Add as bookmark


by Chris Jarmey(more info)

listed in shiatsu, originally published in issue 24 - January 1998

What is Shiatsu?

The full potential of Shiatsu is only realised after certain qualities have been developed within the giver. These qualities are:
•    The ability to remain relaxed and comfortable irrespective of which technique is employed at any given time.
•    The ability to detect subtle changes in a person’s vitality through the medium of touch.
•    The ability to assess a person’s level of health or disease through the development of greater empathy and the understanding of Oriental Medicine.
Shiatsu can therefore be classified as a physical therapy applied at floor level with minimum physical effort by the therapist, and which uses Oriental Medicine as its theoretical framework. To reach a professional standard of competence it generally takes at least 3 years of committed study and practice.

Beyond its role in the healing of others, Shiatsu is also a tremendous method of self-development. It has the effect of focusing the mind and grounding both body and mind in much the same way as the practice of Tai Ji Quan (sometimes spelt Tai Chi Chuan), Yoga and various forms of meditation. For this reason it heals, strengthens and develops both the giver and the recipient.

The history of Shiatsu

Although the word Shiatsu was not coined until the early twentieth century, the origins of Shiatsu lie firmly within the roots of Traditional Oriental Medicine, which incorporated a system of self-massage and self-applied pressure point therapy known as Tao-Yinn. Tao-Yinn was gradually exported from China into south-east Asia and Korea.

By the tenth century AD, Chinese Medicine had been introduced into Japan, from which time an amalgam of Palm Healing, Acupressure and Massage, known collectively as Anma, would have been combined with Tao-Yinn (Do-In) to loosely resemble present day Shiatsu.

Around three hundred years ago in Japan, doctors were required to study Anma as a means of familiarising themselves with the human structure, energy Channels and pressure points, so that they could accurately diagnose and treat with whatever means they thought appropriate; namely Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine or bodywork. Gradually, however, Anma was reduced to treating simple muscular tensions until by the twentieth century it became licensed only to promote pleasure and comfort.

However, there still existed many Anma therapists who based their work on the original theory, and who coined the name Shiatsu in order to avoid the restrictive regulations applied to Anma. Shiatsu was eventually recognised as a legitimate form of therapy by the Japanese government in the mid-1950s.

Shiatsu did not become widely known in Europe and the United States until the 1970s, although it has been practised by a few Japanese and Occidentals in the West since its conception.

The Shiatsu environment

One of the attractions of Shiatsu is that it needs no special equipment. All that is required is a floor area large enough for you to lay upon a thin futon, plus space for the practitioner to move around. Shiatsu can also be applied with the recipient sitting on a cushion or chair.

Shiatsu is better done through clothing, as working on the skin stimulates too many superficial sensory nerves, thus distracting you from experiencing deeper sensations. The practitioner can also feel for deeper levels of imbalance in your body when the sensation of skin to skin contact is removed. The ideal is a single layer of cotton garments.

The ‘Tools’ of Shiatsu

The primary tools of Shiatsu are the palms, thumbs and fingers. Tools of secondary importance, are the forearms, elbows, knees and feet. Your Shiatsu therapist will employ some or all of these tools throughout the course of a single treatment.

The palms and fingertips are used at the beginning of a treatment to feel for areas in your body in need of decongesting, loosening up, calming down, or strengthening. Depending on which treatment strategy is adopted, the practitioner will proceed to use her thumbs or fingertips if s/he needs to apply very specific pressure to a pressure point. If a more generalised area requires working on, s/he is more likely to use her palms. If particularly strong pressure is needed, then the forearms, elbows, knees or feet may be used.

How does Shiatsu work?

Shiatsu works on the concept that Shiatsu techniques applied to areas of your body will improve overall health. The manner in which Shiatsu is applied determines its precise effect. There are three broad categories of Shiatsu technique: Tonification, Dispersal, Calming.

Sustained pressure applied at the optimum angle to reach deep into the pressure points (known as tsubos) will increase the level of energy and blood circulating through that area. This is ‘tonification’.

Active techniques such as shaking, rocking, stretching, circling and squeezing disperses blocked or engorged energy and blood. This is called ‘dispersal’ or ‘sedation’.

