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Shiatsu - Frequently Asked Questions

(originally produced for the UK Shiatsu Society website)

  1. Where does Shiatsu come from?
  2. What is ki?
  3. What are Yin and Yang?
  4. What are the 5 elements?
  5. What are the meridians?
  6. How do meridians relate to physical organs?
  7. How does Shiatsu diagnosis work?
  8. How does Shiatsu treatment work?
  9. Is Shiatsu massage?
  10. Is Shiatsu healing?
  11. Can Shiatsu do any harm?
  12. Is Shiatsu complementary or alternative?
  13. Will I have to change my lifestyle?
  14. How can I integrate Shiatsu with self-development?

 

1. Where does Shiatsu come from?

The Japanese word Shiatsu (meaning "finger-pressure") was coined in the 20th century. The term covers a variety of styles of therapy, the most common in the UK being Zen Shiatsu. This style was developed by Shizuto Masunaga (1925 - 1981), based on a combination of traditional Japanese and Chinese techniques, modern Western ideas on anatomy and psychology, and a few new discoveries (or re-discoveries) of his own. Shiatsu is founded on the same basic theory as acupuncture and other forms of traditional Chinese medicine, involving ideas such as ki (or chi or qi) energy, Yin and Yang, and the five elements. These ideas have been common currency in China for thousands of years.
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2. What is ki?

The Japanese word ki (chi or qi in Chinese) translates as "energy". It is comparable in meaning to the Western concept of energy in that it is present throughout the animate and inanimate world, and is constantly being transformed from one form into another. As far as human beings are concerned, ki can manifest as movement, warmth, protection and containment, and can be taken in as food or air (as well as the original ki that we are born with). In a healthy state, ki is constantly flowing through the body. However, for various reasons (physical, psychological or emotional) this flow can become blocked or out of balance, causing excesses or deficiencies of ki to develop in certain parts of the body. This leads to the various symptoms which manifest as "ill-health".
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3. What are Yin and Yang?

In the West, we like to compare things in numerical terms - we measure energy in Calories, temperature in degrees and weight in kilograms, and we rate our favourite things on a "scale of 1 to 10"! In ancient China, they compared things using Yin and Yang. If one thing was lower down the scale than another, it was more Yin, if it was higher up, it was more Yang. Yin and Yang are relative terms - Yang means "more energy" or "more active", while Yin means "less". A cup of freshly made coffee is more Yang than an ice cream, but both are more Yin than a red hot fire (thatís speaking in terms of temperature - in terms of brightness, vanilla ice cream is more Yang than black coffee!).
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4. What are the 5 elements?

The 5 traditional Chinese elements are Water, Wood, Fire, Earth and Metal. These are the five basic forms of energy, which are constantly being transformed from one into another throughout the natural world. Water creates Wood, Wood creates Fire, and so on. The names of the elements are convenient labels, or images to help us understand their function, but their meaning goes far beyond the label. In humans, for example, Wood energy is responsible for growth, decision-making and creativity, but if it is allowed to get out of balance it can lead to impatience, frustration and anger. Metal represents clarity, precision and incisiveness, but if unchecked it can lead to depression and grief. The five elements are interrelated in a complex way, so that an excess of one type of energy can over-control or deplete another (e.g. Earth controls Water, and Water controls Fire). Five element theory can seem confusing and arbitrary when first encountered, but it will start to make more sense as you see it operating in your daily life, and in the world around you. The five elements are central to the way most Shiatsu practitioners diagnose and treat their clients.
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5. What are the meridians?

Meridians are channels beneath the surface of the body through which energy flows. Most meridians are named after organs of the body, and are related to the five elements (for example the Bladder and Kidney meridians are associated with Water energy). Very often a Shiatsu practitioner will see that the energy along one or more meridians is blocked, such that there is an excess of energy at some points (manifested as tension, tightness or fullness) and a depletion at others (weakness or emptiness). They will work with the energy in these meridians to try to rebalance it. Most acupuncture points lie on meridians, and Shiatsu practitioners will sometimes work on specific points by pressing or holding them. However, Shiatsu differs from acupuncture (and acupressure) in that it is more usual to work on the meridian as a whole rather than isolated points.
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6. How do meridians relate to physical organs?

Not very closely! As with the Chinese elements, the names of the meridians are nothing more than convenient labels. The meridians and their actions were known in China long before the precise physical functions of the internal organs were worked out. So while there are some points of commonality (e.g. the Large Intestine meridian relates to elimination, and the Lung meridian to breathing), the functions and associations of a meridian are generally much broader than those of the organ it is named after. So, for example, if your Shiatsu practitioner tells you after a treatment that your Heart meridian needed attention, this does not imply that there is anything wrong with your physical heart organ. In Shiatsu terms, it is much more likely to mean that you need emotional support!
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7. How does Shiatsu diagnosis work?

