increased awareness and sensitivity, the practitioner is drawn to the areas that need most attention. In obviously tense areas, the ki is dispersed; in areas lacking in ki, stimulating and holding techniques are used to encourage the flow of energy back to that area.

Often a weak area needs to be held for two or three minutes before the energy starts to fill it. It may appear that nothing is happening, but on a subtle level changes are taking place. Sometimes it is possible to feel such changes immediately, and other times it is not until later that more energy is felt. The easiest area to feel and hear changes is in the abdomen when it starts to relax ? a gurgling noise may be heard and a lot of movement is felt, which is the parasympathetic nervous system taking the dominant role.

A combination of techniques including stretching, pressing, holding, and rotating are used to work on different areas of the body. Sometimes tense areas are present as a protection against an underlying emotional weakness; when the tension is dissolved the emotion may come to the surface, to a conscious level, often with an outburst followed by a sense of relief, tiredness, shivering, or crying. When responded to compassionately, these feelings subside, and a sense of well-being and peace takes over. The receiver will always feel better if the treatment is given with a loving, gentle attitude, and a genuine wish for this person to be well.

The primary encouragement to anyone receiving shiatsu is to try to live in a more harmonious way, with a mindfulness of daily actions and relationships. With a strengthened awareness, we are more in control of what we do and say, and have a greater chance of performing positive actions, rather than ones that harm ourselves, others, and the world around us.

Concluding the Session

Usually at the end of a session the client will feel relaxed and energized, with a sense of calm, or sometimes wanting a long sleep. Normally, there is a noticeable increase in flexibility and a decrease in muscular aches and pains. If the shiatsu treatment has triggered some emotional discomfort, there may be feelings of sadness, anger, or fear and the receiver may feel chilled (a blanket and a hot drink can help). The cooling down is due to letting go of tensions held in the muscles. There can be a feeling of lethargy because of deep work and release of energy, feelings, and emotions. If those things that have been blocking the healing process are removed, then over the next days and weeks changes will start to take place both on a conscious and subconscious level, with a resulting feeling of vibrancy and freedom.

In order for the healing to continue, the practitioner may give advice on diet, lifestyle, environment, or attitude

On leaving the treatment room the receiver should keep warm, and if possible rest for a short time.

This article was
excerpted from 

"Discover Shiatsu"
Catherine Sutton

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About The Author

Catherine Sutton runs a private shiatsu clinic in Dublin, Ireland. This article was excerpted with permission from "Discover Shiatsu" published by Ulysses Press. Ulysses Press/Seastone Books are available at bookstores throughout the US, Canada, and the UK, or can be ordered directly from Ulysses Press by calling 800-377-2542, faxing 510-601-8307, or writing to Ulysses Press, PO Box 3440, Berkeley, CA 94703, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  Their website is 


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