On my Shiatsu bookshelves there is an insightful book by Simon Fall with this title – Shiatsu as Spiritual Practice. I’m not here copying or reviewing that book, but acknowledging that the subject has come up before. Shiatsu is an expression of the best of ourselves, and a connection with the best of another. After a good Shiatsu session both giver and receiver can feel calm, uplifted and freshly open to the world. After time it is possible to recognize this state and allow a sense of it to exist between ourselves and the receiver from the beginning of the session. A Shiatsu session can become, however briefly, an experience of what we might call sacred space; not solemn or religious but a dimension without limits, where giver and receiver are deeply connected to a “whole” that feels like home.

What is Spiritual?

The idea of Spirit does not have to involve theories about life after death or the existence of God; in fact, it is not a conceptual idea at all, and falls apart in flakes when examined objectively. “Spirit” is an experience, a sense of being a part of something greater than ourself, beyond the limitations of the material existence with which it is merged.

Shiatsu’s inheritance from Chinese medicine, which is a philosophy as well as a science, offers us a method for examining Shiatsu as spiritual practice. The concept of the Five Shen, or five spiritual capacities, describes the various ways that consciousness manifests in action in the world, each assigned to one of the Five Phases or Elements (a useful way of categorizing, but not one to get bogged down in with detailed Element associations). The Shen, the human spirit itself, is made up of these five capacities acting together.

The Po (Metal) – the Spirit of the Body

The body is the vehicle for the spirit; in this human realm we inhabit from our first breath we cannot have perceptions or conscious life without it. Awareness dwells in and manifests through the body.

The culture of Japan, the home of Shiatsu, fosters the development of the Po, the “spirit-in-the-body”, to its highest state in the posture of Zazen, the art of the tea ceremony, calligraphy, Aikido, archery and the other martial arts. Undiluted concentration on form infuses the actions of the body with a “nowness” that allows the individual body and its movements to enter a dimension of pure action without sense of self.

To give Shiatsu is really to experience the Po in action, in giving body weight and relaxing into the support of gravity. The sensations, however subtle, that arise in the session are felt in the body. The giver can be aware of the receiver’s body as if it were his or her own. In no other therapy is posture and stance so important; alignment, expansion, relaxation and the sense of Hara are all key to good Shiatsu practice. In learning Shiatsu, there are often questions like “how do I feel the Ki?” or “how do I get in touch with this meridian?” the majority of which can be sorted by a simple change of posture. Much of the personal development practice which accompanies our training in Shiatsu aims to put us in touch with our Po, to encourage us to notice the movement in and out of the breath or to feel when the body is harmoniously aligned “between Heaven and Earth”, to awaken the sense of Hara, to increase proprioception and give a vivid sense of how individual body parts relate to each other.

The body knows, when it is relaxed and aligned, how to sense Ki, and to sense Ki brings us into connection with the whole of Nature. To exist, in Japanese philosophy, is to be endowed with aidagara, “betweenness”; we are all connected to each other and our environment by its web. Hara culture and personal development in Shiatsu practice open the sense of the individual and separate body to aidagara and a relationship with the whole.

The Yi (Earth) – the Spirit of Understanding

The Yi is sometimes translated as “the intellect” which reduces it to a dry concept unrelated to spirit. Because the character for Yi contains a radical that means “purpose” it is sometimes also assumed that it means a connection with our personal purpose in life. The personal is not enough, however, in considering Spirit, which is our link to something greater than ourselves, so let us add some sense of a universal purpose, or if that doesn’t feel right, a sense of the purpose within the whole, a sense of understanding or meaning, the illuminating quality of insight.

The Yi is an aid to Shiatsu practice because Shiatsu is an art based on the structure of understanding the dimension of Ki, bequeathed to us by generation upon generation of practitioners and teachers. This understanding can support us within the constant flux of experiencing the now and give the sense of continuity that we need in order to remember and to work consistently.

Structure is initially learned from a teacher, whether it consists of meridians or points, 5 Phase associations or 6 Divisions, treatment frameworks and routines, practical techniques or diagnostic procedures. The teacher can be a book or a video or a person, but the teacher’s main function is to make contact with the “inner teacher”, which is the Yi, our own insight. The Yi functions all the time in Shiatsu practice, manifesting in the ability to fine-tune our perceptions and make sense of them within a framework, to absorb the experience of teachers and other practitioners and reconcile them with our own unique experience in the now. The Yi gives the potential for transforming the forms and theories that we learn into our own understanding and tells us when we can let go of those structures, for it knows when we have internalised what we need.

The Yi understands with certainty. This inner teacher needs to be heard and acknowledged as much as the outer teacher and equally honoured, not denied.

