more about shiatsu...

In reading most explanations of shiatsu, you will find such phrases used as, "... a five thousand year old therapy...", or ".. it's like acupuncture only using fingers instead of needles..." , or, "... it's a Japanese modality which balances the body's ki, or life force energy"....

And maybe some or none of this is completely true.

I have been using similar phrases myself, as well as overlaying my own treatments on the basis of "Traditional Chinese Medicine"*... as in, following meridian lines, pressing 'acupuncture' points, diagnosing 'patterns of disharmony', and so on, just as most of us are taught.

Truth is, the establishment of shiatsu as a modality in its own right (during the first decades of the 20th century) was based more on western anatomy and physiology (even though the folk styles preceding it were an amalgam of cultural influences) while the Chinese medicine aspect came into it later - and even then, only as part of an attempt to find a unifying, teachable theory behind why shiatsu worked.

Ironically, this is the paradigm which stuck in every country outside of Japan where shiatsu originated. (Though, I suppose there would be debate about even this... finding a comprehensive 'history' of shiatsu has been elusive...)

I'm sure some would say that to accurately describe shiatsu, we should begin by referring to the 'official' definition:

"Shiatsu technique refers to the use of fingers and the palm of one's hands 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." - from " The Theory and Practice ofShiatsu" published by the Ministry of Health in Japan in 1957.

Now, without digressing into a complete history of shiatsu (though the most detailed one I've found thus far is in "Sei-Ki: Life in Resonance", by Akinubo Kishi, as seen to the left, if you're interested), you have to understand that shiatsu, even from its nebulous inception has been a tale of intrigue, strong personalities and governmental regulation.

And even though 'shiatsu' finally did earn its legitimacy as a therapeutic modality, it seems that some luminary in every generation of this original lineage of teachers had eventually broken away, and added their own twists to the practice, creating new styles - even to the point of having to teach outside of their native country.

The training I received in shiatsu included not only the aforementioned 'Traditional Chinese Medicine' meridians and points, but also the Zen meridians (ala' Shizuto Masunaga), as well as other bodywork modalities: cranio-sacral, fascial release, structural alignment, and more. Some would claim I'm not really even doing shiatsu at all, while my teacher- a maverick in his own right - would say, '...if it's moving the ki, then it's shiatsu'.

"Moving the ki…by any means necessary", might be our motto. :)

So, what then, can we say shiatsu really is? Is there an agreed-upon, universal commonality?

The son of the 'originator' of shiatsu** has written:  "It is the application of manual and digital pressure to the skin with the aim of preventing and curing illness by stimulating the body's natural powers of recuperation, eliminating fatigue-producing elements, and promoting general good health." - from "The Complete Book of Shiatsu Therapy" written by Toru Namikoshi

This is pretty much in alignment with the "official" definition.

A graduate of the first shiatsu school, who went on to develop his own unique style took it a little further: ".. shiatsu emphasizes correction and maintenance of bone structure, joints, tendons, muscles, and meridian lines whose malfunctioning distorts the body's energy and autonomic nervous system causing disease." - from "Zen Shiatsu: How to Harmonize Yin and Yang for Better Health", by Shizuto Masunaga with Wataru Ohashi

Masunaga would also go on to promote the importance of cultivating 'skin-ships'; that is, the healing relationship that could be communicated through physical touch, thereby bringing in a more heart-centered aspect to shiatsu.

My own teacher, Saul Goodman, wrote in his book, "The Book of Shiatsu": "The art of shiatsu, practiced to create a balance of our own energy, is an innate part of being human. It employs the use of our hands as an extension of our heart and as an expression of our compassion."

Perhaps this gives you some small idea of how expansive the concept of shiatsu has become, depending on who you talk to.

I am not familiar with the 'original' Namikoshi style, though I am playing with it a bit as I read his son's book. I'm finding the structured, almost mechanical, routine strangely comfortable, as sometimes, when the practice is left too far up to interpretation, I tend to get lost in what I'm hoping to achieve.

But I do know enough to remind myself that it's really not about achieving anything, other than a safe space and a sense of connection and relief for my client. Their bodies - your body - will do the rest.

I will end this with a brief excerpt from "As Snowflakes Fall: Shiatsu as Spiritual Practice", by Simon Fall, fellow shiatsu practitioner and sincere questioner, who echoed my frustration exactly: 

"I have never found a definition that can totally hold the experience of shiatsu ... There are obviously standard definitions of shiatsu which cover the literal meaning, past and present context, how it operates and so on. I am certain if we go beyond the initial undisputed facts, our personal world picture will start to describe shiatsu in terms that reflect our own interests. For example, we may describe it as part of a hands-on tradition, or based on traditional Chinese medicine, or as a vehicle for releasing emotions, or as a healing aspect of martial arts, or as movement therapy, etc. My own current definition is that it is a constantly changing personal relationship with our highest Being."

Amen to that.


* "Traditional Chinese Medicine" as the term is used today, is really the government-sanctioned standardized version put forth after the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

** The "Namikoshi Method" is the one first ratified by the Japanese Ministry of Health, and I believe, is still the only style practiced in Japan today. But while Tokujiro Namikoshi is referred to as the 'father of shiatsu', even he had predecessors - among them, Tenpeki Tamai, who in 1919, published a book called "Shiatsu Ho (Shiatsu Therapy)", which is believed to have put shiatsu on the map.

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