Shiatsu is a traditional Japanese therapy focused on rebalancing the flow of energy in your body.

It’s a type of massage therapy that follows lines, or meridians, across your body to restore the vitality you once had while also targeting the physical signs of stress.

Unlike other types of massage, shiatsu places emphasis on the use of the fingers – the word ‘shiatsu’ is translated literally as ‘finger pressure.’ Most therapists use their thumbs and palms to apply the appropriate pressure on different points across your body.

You’re probably familiar with the most popular types of shiatsu massage – products like a shiatsu massage cushion for your chair. But shiatsu is more than applying rhythmic pressure to pain points on your body. Rather, it focuses on achieving balance throughout your body and your life to optimum spiritual and physical wellness.

Check your assumptions at the door and keep reading to learn everything you’ve ever wanted to know about shiatsu massage.

Ancient Chinese Therapies and Modern Japanese Recognition: The History of Shiatsu

Shiatsu is today known as a Japanese therapy, but it has its indirect origins in acupuncture, a form of ancient Chinese medicine. The principles of acupuncture made its way into a Japanese school of massage known as anma, which was used to help those who trained in dojo arts as early as 200 B.C.E.

The shiatsu we know today was formally developed in the 1900s independent of other Japanese and Chinese therapies. The massage shiatsu was created by Tokujiro Namikoshi, who began the practice when he was a young child. Namkoshi established is first school – the Nippon Shiatsu School – at the end of the 1940s, despite changes in post-war Japanese culture that nearly stomped out both shiatsu and other traditional practices from Japanese culture.

By the 1950s, shiatsu was recognized by the Japanese Ministry of Health as a well-regarded therapy. After its recognition, it began to spread rapidly across Japan and the world, and many different schools developed their own methods of shiatsu. The most common style found in the West made its way to North America from the Iokai School in Tokyo. The Iokai School was founded by Shizuto Masunaga, whose therapy focused on using massage to facilitate personal development not only in the receiver but the giver as well.

The Iokai School recognizes several distinct principles. First, it understands that the meridians along which energy travels aren’t structured channels – they’re dynamic pathways of expression that make up a person’s ‘being.’ As such these meridians are variable in both nature and depth and thus treatments must depend on the massage itself and on how the masseuse and the receiver interact with one another.

Principles of Shiatsu

Like many other Chinese and Japanese therapies, shiatsu is based on the central principle of Qi.

Qi – pronounced “chi” – is the vital energy that flows through your body and serves as the source of both your physical and emotional function. The flow of Qi is entirely intentional; it follows the meridians of your body to reach the vital points. Because it flows in an organized manner, Shiatsu therapists use their hands to follow the Qi and access it at what is called “Vital Points.”

Qi may run along the meridians naturally, but as humans, we aren’t very good at allowing our QI to flow the way it should. Stress, ill health, and general neglect may throw our Qi out of balance. According to ancient Chinese principles, an unbalanced Qi wreaks havoc on our lives causing stress and illness that can’t be relieved until the Qi once again flows the meridians of our bodies like healthy rivers.

If your Qi is out of balance, you’ll know. Head colds, headaches, digestive problems, and feeling unwell are all symptoms of an unbalanced body. Without the harmony inherent in balanced Qi, your body fights a constant battle against the elements, which take advantage of your weakened energy.

How Shiatsu Massage Techniques Align Your Qi

Imbalanced energy sounds like a personal problem, but you can see help to restore the flow of Qi in your body to its optimal state.

Shiatsu therapy trains therapists to recognize the signs of stymied Qi in your body even before you begin to experience the physical symptoms, such as tiredness and head colds.

To begin, you must work with a therapist to assess the state of your Qi and the nature of your meridians while becoming more aware of your breathing, body posture, and mind. Together, you work with the therapist to become aware of tensions in your physical body while the therapist provides a combination of stroke similar to massage techniques as well as stretching.

Because your Qi, meridians, and physical body are unique, the pressure and pace of shiatsu will vary. It may be light and soothing with some stretching and mobilizations, or it may go deeper to reach both tensions in your body and your Qi.

Shiatsu Sessions: Everything You Need to Know to Achieve Balance

The very principles of shiatsu mean it is fundamentally different from Western forms of massage such as deep tissue and Swedish massage. Because the focus is placed on your energy first and physical body second, there is no need for massage oil, a big cushioned massage table, or to take off your clothes.

A shiatsu session takes place fully clothed, typically on a mat or the floor. The session begins with an analysis of your Qi, as described earlier.

An analysis is a non-negotiable part of shiatsu. Without understanding the state of the Qi, the practitioner has no way to assess how to proceed. For those who practice the Iokai School of shiatsu, failing to assess the body means neither you nor the practitioner benefit from the massage as intended.

From here, you’ll develop a plan that will guide the first and future sessions to maximize the therapeutic benefit of the massage according to what you need.

The massage begins using manual massage techniques that you’re probably already familiar with: stretching, kneading, soothing strokes, and pressure.

If you have low Qi, the practitioner uses these techniques to raise your Qi and revitalize your energy. If your Qi is high because you are anxious and stressed, then alternate techniques are used to calm you and your Qi back down.

Unlike other types of massage that can be used as relaxation tools or as structured therapy programs, shiatsu is always used over the course of several treatments. By the end of the session, the therapist will be able to suggest a schedule best suited to your needs as a way of maintaining your balance.

Benefits of Shiatsu

There are many benefits of shiatsu for every patient.

The rebalancing of energies allows for you to achieve a calming balance that is grounded in your own reality and achieve a deep relaxation that extends to both your body and your mind. Restoring your energy also improves your energy levels and allows you to achieve stronger energy across your day rather than riding a roller coaster between breakfast and bedtime.

Shiatsu also has many physical benefits including the prevention and relief of many physical conditions.

The stretching and massage portions also relieve the stiffness and tension so common in modern life. Without the burden of muscle tension, you’ll also find it easier to achieve a more natural posture that allows your body to find better alignment without struggling against the effects of a sedentary lifestyle.

Shiatsu’s physical benefits also extend to immunity. By improving blood circulation and flow and helping to remove toxins from the body, you’ll find your vitality increases not only mentally but physically as you no longer need to struggle against those things that leave you feeling fatigued.

Some of the physical conditions shiatsu therapy relieves include:

  • Anxiety
  • Digestive problems
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Insomnia
  • Joint pain
  • Menstrual cycle issues
  • Mobility restrictions
  • Neck and upper back tension

The Evidence for Shiatsu

Shiatsu has been recognized by Japanese health professionals as a meaningful therapy since the 1950s. But what will your doctor think of shiatsu?

Unlike Japan, the United States and other Western countries consider shiatsu to be a form of massage therapy; though, massage therapy continues to receive increasing recognition for the medical community for its physical and psychological health benefits.

Because of this, much of the scientific evidence for shiatsu is produced in Japan and published in Japanese, making it generally unavailable to English speaking audiences.

However, there are few risks associated with shiatsu, and while the benefits are anecdotal, they are repeated across patients.

If you’re interested in the science of shiatsu, you can read this study from the University of Leeds or this study from the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.

Find Your Shiatsu Spa

Zen shiatsu offers many benefits for your health and well-being, and it’s a regimen that helps you achieve balance over the long-term. Although it’s not yet as popular in the West as it is in Japan, it’s still widely available – there may be a shiatsu spa near you, and you might not even know it.

Have you tried shiatsu? Share what you’ve learned about balancing your Qi in the comments below.

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