Light stationary holding with the palm using minimal or no pressure, or very gentle rocking will calm agitated energy. This is called ‘calming’.

A Shiatsu session will generally include all 3 of the above methods, with a bias towards one or other depending upon the predominant type of energetic imbalance.

During all tonification techniques, most calming techniques and many dispersing techniques, one hand will be more active in applying technique while the palm of the other hand will be feeling for reactions to those techniques elsewhere in the body.

What is meant by ‘Energy’?

Shiatsu takes its theoretical basis from traditional Oriental philosophy and medicine, which considers everything in nature to be a manifestation of energy. This all encompassing energy is called Ki (sometimes spelt Qi or Ch’i). Ki has as many different manifestations as there are phenomena in nature. For example, desire, bones, and the ability to run are all forms of Ki. Blood and body fluids are seen as more material forms of Ki, whereas thoughts are considered Ki in its most subtle and insubstantial form. Having explained that, I will henceforth reserve the word ‘Ki’ for that energy which holds things together and in place (i.e. energetically cohesive force – like ‘magnetism’) and for that power which enables movement. Therefore, the ability to move around is directly related to the quantity and free circulation of Ki within the body. Likewise, the pumping action of the heart and movement of blood is also dependent upon Ki.
Channels and the

circulation of Ki

Ki links all functions and organs of the body through a system of interconnecting Channels (sometimes called Meridians). The Channels are the same as those used in Acupuncture, although Shiatsu incorporates some additional extensions to these Channels. A Ki Channel flows partly inside the body to connect with the organs, and partly near the surface of the body. It is the Channel sections, which are near the surface of the body, which are accessible to Shiatsu technique. All the Ki Channels are ultimately connected up to each other to form a continuous circuit of Ki flow, animating all parts of the body as it passes through. The aim of Shiatsu is to keep the Ki flowing without restriction, and to help strengthen the Ki where it is weak.

Many Channels have been identified, fourteen of which contain pressure points which influence Organs and associated bodily functions. Twelve of the Channels are named after the Organ through which they pass – Kidney Channel, Bladder Channel, Liver Channel and so on.

According to Oriental Medicine, each Channel has correspondences to aspects of the mind and emotions as well as having physical correspondences within the body. For example, the Channel which runs through the Kidneys influences will power, drive and the capacity for fear; it is a major factor in the growth and strength of bones, nerves and brain tissue and it also influences the balance of water and minerals within the body.

In Shiatsu terminology, fullness or blockage of Ki in a Channel or pressure point is referred to as ‘Jitsu’, whereas weakness or emptiness of Ki is known as ‘Kyo’. You can expect any Channel to err towards Kyo or Jitsu in relation to any other. The whole pattern is constantly fluctuating. The aim of Shiatsu is to discover the root cause behind any acute or chronic disharmony and attempt to stabilise it via tonification of Kyo or dispersal of Jitsu within the Channels. The Jitsu areas are easy to find because they feel ‘active’ and may protrude from the surface. Kyo areas are more difficult to find because they exhibit little or no reaction, and are hidden below the surface.

Sensitive Shiatsu done all over the body, would highlight these Kyo/Jitsu deviations and re-harmonise the general level and flow of Ki. However, a good professional practitioner would be able to assess which Channel is most lacking in Ki, and which one is most blocked. By balancing these two off against each other, the imbalances in the other Channels will reduce.

The Shiatsu health assessment

A Shiatsu session lasts between 40 minutes to 1 hour. The first session you come for may take slightly longer because a thorough health assessment is usually given at this stage. A health assessment is aimed at pinpointing the underlying cause of your discomfort. It will highlight the aspects of your body and mind which are most likely to be affected if your general vitality drops due to stress or illness.

The practitioner will be able to assess your state of Ki, and therefore deduce your state of health by observing various visible features showing in your face, tongue and posture; and by asking certain questions regarding your symptoms and medical history.

Since Shiatsu is about touching, it is logical that touch should be the most important aspect of a health assessment. Experienced practitioners can feel blocked, overactive or insufficient Ki within any area of the body, because it reflects in a certain ‘quality’ or ‘response’ to touch. This is particularly clear when working directly upon any of the fourteen main Channels through which Ki circulates. Ki imbalances are most accurately assessed by lightly touching various areas of your belly or by observing specific areas of your back.

