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May 2017
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SHIATSU MASSAGE: what it is and why it is good.

How shiatsu became a manual therapy

Massages are definitely one of the oldest and most natural forms of therapy. The action of stimulating the surface of the skin with friction and pressure has immediate effects, as anyone can see by massaging a recent bruise energetically or delicately massaging a painful joint. Massages have been codified with precise techniques since ancient times in order to make stimulation more effective and, in the field of Chinese medicine, the same energy theories that have been applied to acupuncture, dietology and phytotherapy have been applied to massages.
Shiatsu is a manual massage that was invented in Japan at the beginning of the 20th Century by some masters who practised traditional massage techniques called ‘anma’ or ‘do-in’, which come directly from the traditional Chinese massage or ‘tuina’.
Chinese medicine arrived in Japan with the Buddhists around 560 AD and soon after it was copied and developed together with characteristics of the Japanese population, and it almost became a specific type of medicine itself. The Chinese massage took a similar route too: during the Edo period (17th Century), teaching of Japanese medicine included teaching anma because it was claimed that knowledge of the massage was fundamental for understanding the structure of the human body and the path of the meridians, as well as for finding the points of acupuncture. Over the centuries, however, the ability to use the potentials of these techniques to the full was lost, and, as a result, this became the prerogative of minor therapists, who were almost always blind, until they were only used for hedonistic and aesthetic means.
At the beginning of the 1900s though, and at the same time as a modernist attitude was shown towards the government (Meiji period) and people were strongly against traditional medicine and anything that was not approved by Western science, therapeutic massages were rediscovered. As a result and thanks to the work of the masters who united modern and traditional knowledge, a manual therapy technique was developed which was characterised by static pressure applied to points and parts of the body and by mobilisation of the limbs and spine, and it was called shiatsu.

What is it?

There are various shiatsu schools all over the world and they differ according to the characteristics that the masters of the schools impose. However, all forms of shiatsu have some common features.
In shiatsu, the therapist (the shiatsuka) enters into a relationship with the patient via manual contact so that he/she can perceive the state of the patient’s energy equilibrium, which will be worked on. By doing this, the shiatsuka makes an energy diagnosis, and the therapist (torì) patient (ukè) relationship is bidirectional.
In practice, a shiatsu session takes place in a calm and comfortable environment. The patient is usually lying down on the floor on a padded mat (tatami) or, sometimes, sat on a low bench or lying on a massage bed, whilst the therapist is on his/her knees or standing up. There are even comprehensive treatments that consist of a sequence of codified manipulations (katà), however specific treatments can also be carried out depending on the problem.
The manipulations are generally very pleasurable and relaxing and consist of tractions and applying pressure for a few seconds to precise areas and gently mobilising the joints. Natural mobility is never forced and tension knots are never ‘undone’ with force (unlike other massages from Western and Chinese medicine traditions), rather the therapist works on gradual balancing until reaching an equilibrium.
Pressure can be applied with the tips of the fingers, the knuckles, the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet, the elbows or the knees depending on position and the intensity of the required stimulation. It is not usually preferable to work directly on the skin, therefore the patient usually wears a light dress or tracksuit and creams and oils are not used, unlike during other massages, such as a ayurvedic massage. Some shiatsuka combine treatment with techniques that originate from traditional Chinese or Japanese medicine, including moxibustion, which involves stimulating acupuncture points by heating them with small cones of dried mugwort which are placed on the skin, or by placing embers close to the end of a sort of cigar made of herbs.

What are the possible clinical applications of shiatsu?

First and foremost, it must be said that shiatsu is a very strong rebalancing technique. Undergoing treatment regularly, carried out by expert hands, is an excellent way to stay healthy. Very good results can be obtained for painful disorders, such as joint problems (especially lower back problems) and headaches.
Some expert shiatsuka can successfully treat gastrointestinal disorders, dysmenorrhea and menstrual disorders, insomnia and asthma. Some specific techniques are also used to treat acute diseases, such as acute colds, inflammations, traumas and so on.
The deep actions of a shiatsu massage make it very effective for all forms of stress and psychical and muscular tension. Be careful though! A shiatsu massage performed seriously can deeply change the patient’s emotional state and it is not uncommon for the patient to have emotional reactions like laughing or crying!

How can you recognise a qualified therapist?

Shiatsu therapists need to have at least four years of training in order to be able to work as a shiatsu operator. A shiatsu therapist does not necessarily need to be a massophysiotherapist or a physiokinesitherapist, even though some schools where these therapists come from include some training about shiatsu.
Generally, therapists have an average superior licence and they are specifically qualified to carry out this new profession.

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