What is Shiatsu Massage?

While many people are familiar with Western modalities of massage – Swedish, Deep Tissue, Sports, etc. – they are less aware of the rich massage traditions of Asia. What is Shiatsu Massage? Shiatsu is a form of massage that evolved in Japan. Like other forms of Eastern massage, it is grounded in the concept of balancing the flow of energy, called ki, in the body. Pain, illness, and disease are thought to result from blockages and imbalances of ki. The massage practitioner seeks to restore balance by tonifying the areas where there is a deficiency of energy and dispersing areas of excess.

Some people think of Shiatsu massage as acupuncture without needles. Both are grounded in the same map of energy pathways (called meridians) and fundamental concepts used for thousands of years in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Along these meridians are points where the ki is especially strong or accessible. The Shiatsu practitioner uses his or her thumb, hand, knee or elbow to influence the ki, relieving blockages.  A headache may be treated by holding points in the arm and hand, for example.

A Shiatsu massage session looks very different from a Western-style massage. The receiver remains dressed, wearing comfortable, loose-fitting clothing similar to what is worn for yoga or exercise (though pants are preferable to shorts). While a table is sometimes used, most often the massage is done on a large mat or futon that allows more room for the stretches that are incorporated into the session. Each meridian line is worked in different positions, giving the massage a very three-dimensional feel. No oil or lotion is used. Instead of long, gliding strokes, the Shiatsu practitioner relies on a combination of stretching, broad pressure, and more focused pressure on specific points.  The amount of pressure used is adjusted to the needs of the client; while it can be firm and penetrating, it should never be painful or more than the client wants.

Shiatsu massage sessions treat the entire body. Often symptoms are felt in areas with excess energy: the neck, shoulders, and head, for example. But if there is too much energy in one area, there is too little somewhere else. While not as readily felt by the client, it is these areas of deficient energy that are often at the root cause of a client’s symptoms.

By Brian Eckerling, LMP