What is Shiatsu?

Shiatsu is a Japanese form of massage (the word shiatsu means "finger pressure" in Japanese). Advocates say the practice promotes health and healing by correcting energy imbalances in the body.

Shiatsu uses the same energy pathways (meridians) and points as Chinese acupuncture but, instead of inserting needles in the body, the Shiatsu therapist applies comfortable pressure on selected points along the meridians to normalize the flow of energy (Qi) and restore health. This is why Shiatsu has often been described as "acupuncture without needles".

What sets Shiatsu apart from other bodywork therapies is its deep sustained pressure on the body structures for breaking up energy stagnation and drawing energy to depleted areas. In more Western terms, with deep pressure, Shiatsu harmonizes the autonomic nervous system which governs all our involuntary functions. Thus, Shiatsu can override the ‘fight-or-flight' sympathetic response which, when overactive, leads to stress, physical or mental illness, and "switch on" the parasympathetic ‘conservation mode' which activates the body's natural healing and nurturing capacities.

In short, with appropriate pressure, Shiatsu restores balance and harmony to the whole person in a most natural and holistic fashion.

Shiatsu practitioners use their fingers, thumbs, palms, elbows, knees, and feet to apply pressure to points along the the body's main energy channels, known as meridians. The goal is to release energy where there are blockages and bring energy into areas that are depleted. Shiatsu, which is similar to acupressure, emphasizes the maintenance of health and the prevention of disease rather than treating a specific ailment.

Using massage to enhance well-being is a tradition that dates back to ancient China. The practice of touching specific points on the body was originally called anmo (anma by the Japanese). Over time, anma was dropped as a medical treatment and was used purely for pleasure and relaxation.

In the twentieth century, however, a group of practitioners recognized the value of anma in easing muscle tension and soothing various kinds of aches and pains. They began promoting the art as a way to treat illness and changed the name to shiatsu.

How It Works

Shiatsu is based on some of the same principles as acupuncture, Tai chi, and other forms of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

According to TCM, illness is caused by imbalances in the flow of energy ( qi in Chinese; ki in Japanese) in the body. Ki can accumulate and become trapped in points along the meridians known as tsubos, which correspond to Chinese acupoints.

Proponents believe that a shiatsu massage focused on these areas can clear blockages and help restore health by allowing energy to travel freely in the body. A more scientific explanation for shiatsu's pain-relieving ability is that it initiates the release of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers. It may also lower the levels of adrenaline and other stress hormones in the body, stimulating a relaxation response.

Health Benefits

Shiatsu is most often used to maintain general health and prevent illness. It can be especially useful for easing stress-related conditions.

Proponents claim that the therapy can help relieve pain from arthritis as well as back, neck, and shoulder pain.

People suffering from headaches, insomnia, muscle tension, and menstrual cramps have reported improvement with shiatsu. It may also bring relief from asthma, constipation, and nausea.


Chart courtesy of Acupuncture Products