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Sooyong Kim
Licensed Massage Therapist
Takoma Park, Md

by Sooyong Kim

Shiatsu literally means finger pressure in Japanese, and has over time developed into a comprehensive system of healing. You've probably heard about the physician in ancient China who was paid for keeping the client healthy. But if the client became ill, all treatments were free. Health care was mostly preventive in the ancient Far East, and included acupuncture, medicines and herbs, moxibustion (burning an herb either on or near the skin), and anma (massage). The Japanese combined acupuncture and anma and developed it into shiatsu.


Under this system, it is understood that chi or ki or prana (energy, life force) flows through every part of the body through meridians, or channels of chi. Sometimes they follow the same lines as muscles or blood-vessels. When chi stagnates, the body may ultimately become ill. Imagine a stream that is flowing freely through the mountains. During a storm, a tree falls across the stream, creating a block in the flow of water. Until the tree is removed, the stream is impeded in its flow, which may also lead to other problems, such as the growth of wildlife in the area and a complete blockage in the flow of water.

Like acupuncture, shiatsu is based on the five element theory. First, balance of yin and yang are important. For instance, there should be a balance of male and female, light and dark, inside and outside, etc. When the male and female aspects of the self are integrated, balance is achieved. The ancient Chinese believed that every imbalance in the body could be traced to a combination of physical, psychological, emotional, environmental and even cosmic factors.

Next, living in harmony with nature is essential for good health. Nowadays, it is more difficult to follow this principle strictly, but it becomes easier if you spend some time outside enjoying nature.

The five elements are Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood. Each of the five elements is attributed to a different facet of life, including color, season, organs, time of day, direction, taste, emotion, sound and power. For example, the Wood element represents spring. The associated color is green, the organs are the gall bladder and liver, time of day 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. for the gall bladder and 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. for the liver. Since the gall bladder is associated with planning and the liver with decision making, we are advised to get to sleep by 11 p.m. The direction is east, the taste is sour, the emotion is anger, the sound is shouting, and the power granted by Wood is the capacity for control. 

The five elements interact with each other in two basic ways, the creation cycle and the control cycle. In the creation cycle, fire creates earth (think of ashes turning into rich soil), and wood creates fire (think of a forest fire). In the control cycle, fire controls metal (think of fire melting iron), and metal controls wood (think of an ax cutting down a tree). Identifying and treating the cause of the condition, and not only the symptom, is crucial. If a baby is crying because the mother has insufficient milk, it doesn't make sense to just treat the baby.


In a shiatsu session, the receiver lies on a pad on the floor, fully clothed. No lotions or oils are used. The goal of a shiatsu session is to create balance in the flow of chi through the meridians. Major traumatic events, as well as the stresses of everyday life may create blockages causing an imbalance in the chi flow. The practitioner first reads the energy flow in each meridian by feeling with the palms the different areas of the hara (abdominal area), then decides which meridians are most kyo (depleted energy) and which are most jitsu (excess energy). The practitioner then chooses several meridians to focus on during the course of the session.

Pressure is applied to certain meridians, and some joints are stretched. Some tsubos (points) are worked on quickly, while others may be held for a longer period of time, depending on how the energy is felt. The receiver may feel a sense of calmness and relaxation during the session. Afterwards, he or she should rest for a few minutes before getting up. Some people may feel sleepy and relaxed, while others may feel energetic. Some may be processing reactions for a while.

Shiatsu is a wonderful and enjoyable way to keep your body, mind and spirit clear and grounded, and to keep your energy flowing freely through your meridians, as well as alleviate pain.



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