Shiatsu Theory and Intuition


Like most other forms of bodywork, or at least like those with a long pedigree, Shiatsu can be performed without any theory at all. This statement must, of course, immediately be qualified by the proviso “except the basic theory of the practice itself”. The practice of Shiatsu comes to us welded into a complete and uniquely Japanese amalgamation of posture, movement and attitude of mind; the whole of which is in turn contained in the wider sphere of what the late Akinobu Kishi used to refer to as “Ki-culture”, that complex of philosophy in action which finds expression in martial arts, flower arrangement, the tea ceremony and Shinto.

Centred in Hara, with “weight under-side”, our attention relaxed and expanded, using body-weight applied through relaxed hands, we are applying perfect Shiatsu technique, and in an ideal state of preparation for the use of our intuition. Conceivably, this is the state that the experienced practitioner aims to rediscover; it is “beginner’s mind” without the clumsiness of beginner’s practice. For this complete combination of posture and attitude that we class as “good Shiatsu technique” does not come easily to most of us, we must be trained in it, arriving finally at a point where it is part of us and seems in fact the best way to be naturally human.

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Shall be to arrive where we started

And to know the place for the first time.

T S Eliot “Four Quartets”

Nonetheless, it will be a rare practitioner who has trained to this extent in the subtleties of good Shiatsu practice without acquiring some elements of theoretical knowledge along the way, and this knowledge is what I propose henceforth to define as “theory” as compared with “practice”.

How to define “Shiatsu” is a more difficult proposition, perhaps made slightly easier by simply looking at its history. My guide in this endeavour is the book “The Secret Art of Shiatsu: Seiki: Life in Resonance” by Akinobu Kishi and Alice Whieldon. Kishi’s devotion to his native Japanese heritage and his long training and familiarity with the chief masters of the newly-defined practice of Shiatsu doubly qualify him as its historian.

Notwithstanding the attempts of some traditionalists to equate Shiatsu with Traditional Chinese Medicine (or its Japanese counterpart), it appears that Shiatsu is a therapy that has evolved and developed far beyond its ancient roots.

….modern Shiatsu developed, not out of the much reduced Anma, but in a more fragmented lineage from the diagnostics of Koho Anma and specialised touch of Anpuku, combined with other influences drawn by innovative twentieth-century practitioners from Eastern philosophy, traditional methods of self-healing and Western anatomy and physiology.

Kishi and Whieldon: “Sei-Ki: Life in Resonance”

Here we find succinctly summarised the sources of the main forms of Shiatsu extant today in the West.

  • Hara diagnosis and the practice of focused stationary pressure come from Koho (traditional) Anma and Anpuku (abdominal treatment). The method of the “mother hand” in Zen Shiatsu is derived from Japanese acupuncture.
  • Eastern philosophy in all its forms, from Zen Buddhism to the theory of the Five Phases, has provided the theoretical basis for most forms of Shiatsu practice.
  • Traditional methods of self-healing have given us the “folk” aspect of Shiatsu, the simple formulae proven over time to help certain conditions as well as the healing practices enshrined in the Do-In and exercise regimes that go with the study of Shiatsu.
  • Western anatomy and physiology have enriched Shiatsu theory, from the detailed description of the location of meridians and points, or the naming of the sequences of tsubos in the Namikoshi style, to the infantile-reflex theory of Movement Shiatsu and the soft tissue releases of Shiatsu Shin Tai.

Diverse sources of theory and practice have led to diverse modern styles, each with its own unique theoretical canon that manifests in the form and understanding of its practice. This lack of a unified theory has often been perceived as a problem in the promotion of Shiatsu, and indeed it may be so, but that is the fault of a market that expects an easily digestible “package”, whereas in fact the sources and applications of Shiatsu are so diverse, so eclectic that to understand it completely is to understand humanity itself. Who can put a river in a package?

Shiatsu theorists sometimes remind me of the well-known Indian fable about the twelve blind sages ordered by their ruler to describe an elephant, resulting in such different descriptions as “hairy and thin”, “like a tree-trunk” etc. If we could all step back and see the vast complexity of the tradition of Shiatsu, our differences would be a source of rejoicing rather than (as so often) a source of strife. The traditional Chinese Medicine supporters could perceive the Zen Shiatsu style as a manifestation of Yin and Yang in action, the Five Element practitioners could appreciate the usefulness of treating Wind-Cold or Blood Deficiency and so on, all of us seeing our own style, tradition and innovations as a valuable and enriching part of a greater whole.

An open and receptive attitude towards the whole complex of Shiatsu practice can benefit our individual practice, too. Theory is a support and moderator of our practice, but it can also stifle and restrict it. Shiatsu differs from modern Western forms of bodywork in that it includes philosophy as a part of its theory. It is also, like most forms of bodywork, an art as well as a philosophy and a science. When an art is performed strictly according to the dictates of a theory it usually sacrifices its expressiveness and creative verve. As proposed at the beginning of this article, Shiatsu can be performed without any recourse to theory apart from the basic theory of posture and attitude that underpins the practice, and possibly supported by a basic routine framework that allows the inclusion of all parts of the body in the session. (Within the familiarity of this framework, our awareness can expand and our perception can become more sensitive to the requirements of our receiver. Many skilled practitioners can achieve these results without even a treatment routine, working “free-style”, but to facilitate the analogy I propose to make, I will stay with the concept of the framework.)

