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Holistic Health: The Basics of Zen Shiatsu Massage

Updated on July 5, 2011


The massage technique known as Shiatsu, though only now becoming popular, has in fact been in existence for a century. After the Japanese developed it based on thousands of years of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shiatsu was first brought to the United States in the early 1970's, and is fast becoming a force to rival the more traditionally popular Swedish modality. Three schools of Shiatsu were founded: that of Namikoshi (who used Western anatomy and terms to describe the method), that of Serizawa (who did not include much softening or energy work, but stuck to certain "tsubo" points), and that of Masunaga (who gives what we would consider the most holistic and complete view of Shiatsu practice and theory, as we have learned it).


The word Shiatsu comes from the Japanese for "finger pressure", describing the characterizing method of sinking into specific points on the back, neck, and limbs with fingertips, thumbs, or elbows, synchronized with the client's breath. In addition to this point work, done along the energy pathways or "meridians" in the body, Shiatsu also utilizes softening strokes (applying pressure with a soft fist or palm, pressing muscle tissue away from bone), percussion (rhythmic beating, hacking, cupping, pillowing or chopping), assisted stretches, joint mobilization and passive range of motion exercises (where the therapist bears the weight of the client's relaxed limb). No lubrication is needed, as the whole massage is performed on a fully-clothed client, either on the floor or a mat (though adaptations for less mobile clients may be done on a chair or massage table as well).

A Basic Tutorial


In the past there have been skeptics about the benefits of Shiatsu, a more mystic approach to massage, verses those of Swedish, which is based completely on Western medicine. Holistic health practitioners have long maintained that this type of treatment increases one's sense of well-being, balances energy, or "chi" in the body, and helps in the prevention of disease by maintaining the even flow of this chi. However, Shiatsu is quickly becoming widely accepted as a modality that yields wonderful physical results, including increased circulation, decreased pain and tension, increased range of motion, and aid in flushing out of toxins and metabolic waste, as well as the alleviation of such conditions as sinus congestion or chronic headaches.

There is no controversy over the fact that Shiatsu decreases stress levels. Recipients commonly report an intense feeling of relaxation, while at the same time becoming more invigorated and refreshed. In the end, however, the most convincing reason to get a Shiatsu massage is not one of the benefits above, but much simpler: it just plain feels good.


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