The Zhi – the Spirit that Keeps us Going

The Zhi is usually translated as the Will. Ted Kaptchuk, author of The Web That Has No Weaver, talks about the difference between the Yang Will, the effort to do something, and the Yin Will, which gives us acceptance. We use both in our Shiatsu practice, for indeed the Zhi is the foundation of all kinds of spiritual practice (the Five Shen are sometimes also known as the Five Zhi). Just the word “practice” tells us this. Shiatsu, like all the arts, requires discipline and practice in order to perform it well. Determination fosters the learning and development of Shiatsu skill and technique; practice teaches our touch to recognize the differences between bodies, tissues and eventually qualities of Ki.

We move through the stages of learning new postures, abandon old habits of moving and thinking. Sometimes we endure physical discomfort and pain in the process. All this requires commitment and dedication, but the final challenge of the Zhi is to recognize that the unfolding of learning is never over. Self-observation takes over from the study mode; the will to keep the inner teacher functioning, to notice our own habits or mistakes, the will to remember and practise correct posture, to put in the daily groundwork of developing mind and body, all examples of Zhi in its Yang form in Shiatsu practice. The Zhi is “keeping the faith”.

Balancing this effort of will is the Zhi in its Yin form, acceptance. Being light with ourselves, recognizing that to make mistakes does not mean that we are no good. By the same token, recognizing that a satisfied receiver does not mean that we are wonderful. In the spirit of the Buddhist vow “Even though sentient beings are innumerable we vow to save them” we do our best for our receivers, with attentiveness and compassion, without being attached to the results. The desire to help others and the effort to improve go hand in hand with equanimity and moderation; the spirit of the Zhi recognizes that the result of a Shiatsu session depends on many factors, most of which are unknown to us. And still we continue to do our best, with acceptance; we keep going.

The Hun (Wood) – the Spirit of the Individual

The two best-known interpreters of the Five Shen differ considerably in the way they present the Hun (pronounce it in the Yorkshire way). Kaptchuk emphasizes the ren or benevolence which is the attribute of the Hun that people remember after someone’s death; Maciocia emphasizes its movement and its quality of inspiration during life. Both, however, concur on its likeness to the Western concept of the individual soul. The Hun is considered to survive after death and to retain the distinguishing qualities of the individual personality; in ancient tombs in China there were found books, dinner services, make-up kits; small gifts for the dead person’s individual preferences. I like to associate the Hun with the individual quality of touch with which each practitioner gives a unique Shiatsu. Some of the Shiatsu’s I have received feel like a warm blanket, some feel silvery, some Christmassy, some some like a rub-down, all wonderful in their way and all completely unlike each other except for the characteristic deep contact of Shiatsu. This individual quality of our touch is a reflection of our Hun; we could not get rid of it if we tried.

Another quality of the Hun is the kindness and benevolence that we can extend towards others, recognizing that the other is still a part of a whole that includes us all, and this attitude motivates and sustains our Shiatsu study and practice. The word “benevolence” is on loan from Kaptchuk, and needs to be stripped of any patronising association, because the Hun in our Shiatsu practice creates equality between giver and receiver, establishes a level playing field. Our attitude towards money in our practice is surely related to this aspect of the Hun.

Maciocia lays importance on the Hun’s attribute of movement; “it follows the coming and going of the Shen” and links this to the free flow of Liver Ki. To liberate stagnation of Liver Ki, he says, can also free the Hun and open it to the potential of the future and a pathway for action. It may be that the meditative movement of a Shiatsu session liberates the giver’s Hun in this way, as well as the receiver’s. Qigong practice also prepares us to recognize this state of free-flowing Hun, so that we can open ourselves to it at the start of the session.

The Shen (Fire) – The Spirit of Pure Presence

There is no adequate English word to translate Shen. Even in Chinese it is rarely used on its own except in a medical context; the common word is jingshen, the combination of Shen and Essence that make up the human being. “Consciousness”, “awareness”, “presence”, all have their individual associations in different contexts and so do not fully convey the purity of the Shen in its simple being-ness.

When we learn Shiatsu, we also learn “stuff”; theory, meridians, routines and techniques. In the consultation before a Shiatsu session we apply our Yi, our insight, to the application of that “stuff”. When we kneel to begin the session, our conscious mind lets go of all that. We come into pure presence in contact with our receiver. This is the big Shen which includes all the others. The Yi, the Po, the Hun and the Zhi come and go within our session as they are needed, like a shifting rainbow of colours, leaving no muddy trace in the clear space of the Shen. This is the ideal Shiatsu session. Maybe we experience it for a few minutes, occasionally! But even a brief experience of the Shen in our session is meditation in action. We are involved completely and with all our spiritual capacities, which include the body-spirit, in the now.