The essential qualities of Shiatsu

To truly understand where the practitioner must be at, you should consider the essential qualities of Shiatsu, which are:

Motivation; Correctly angled pressure; Steadiness of breath; Technical ability; Keeping a low centre of gravity; Continuity; Relaxation & comfort; Fluency; Empty mind; Empathy; Support rather than force.


If the therapist truly wants to make you feel better as much as you want to feel better, then you will have the foundation for a good healing relationship.

Steadiness of breath

To breathe in a relaxed and steady rhythm helps focus the mind. Your practitioner will have invested a great deal of time in practising methods which promote steadiness of breath and consequent steady focusing of the mind. A focused mind is essential for detecting subtle energetic imbalances in your body. Meditation, Yoga and Tai Ji Quan are some of the methods many Shiatsu practitioners adopt to enhance this quality within themselves.

Keeping a low centre of gravity

The practitioner will keep his or her centre of gravity as low as possible throughout the treatment to enhance maximum stability. Working from a stable base will allow the neck, shoulders and back muscles to relax. When the centre of gravity is too high, the postural muscles must overwork in order to maintain a steady position, resulting in early fatigue.

Once a low centre of gravity has been achieved and can be maintained, it is possible for all movement to originate from, and feel connected to, the lower belly. This enables weight to be used instead of force, enabling the body to remain totally relaxed. This in turn enables the practitioner to work without fatigue, and to concentrate his or her energy upon you rather than upon their own discomfort brought on by postural and muscular tension.

Relaxation and comfort

Steadiness of breath and keeping a low centre of gravity will enable your practitioner to remain relaxed. Relaxation and comfort are enhanced if Shiatsu can be done in quiet, pleasant, amenable surroundings.

Empty mind

Shiatsu therapy requires both a developed intuition and the knowledge of how to put the theory into practice. Only by knowing something inside out, can you then use it without intellectualising about it. The consequent ‘empty mind’ of the practitioner will encourage the recipient’s potentially restless mind to calm.

Support rather than force

If we push and poke at our fellow human beings, whether physically or mentally, we meet with resistance as they close up, fight back or withdraw. If we offer support they will feel secure, have trust and become receptive to our presence. This reality is particularly true in a Shiatsu situation.

Good Shiatsu is recognisable from the supportive touch it offers. Assuming you are not going to fall over when techniques are applied to you, you may still react defensively if you are pushed. That is why the practitioner will lean into you rather than push, so that his or her pressure will be welcomed rather than repelled.

Positive connection

Positive connection refers to both a positive rapport, and a positive physical touch. At your first session a good practitioner will seek to establish some area of common interest so that you can talk to each other as equals and on friendly terms, thereby establishing rapport.

On the physical level, positive connection means ‘conscious’ touch rather than mechanical touch. Conscious touch is where the mind of the practitioner is focused on the responses from your body as a result of his or her touch. Ki goes where the mind goes, so conscious touch enables Ki to be passed from the practitioner to you. Mechanical touch is touch applied with the mind elsewhere. This results in Ki neither being detected or projected. Only conscious beings have healing touch, which is why various machines and ‘Shiatsu couches’ which are claimed to give you a full body Shiatsu by mechanically prodding your pressure points at the flick of a switch, are of very limited value.

Even better than a ‘conscious’ hand on your body are two conscious hands on your body. With one point of contact, your mind is naturally drawn to that one point. With two points of contact, your mind is drawn to the connection between the two hands. This in effect means that a greater area of your body will feel involved in the treatment. Often the practitioner will create as many points of contact as possible by resting a knee or two against you so that you whole body feels enveloped by the treatment. This ensures that you feel fully supported, giving a much more nurturing feeling to the session.

