Shiatsu is a form of massage that utilizes the hands, thumb, or other body parts, to apply direct pressure on various points or channels in the body. It is performed through loose clothing and does not use oils.
Massage is a practice that has been present for thousands of years. Shiatsu is among the many different massage therapies people seek for relaxation, healing, and relief.
This article discusses shiatsu massage, what to expect from it, its benefits, and its risks. It also explores how shiatsu is different from other massage types.
Shiatsu is a bodywork that originated in Japan. It integrates Japan’s traditional manual therapies such as acupuncture and anma, an old Japanese massage style, with western medical knowledge.
Healthcare professionals view shiatsu as a modified form of acupressure, a massage therapy that involves pressing specific points in the body to reduce tension and fatigue by improving blood and lymphatic circulation.
Shiatsu has its roots in the concept of qi. In traditional Chinese medicine, qi is the vital life force that drives all life activity. It believes that health occurs when qi flows unobstructed. When it becomes deficient or blocked, symptoms such as body pain, headaches, and digestive issues arise.
Learn more about the concept of qi deficiency here.
A shiatsu therapist applies pressure on the body’s meridians, parts of the body believed to be energy channels, to balance or unblock the flow of energy (qi).
While shiatsu translates as finger pressure, a shiatsu therapist may also use palms, elbows, and sometimes feet to apply pressure along energy lines or paths to relieve pain and tension in the body.
Before the session begins, a shiatsu practitioner evaluates the person and assesses a person’s state of qi to plan the session. The practitioner may perform varying protocols based on the person’s general energy level, presence of blockages, and conditions.
For example, when a person has deficient energy levels, the practitioner uses techniques to reactivate or stimulate the blood and qi circulation. Meanwhile, they may utilize techniques to diffuse excess energy in anxious and stressed individuals.
Practitioners perform manual techniques such as holding, stretching, tapping, pressure, kneading, and soothing, using their thumbs, fingers, palms, and knees. They may also do more body stretches, rotations, and joint mobilizations.
From time to time, the therapist may ask the person to change their position to allow them to work on specific meridian points to energy stagnation or blockages.
Shiatsu does not use instruments or oils. During a session, individuals are fully clothed and traditionally lie on a futon mat placed on a floor, but lying on a massage table is also common.
Shiatsu is a holistic form of therapy that improves a person’s overall health by affecting their internal energy system. It claims to help with:
- poor posture
- joint problems such as arthritis
- painful muscles
- digestive and bowel disorders
- sports injuries
- hay fever
- constant colds
- skin conditions
- acute and chronic aches and pains
- muscle tension
- premenstrual syndrome
- low libido
There is limited scientific research to support the use of shiatsu in most of these conditions.
However, a 2019 study found that combining shiatsu with standard treatment for low back pain improves symptoms and quality of life shortly after the session.
Hand self-shiatsu, a self-application form of shiatsu, also promoted
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Shiatsu is generally considered safe. However, some people may need to avoid it. These include those with the following conditions:
- acute illness or fever
- undergoing chemotherapy
- high blood pressure
- uncontrolled diabetes
- bone fractures
- recent wounds or scars
- active skin lesions
- areas of inflammation
- varicose veins
- blood cancers
- viruses such as flu and chickenpox
- herniated disc
- ankylosing spondylitis
People with severe conditions should first consult their doctors before getting shiatsu or any other type of massage.
Shiatsu shares similarities with other types of massage. However, it also features techniques distinct from other classic forms of massage.
Shiatsu vs. Swedish massage
Shiatsu and Swedish massage both use the hands and palms to do manual movements with the body. However, Swedish massage involves techniques that differ from those used in shiatsu, including effleurage, petrissage, percussion, and friction. Moreover, the techniques in Swedish massage require the use of oil.
While shiatsu focuses on pressure points, Swedish massage focuses on the muscles and connective tissues. This is why therapists can allow individuals to determine their preferred massage level or strength.
Shiatsu vs. Thai massage
Both shiatsu and Thai massage are dry massages. They both focus on improving the flow of energy throughout the body but get their origins from different traditional practices.
While both use energy flows, they differ in their primary focus. Shiatsu focuses on providing deep pressure to the meridians, while Thai massage concentrates on relieving tension, improving circulation, and enhancing flexibility. This is why Thai massage is sometimes called assisted yoga.
Shiatsu vs. deep tissue massage
Unlike shiatsu, which offers a holistic approach to the body by balancing the energy flow, deep tissue massage focuses on specific points such as injured muscles and chronic muscle tension.
Here are some common questions about shiatsu massage.
Is shiatsu massage painful?
Shiatsu is generally not painful. It provides specific and firm pressure. However, there may be areas where the practitioner will apply more pressure.
It is typical for people to experience delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) for 24–48 hours after the session. According to some experts, DOMS may result from microscopic tears in the muscle fibers that can occur during exercise, and that this soreness is due to the healing process.
What’s the difference between shiatsu and ashiatsu massage?
Both shiatsu and ashiatsu originate from Japan. They share influences from traditional Chinese medicine, and use pressure in their technique. Both aim to restore, energize, or stabilize energy channels.
They differ in how practitioners apply the pressure on their clients. “Shi” in shiatsu means finger, and “ashi” means foot. Ashiatsu, also called barefoot massage, involves using bare feet to apply strokes, assisted stretching, and deep compression.
A person who wants to try shiatsu should ensure that they work with certified and licensed practitioners. Friends and family may recommend therapists and nearby clinics.
They may also use the American Massage Therapy Association’s national locator service or the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork’s (NCBTMB) directory service.
Shiatsu is an ancient practice that utilizes traditional Chinese medicine to apply manual pressure on specific body parts. It uses various techniques to address conditions, reduce tension and pain, and improve overall health.
While it is generally safe, it may not be suitable for specific individuals. People with health conditions should talk with their doctors before getting shiatsu or any other type of massage.