Meaning & Origins of "Shiatsu:"
Shiatsu means "finger pressure," and is a type of massage or bodywork that developed in China and later Japan. It is a thousand of years old system of healing based on the same principles as those used in acupuncture. This system shiatsu evolved within is: Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM for short. Like acupuncture the shiatsu "therapist" as they are often called is working with the body's vital energy or chi, this relates shiatsu to other Asian arts such as Tai Chi, Chi Kung and the philosophy of Taoism. We are all familiar with the yin/yang symbol the two shapes curving in on each other with one dot of it's opposite enclosed.
Shiatsu uses the language of TCM, yin and yang and often the system of five elements is incorporated as a diagnostic tool. The five elements are water, wood, fire, earth and metal, each relates to an organ pair in the body, and there are a whole list of corresponding information. For example: the element of water, relates to the kidney/bladder meridian (energy channel.) And relates to a specific season: that of winter.
How a session might progress:
Using the above example, the shiatsu therapist might through questions, observation of the body and actual touch feel that the energy flow in the kidney meridian is deficient. The answers on an intake form or during discussion may bring up this possibility. For example you may complain of low back ache, frequent urination, feelings of coldness or low libido. And you've been told by your doctor that you are fine. And further to tie in the correspondence we mentioned, you might have noticed the symptoms are worse in the cold of winter. A skilled shiatsu therapist will pull all of the complaints together and see which energy channel is indicated, in the above example it might be kidney or bladder.
Traditionally the session is done on a flat cotton mattress or futon on the ground, this allows an easy use of the therapists body weight in a graceful manner. In the west more often the treatment (as it's often called) is done on a the more common massage table. The client remains clothed, light-weight cotton clothing is best, but anything is fine as long as it's not bulky. If the massage therapist is doing only a bit of shiatsu but primarily Swedish or other type of massage using oil then one may be undressed and covered discreetly with a sheet. Many massage therapists incorporate some shiatsu points into such a session, but his would not be considered a full shiatsu treatment.
A typical session lasts between 45 min to 1 hour. Some areas may feel painful when pressure is applied, these are areas that are most likely tense or "jitsu." Parts of the body that are weaker and deficient will tend to feel-- even if tender, very relaxing when touched with a steady palm pressure. The shiatsu session consists of finger and palm pressure on the energy channels (meridians) joint rotations, and rocking and kneading of the muscles. Often clients will fall in a light sleep as they relax.
Acupressure is a word that is often used interchangeably with shiatsu in the West (the former being easer to understand.) In the west as throughout it's long history many other modalities may be incorporated into the session, depending on the training of the therapist. In the U.S. some states label shiatsu as massage and regulate it under those laws, even though it's entire philosopy and structure is different from massage that developed out of Europe. It's easy to see why as it does involve touching and moving the body, but it is less concerned with musculature and western anatomy and refers back to the system of TCM, which is basically another metaphor for the body's function.
What is shiatsu good for?
Shiatsu is a form of alternative medicine therapy that can be helpful when symptoms are vague or dont' seem to conform to a proper diagnosis of full-blown illness. As with acupuncture a skilled practitioner can see the pattern of weakness that the symptoms point to, often before it would be labeled a "disease," by western medicine. Many doctors may not be fully aware of the benefits and shortcomings of shiatsu, but again a well trained massage therapist or bodyworker will do a through intake. If you have a health condition when in doubt it's always best to seek your doctor's advice.
The goals of shiatsu
Shiatsu aims to bring the body back to optimal functioning. As this was massage that developed over thousands of years to maintain health, it's not to be considered a spa treatment. In the hands of a skilled practitioner one can really see a powerful shift for the better. A series of sessions is needed to see the most improvement, depending on age, health condition and other factors such as stress level. Most people feel deeply relaxed after the first session and the effect often unfold over a few days.