This method of performing Shiatsu is the domain of the artist. Let us use the analogy of the clothes designer making a dress. The basic framework is the basic form; a covering for the torso. The cloth – silk, wool or drapey viscose? In Shiatsu, this might be the quality of touch. The structure and line of the dress – is it tailored or loose and flowing? In Shiatsu this would be the architecture of the session and its intent; would we be re-aligning the shoulder joints, releasing the diaphragm or simply ensuring a smooth flow within the whole body? Then come the inclusions of quantity – Sleeves or no sleeves? Maxi or mini? (In Shiatsu this might be our deliberations on how long and how deeply to focus on each body part.) As we try the dress on the client, we observe the way the material falls, whether the colour enhances her skin, where the shape can be adjusted. In the same way, the intent in a Shiatsu session is modified by our direct experience of our receiver. A good designer will work in harmony with the client so that the dress is in a sense created by both of them. And it has been the observation of many great artists that the work is already there, so that all the artist has to do is to cut away the excess stone surrounding the form of the sculpture, or write down the music that has already been composed. In Shiatsu, the receiver is already there, waiting to have the inessentials removed so that she can re-create herself as a work of art, in her essence.

The analogy with clothes design utilises an observably two-way creative endeavour with another human being, but a similar process is at work if we examine the method of making a pot. The potter works with an initial idea and also with the feeling of the clay; the initial idea may change as the pot takes shape. The glaze is prepared to a formula, but no potter can ever expect to see completely standard results when the kiln is opened, as the type of clay, the mix of the glaze and the exact heat of the kiln will always react together in slightly different ways and produce different effects, which are part of the natural beauty of the finished piece. In the same way, the Shiatsu practitioner, even when working to a theoretical protocol, can find it subtly changed as she responds to the needs of the receiver.

When we give Shiatsu we can use different degrees of theory in the planning of our session. Departing from the point of completely spontaneous, free-style, intuitive treatment, we can structure our session with increasing degrees of rigour and with increasing adherence to theory, in a series of possible scenarios that might run as follows:

  • spontaneous and free-style
  • basic treatment routine modified in response to our experience of the receiver
  • Hara or other palpatory diagnosis resulting in selection of meridians to treat
  • asking diagnosis (questionnaire) plus other diagnosis resulting in selection of meridians, points and treatment style
  • formula for treatment of specific conditions dictates treatment style and method, diagnosis secondary or unnecessary

Although there are many benefits to a session based on a theoretical appraisal, in my opinion our theory works to maximum effect if we apply it as a result of our experience within the session, not only as a precursor. We may decide to use a particular point to achieve a particular result, but change our minds as we explore the area and find another point clamouring for attention. Or we may be working down a meridian and find ourselves instinctively drawn to holding a point which, when we look it up later in a textbook, throws some light on the receiver’s condition. Or our own experience of the receiver can be greatly enhanced as we find some part of the body that intrigues us and attracts us to spending time with it, while images or sensations flood through us, perhaps quite at odds with the receiver’s original presentation.

This receptivity to messages from the receiver can have its pitfalls, however. Our Western minds are trained to interpret phenomena, to “know” what they mean. Our minds have not usually been trained in the Eastern tradition of simply observing sensations and feelings as manifestations that arise and disappear, without investing ourselves in identification with them. As a result, it can be difficult for us to notice when we are “making a story” around our interpretation of a sensation instead of simply observing it and responding to it directly. “I feel that….” is often a preamble to a statement that says more about ourselves than about our receiver’s state. It follows that when we receive intuitive messages, we should be careful not to embroider them according to our fantasy and use them only in choosing whether to touch, where to touch and how to touch.

There are other subtle differences between the Western mind and the Eastern mind, some possibly dating back to prehistoric times (see the four-volume history of mythology “The Masks of God” by Joseph Campbell), others certainly conditioned by historical events and movements. While we in the West may like to think of ourselves as children of the 17th Century Enlightenment, we tend to forget how profoundly we were influenced by the subsequent Romantic movement which gave rein to “Feeling”. Moreover, many of us have been touched by the ascendancy in the 1970’s of Jungian thought and this has, for example, affected our perception of the Five Phases, which are often construed more in accordance with Jung’s Elements than the original (political) concept of the Wu Xing. As a result, we interpret not only our theory but also our instinctive responses in ways that the Chinese and Japanese authors of that theory might find hard to understand.

Conversely, it is easy to become too erudite and precious in seeking to identify mystical meanings from the ancient texts; the Chinese and Japanese are mystical masters, no doubt: but they are also pragmatic, practical, down to earth and with a fine capacity for irony. Nor do they seek to maintain the traditional theory intact: modern Japanese and Chinese researchers are quite happy working with Western and Eastern ideas in tandem.

How, then, to approach Shiatsu theory? Firstly, to recognise that there is, really, no one theory. As Kishi and Whieldon point out, it is drawn from many different sources, none of which has any more authority than any other. Next, to give it secondary importance in the Shiatsu session, secondary to our own mindful participation in the exchange with our receiver. Thirdly, to observe our use of theory as an expression of ourselves, not to embroider it unnecessarily nor to let it dictate our responses but to allow it to guide us when we are temporarily lost, to be a resource when we need it. Fourthly, to know how to apply the skill of believing something whole-heartedly while recognising that it can not be the absolute and universal truth.

Bodywork, according to many great practitioners, including Masunaga and Kishi, is the king of medical treatment. Nothing else provides the same respect and care for the individual essence of the receiver, nor the same subtle responses to that essence. By the same token, great bodywork tends to lack a fixed technique and thus a written history. When we attempt to describe or regulate Shiatsu we must remember this paradox.

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