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What is Shiatsu?

By PJP Schroeder
Updated Feb 23, 2024
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Based on ancient Chinese medicine and developed in Japan over thousands of years, shiatsu is a hands-on massage therapy. The therapist uses finger and palm pressure to improve circulation, relieve stiff muscles, and alleviate stress. Unlike the familiar Swedish massage, which uses oils on the skin and long, flowing movements, shiatsu massage relies on manipulating localized pressure points to achieve the desired results.

The word shiatsu comes from the Japanese characters for shi, meaning finger, and atsu, meaning pressure. With strong connections to Chinese acupuncture, the goal of shiatsu is to correct imbalances in the natural flow of energy, or chi, throughout the body. A shiatsu massage therapist uses her fingers, palms, and even elbows or knees to apply pressure in a continuous, rhythmic sequence to certain points along the body's meridians, or energy pathways. Successful techniques are said to release toxins, stimulate the immune system, and promote the body's own healing power.

Once practiced only by women and the blind within the boarders of Japan, shiatsu massage became a worldwide phenomenon in the latter half of the 20th century. Since its ancient beginnings, shiatsu has evolved into many forms. Zen shiatsu, founded by Shizuto Masunaga, introduced elements of Western psychology into the mix and became popular in the United States and United Kingdom in the 1970s. Another version, five-element shiatsu, incorporates the concept of Traditional Chinese Medicine's five elemental manifestations: earth, fire, water, wood, and metal. Each of these elements corresponds to a different part of the body, and so the therapist can better diagnose and address whatever ailments are present.

Ohashiatsu® massage takes shiatsu a step further in that it includes exercise, self-improvement, and meditation in order to strengthen the body and improve the mind. Ohashi, for which the technique is named, opened the Ohashi Institute in 1970 and attracted international attention by serving high-profile clients from the entertainment world. Perhaps most surprising is ashiatsu massage, in which the therapist uses her feet to literally walk on her client to provide a very deep massage.

Whatever its form, the benefits of shiatsu are many, reduced fatigue and increased vitality among them. Although there is no scientific evidence that the practice can cure any disease, it is thought that the positive effects come from calming an overactive sympathetic nervous system. People suffering from anxiety or depression, with arthritis or insomnia, or even recovering from an injury have all found relief at the fingers of a shiatsu massage therapist.

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