Diagnosis plays a central role in Shiatsu, but it is framed in terms of oriental medicine (ki, elements, meridians, etc) rather than Western physiology and pathology. A Shiatsu practitioner may be able to tell you that you have, say, a Water energy imbalance or an Earth energy imbalance, but not that you have diabetes or high cholesterol. Shiatsu diagnosis is holistic rather than analytical, taking into account a wide range of clues based on what the client says, observation of behaviour patterns and physical appearance, and touch. Many practitioners begin a session with gentle palpation (i.e. diagnostic touch) of the abdominal region. This region, called the hara in Japanese, is especially important in Shiatsu diagnosis because it is central, soft and relatively unprotected, so that subtle imbalances often reveal themselves more easily here.
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8. How does Shiatsu treatment work?

Based on the initial diagnosis (and on physical and visual feedback gained during the session), the practitioner will seek to even out the perceived energy imbalances through gentle pressure on the meridians, probably in conjunction with other techniques such as rocking, stretches and joint rotations. As with diagnosis, Shiatsu treatment is holistic, with the practitioner working on the whole body rather than focusing on the area where symptoms are most obvious. Shiatsu works best if the client is as relaxed and comfortable as possible, so you should close your eyes, relax your muscles (the practitioner will do all the work if movement is required!) and refrain from speaking unless itís really necessary. But let the practitioner know the moment you feel any discomfort - otherwise your body will start to tense up and the benefit of the session will be lost.
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9. Is Shiatsu massage?

Shiatsu has some features in common with European-style massage and other forms of bodywork, in that the use of physical pressure and stretches serves to reduce muscular tension and loosen stiff joints. However, the principal aim of Shiatsu is not to work on localised muscles and joints, but on the overall energy system of the client. This is the big difference between Shiatsu and other physical therapies. A Shiatsu practitioner working on a shoulder joint, for example, will not just be focusing on the joint but on the pattern of energy throughout the clientís body.
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10. Is Shiatsu healing?

It is more accurate to say that "Shiatsu aids healing" than that "Shiatsu heals". The aim is to assist the bodyís natural healing process by encouraging the clientís energy to move into a more balanced state. Although the practitioner is in physical contact with the client, they are manipulating the clientís energy rather than their own. In this sense, Shiatsu is different from the Western "laying on of hands", where healing energy is believed to pass from the practitioner to the client.
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11. Can Shiatsu do any harm?

By the nature of Shiatsu, it is almost impossible for it to have harmful effects. The aim is to shift energy around the body in such a way as to relieve areas of tension and enliven weak areas. This is effectively a collaboration between the practitioner and the clientís body, which will instinctively "want" to do the same thing, but may need a little help to get started. It is very difficult to move energy the wrong way (like trying to roll a heavy stone uphill). Once the energy starts to shift, it will generally feel pleasant to the client, although in rare cases there may be a short-lived "healing reaction" with, for example, flu-like symptoms for a few hours after the treatment. This is a consequence of unblocking stuck energy, and when the reaction has passed the client should feel much better than they did before the treatment.
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12. Is Shiatsu complementary or alternative?

Shiatsu is complementary to mainstream Western medicine, not an alternative to it. Shiatsu is particularly effective for the common, minor complaints that your GP is unlikely to have much patience with - headaches, stiff necks and shoulders, backaches, coughs, colds, stomach upsets, insomnia, fatigue, menstrual problems, anxiety and so forth. But for acute, localised problems such as appendicitis, broken bones or a heart attack, you should call an ambulance, not your Shiatsu practitioner! Both Shiatsu (and other complementary therapies) and Western medicine have important roles to play, and if you hear your Shiatsu practitioner "putting down" conventional healthcare you should consider finding a different practitioner (equally, if your GP puts down complementary medicine, look for a new GP!).
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13. Will I have to change my lifestyle?

First and foremost, your Shiatsu practitioner should respect your chosen lifestyle, however "un-oriental" it is. Indeed, Shiatsu is particularly beneficial for people in the high-stress occupations associated with the mainstream of modern life. While your Shiatsu practitioner may lead a much more "alternative" lifestyle, they will not try to tell you how to lead yours. However, they may discuss ways in which you could "fine-tune" your life in order to get more out of it - for example a change in diet or more exercise - much as your own GP might.
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14. How can I integrate Shiatsu with self-development?

A unique feature of Shiatsu is that it can be viewed as self-development as well as therapy. Either as a client or a practitioner, Shiatsu helps you learn more about the way your body works, and how intimately your physical health is linked to thoughts and feelings. With time, you will find you become more sensitive to subtle changes in yourself, and instinctively learn to compensate for imbalances as soon as they show themselves. Many people find that Shiatsu combines well with other forms of self-development such as yoga or meditation, and particularly those like aikido, qi gong and tai chi which are aimed at developing awareness of ki energy.
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Copyright © 2000 Andrew May