A simple manual therapy underpinned by a complex body of theory this art of gentle healing combines loving touch, samurai focus and Chinese medicine.
Shiatsu evolved from the healing practices of ancient China some three-and-a-half millenia ago. Huang-Ti, the Yellow Emperor, codified the theory behind the therapy. Treatment, from acupuncture to herbs, he decreed, should vary according to the life-style, environment and location of his subjects. For those dwelling in the mild climate of the central regions who were “able to obtain a varied diet without great exertion” massage was recommended to harmonise the elements of Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood and thus maintain spiritual, energetic and physical health.
Local healing traditions evolved across the “Middle Kingdom” (between Heaven and Earth) and its spheres of influence, from Tibet to Japan, Siberia to Siam. Earth medicine flourished among the Fang Shi – Masters of the Formula, barefoot healers, witches, wizards and shamans. Under the Han and successive dynasties religious and magical Taoism emerged, peacefully co-existing with behavioural Confucianism, until the Northern Wei saw the rise of Buddhism and persecution of the shamans. Healing became politicised.
Immortality being considered the logical outcome of good health, Chinese alchemists sought an Elixir for their Emperors, retaining a few drops for themselves. External alchemy lost its appeal when it did for a few courtiers and kings as well as a number of alchemists. The search continued. Physicians in the Tang Dynasty vivisecting condemned prisoners described flows of energy through certain invisible channels, which ceased at the moment of death. If this flow could be sustained…
Under Chairman Mao so-called Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) synthesised local and traditional approaches and purged the spiritual aspects, overlooking the less obvious magical which had been absorbed into orthodoxy as Five Elements. By the late 1950s standardised TCM was practised alongside dialectically materialist and politically correct western medicine, in the hospitals of a new China.
In modern times things happen fast: 1977 saw the Japanese psychologist Shizuto Masunaga and his student Wataru Ohashi develop a complex set of protocols integrating psychotherapeutic thought, meridian connection and physical pressure. Masunaga described how to induce the phenomenon that occurs between meridian points under pressure, and published it as Zen Shiatsu – how to harmonise Yin and Yang for better health. By making his name and system synonymous with Zen Shiatsu Masunaga reinforced the trend towards standardisation but in the post-war restoration of Japan it was the rival and even more rationalistic Namikoshi system, based on western neurology, that became officially recognised.
Shiatsu went West, welcomed by the eclectic materialists of the New Age. Yin, Yang and Zen, it involved touch, a suitably complex theory, and was said to alleviate symptoms of some chronic conditions resistant to orthodox medicine and reduce the need for medication. Described as a Japanese form of physiotherapy by certain Western Schools, the intuitive loving-touch traditionally practised by barefoot blind healers wearing red headbands became the subject of theses and dissertations by earnest people in white.
The gap between rational/physical and traditional/spiritual began to close with the publication in 1988 of Hara Diagnosis – Reflections on the Sea. Matsumoto & Birch wrote of the flicker of life, the moving Qi between the kidneys, and explored the connections between Eastern and Western medicine. In 1989 at the Columbia Hotel in London Dr Motoyama and his Qi-machine demonstrated energy flowing through the connective tissues at 1.5 volts – hey, presto! energy is real, meridians exist! Shiatsu in the West was ready to enter the new millennium. But the shadow of European bureaucracy threatened English freedom to practise, since the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951, any complementary therapy without restriction or, indeed, qualification.
In 2002 nine Shiatsu professional associations sent delegates to form the Shiatsu Regulatory Group under the auspices of the Federation for Integrated Health. The aim was to formulate a National Occupational Standard acceptable to the Sector Skills Council and the nine associations and thirty-seven schools teaching seven different styles. In 2009 Skills for Health produced UK Standard CNH13 and in November 2009 Shiatsu took its place in the Department of Health’s Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council.
Nowadays, the profession is organised and regulated, with defined standards, code of ethics, and protection for both public and practitioner.
Practice is still based on intuitive loving-touch, with knowledge, understanding and compassion.
Finding Spirit in Zen Shiatsu
Kris Deva North
Universal Tao Publications UK (2006)
Kris is giving a free talk and demonstration on the theme Hand of Mother, Mind of Samurai, on Wednesday 24th October at the Zen School of Shiatsu, 6.45 to 9pm. You are welcome: no need to book, just come on by. Find the Zen School of Shiatsu