October Essay: Shiatsu; Deep Roots, Many Uses

Shiatsu as Individual Therapy or Community Education?

Evaluating the difference; from Do-In to Shiatsu, Seiki and the Experiential Approach to Healing

The manual therapies have an ancient origin – they are the beginning of medicine, developed in all societies from the primitive human urge to help each other and leading to the widest range of forms – massage, manipulation, and exercise of every kind. Some of these methods are simple, some very subtle and sophisticated. Some are commonplace and practiced by ordinary people, some are based on complex knowledge and traditionally practiced by specialists. In today’s society we have not only seen the development of physical therapies based on modern western knowledge of the body, but we have been exposed to many methods of treatment and exercise methods from other cultural traditions. There is a continual process of merging and re-invention, which has both its benefits and drawbacks – a bewildering situation for many of us.

Something else though – the manual therapies also represent the end of medicine, because they help to restore health after serious illness when strong treatment is no longer necessary, and because they often prevent us from falling ill in the first place and so from needing more powerful medicine. They represent a better option for treatment – less risky and damaging, and less expensive. In their simple forms then, the manual therapies and related exercise methods are a valuable and empowering educational resource with many benefits for society. Because they need less special knowledge, they are easily transmitted and learned and they are more simple and humble in character. But still, they rely on the marvellous recuperative powers of the body and mind just the same as the more complex ministrations of formal medicine, so everything has its place and must be accorded due respect.

Shiatsu can be studied and practiced as a skilled individual therapy, but at a basic level it can easily be learned by anyone for increased bodily awareness and simple first aid. Beyond this it can be developed into a valuable educational tool with many applications for health and well-being in society.  It can be any and all of these, but what do we want to do with it?  To address this question, we need to look beyond shiatsu itself to see the bigger picture. If we study its historical and social background, we quickly realise that shiatsu is a small part of the much broader and deeper stream of Eastern Traditional Medicine, and a recent development in the field of manual therapies. Namikoshi’s officially accepted method and then Masunaga’s meridian style have both influenced recent trends, but there are simpler forms of shiatsu as well as those more complex approaches that move shiatsu towards medically based therapy.

In the modern West we have placed much emphasis on intellectual knowledge and rational reductionist method; we habitually separate the body into component systems and substances. Even in Shiatsu, we understand and treat the meridians and Ki as separate, taking our cue from the formal medical knowledge appropriate to acupuncture and herbal medicine. Specific interventions and technical methods necessarily interpose an objective layer between diagnosis and treatment, one that also separates the practitioner and the patient. But this is not always appropriate for the manual therapies. Masunaga’s meridian style of shiatsu may not have been intended to lead us in this direction, but effectively it has set a trend. It is an over-developed style, often linked unhelpfully with traditional TCM and modern theories or approaches that reinforce professional interests in clinical practice. In a more humble way, simpler principles can be addressed to ordinary people and developed through experience.

Manual therapy and exercise methods were always grouped collectively under the name of Daoyin in China, and were known as Do-in Ankyo in Japan. Perhaps, then, our real interest lies in the study of Do-in? In China, the cultivation of harmony through philosophy and art was not separate from practical considerations in healing. The practitioner’s sensitivity and skill is dependent on personal integrity, presence and heightened awareness developed through training the body and mind. In Japan, too, the most important characteristic of manual therapy was the focus on Hara, a completely Japanese way of integrating knowledge and experience into unified spontaneous action. Manual therapies retained some formal elements but diagnosis and treatment were mostly transmitted, learned, applied and modified through directly experiential means, That is, they were internally absorbed and understood.

The experiential path in healing is the inner path, directly transmitted and received through practice. It is a unified path that recognises the integrity of the whole person, body and mind, Touch may be quite specific but the nuances of contact emerge spontaneously, reflecting the whole situation. Only general non-specific guidance is offered, so giver and receiver can come freely into harmony, and both will benefit from the immediate qualities and information in the exchange. This inner experiential path is an accepted aspect of professional Shiatsu training but it is usually subjugated to the requirements of concept and form. Experience itself is spontaneous and does not distinguish professional roles and procedures. It is our conventional trainings that emphasise the pathways of formal medical knowledge and procedure.

Seiki is a vehicle for this broad and open experiential path. It was developed by its founder Akinobu Kishi, as a way of investigating our personal condition and developing sensitivity and harmony through shared practice in which Yin and Yang forces can percolate our being in their untold diverse ways *.

Seiki draws on Japanese Ki Culture and Hara practice. It offers exercises in body movement awareness linked to the breath (Gyoki), and simple and safe ways of sharing treatment through touch. By encouraging the necessary patience, attention and trust it allows space for spontaneous adjustments (Katsugen) that are expressions of harmony. Seiki practice offers many benefits and it is open to everyone wanting to learn.

Katsugen is a most important element in healing, but it is the least understood aspect of Seiki, and perhaps the most difficult to accept and integrate into the clinical model of treatment. For this reason it is important to encourage the practice of Katsugen in group workshops and ongoing open classes or guided sessions, not just for students or professionals in shiatsu and other bodywork therapies but all others interested in personal development, health and harmony.

Nowadays a lot of people are suffering from the distortions of the global market economy.

Those of us who practise alternative and complementary medicine are in a dilemma because we usually work outside the state health system, and so are obliged to operate within the private sector. It is important that we value ourselves and our work in the market place, yet many of us might wish to offer our skills to those most in need. There is no reason why we cannot develop new models of flexible practice beyond individual therapy, and I would suggest we refocus on integreted basic trainings for teaching Do-in Touch through regular community classes. Seiki remains an important option for  personal exploration of the experiential path and deeper awareness of the tradition. PL.


*These general principles of Ki can be experienced, confirmed and appreciated within the body and mind of the living breathing person, functioning in the natural and social environment. Ki is whole life-movement expressed in multiple ways. Life circumstances produce a distortion of this whole, and an apparent separation. Through training, that is by consciously engaging in appropriate practices, the pattern of distortion can be perceived.  Intellectually, all this can be understood another way, as Yin-Yang philosophy, Kyo-jitsu, etcetera, but we do not always have to take this route.