Correctly angled presssure

Stationary pressure angled correctly into the pressure points along the Channels is the technique used to strengthen weak Ki, whereas moving, rocking or stretching is used to disperse blocked Ki. You will no doubt be seeking Shiatsu because you feel low in energy and possibly chronically ill, or because you feel uptight, frustrated or repressed in some way. Low energy necessitates a treatment which is more tonifying. Feeling frustrated and blocked necessitates a treatment more dispersing in quality. However, behind every blockage there is an underlying weakness. This means that whether you are blocked up or depleted, your treatment will include a substantial element of stationary holding Shiatsu. If you receive a treatment which includes lots of rocking and stretching, it means that much unblocking of Ki was required.

Technical Ability, Continuity and Fluency

A quality Shiatsu will have a confident fluency about it, resulting in you feeling you somehow ‘hang together’ better. The mark of fluent Shiatsu is that you, the receiver, experience the sensations generated by the session as a continuum, and are unaware of the practitioner changing from one technique or position to another.


Heightened sensitivity coupled with a genuine desire to help others results in the development of ‘empathy’. Empathy is another level of connection, and with optimum connection your Ki can be most profoundly benefitted.

Contraindications to Shiatsu

Professional Shiatsu can have a major role in the management of any illness. However, there are certain circumstances, as listed below, where Shiatsu may be limited in its effectiveness, purely because touch is difficult and inappropriate: Acute fevers; Contagious diseases; Internal bleeding or blood clots; Touch phobia.

There are other situations where certain parts of the body must be avoided during a Shiatsu session. In these situations, the therapist will work on another area which, by association, benefits the area which cannot be touched. This makes sense if you accept that the body works as a functional whole.

Severe skin problems; Severe burns, bruises or swellings; Fracture sites and areas of acute muscle or ligament injury; Cuts, local inflammation and infections; Twisted intestines; Varicose Veins during pregnancy.

Shiatsu, by definition, requires actual physical contact. However, it is sometimes argued that techniques which use the heat or Ki radiating from the hands, but which do not make actual physical contact, can be considered supplementary Shiatsu techniques. These techniques are clearly not restricted in the contraindicated circumstances listed above.

In conclusion, shiatsu is a very powerful therapy and a strong medium for personal development. Even if you are basically healthy, regular Shiatsu treatment would go a long way towards keeping fluids and energies in your body moving, thus helping to keep you free from dis-ease.


The Shiatsu Society
Shiatsu tuition is very widely available throughout Britain and Europe. Within Britain all legitimate Schools of Shiatsu are affiliated to the Shiatsu Society, which was founded in 1981 as an independent representative body for everyone involved in Shiatsu. Its officers are elected from the membership, which is open to anyone with a keen interest in Shiatsu. The society operates an independent assessment panel governing entry onto the Practitioner register. All registered Practitioners use the initials MRSS (Member of The Register of the Shiatsu Society) The Shiatsu Society’s head office is at: Interchange Studios, Dalby Street, London NW5 3NQ.
The European Shiatsu School
Founded in 1985, the European Shiatsu School has developed comprehensive study facilities within Britain and Europe, plus affiliated schools world-wide. The European Shiatsu School is a registered charity whose objectives are:  
1.    To advance public education in shiatsu
2.    To carry out research into the therapeutic effects of shiatsu and to publish the results.
The European Shiatsu School’s head office is at: ESS, High Banks, Lockeridge, Marlborough, Wiltshire SN8 4EQ Tel: 01672 861362 e-mail:


  1. No Article Comments available

Post Your Comments:

About Chris Jarmey

The late Chris Jarmey MCSP DS MRSS qualified as a Chartered Physiotherapist in 1979, and taught anatomy, shiatsu, qigong and bodywork therapy throughout Europe. He was the Founder in 1985 of the European Shiatsu School one of the world's most established shiatsu schools, with study facilities within Britain and Europe, plus affiliated schools worldwide. Chris acquired an encyclopaedic knowledge of subjects relating to oriental medicine, movement, meditation, nutrition, anatomy and was constantly designing new courses to impart his learning to others. Chris who had 4 children, sadly died in Nov 2008 from a heart attack, aged 54.

  • health & fitness books

    Massage, sports injury, holistic, healthcare and specialists books written by leaders in their field

  • College of Ayurveda UK

    Diploma in Āyurvedic Medicine, 4-year self-paced distant learning program in Āyurvedic medicine.

top of the page