Shiatsu: between body and mind by Liliana Atz

If you do not expect the unexpected, you will never know the truth. (Heraclitus)

Shiatsu, a Japanese manual technique, based on pressures brought to the energy meridians and/or acupuncture points with the thumbs, palms, elbows, and, in some styles with the knuckles, knees, and feet, belongs to the tradition of Eastern medico-philosophical disciplines. Although it is thought to derive from acupuncture it is likely to predate even the latter.In Japan, ancient Chinese techniques, from which Shiatsu is derived, were assimilated and adapted to the local cultural context. The Japanese devoted themselves to Chinese medicine with an artistic attitude; refining their creative vigor they took their techniques to the highest formal sophistication.

In fact, the ability to reduce, analyze and refine is the prerogative of the Japanese approach, just as the creative impetus is characteristic of the Chinese. The recent history of Shiatsu is connected to the name of Shizuto Masunaga, a professor of psychology at Tokyo University whose sincere interest in Traditional Chinese Medicine led him to study ancient original scriptures. Masunaga graduated from Namikoshi’s school, where he taught for several years. Here he began to integrate psychology with orthodox Shiatsu practice, the study of ancient texts and modern Western interpretation of physiology.

Over the past three decades many representatives of various Shiatsu currents, have begun teaching, each according to their own orientation, creating great ferment in the field, especially in the West. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is an ancient discipline of seeking health and harmony through energetic balancing of the body-mind. It is a medicine of Blows (energy, Qi), the art of restoring the functional balance of exchanges between different Qi. The object of this energy medicine is the regulation of man’s constituent and animating energy within the constituent and animating Breaths of the universe. What has come down to us is the result of the integration and systematization, in the course of its evolution, of the different philosophies with which it came into contact, especially Confucianism and Taoism. This tradition regards the universe as an energy field, the result of the perfect interaction of the two basic cosmic principles: Yin/Yang. There is a holistic, analog view of the human being, according to which health and well-being are the consequence of the psychological, energetic, physiological, and spiritual balance of the individual.

The observation and cataloging of correspondences has led, over the millennia, to the assumption of an exhaustive knowledge of reality, where what happens in the macrocosm happens in a small way–by analogy–in the human microcosm.

Through understanding the cosmos, the universe and nature, one comes, for Taoism, to self-understanding, to one’s individual growth. There is no dichotomy of good/evil, right/wrong. Opposites become equivalent aspects of the same reality/phenomenon, encompassing them within itself. The concentration of attention should be directed toward the observation of nature and its manifestations, which alone enables one to recognize the characteristics of the Dao. And it is nature that suggests the idea of Yin/Yang, the constituent polarities of the Tao symbol, which represents the most important and characteristic concept of Taoism. The observation of the cyclic alternation of day and night is symbolically related to the shadowy and sunny sides of a hill, a single reality that carries both shadow and light, the universally conjoined opposites that eternally chase and alternate each other. Any physical or psychic symptom, therefore, is not a sign of a localized condition, but is a telltale sign of an imbalance in the organism as a whole. TCM does not follow the modern trend of dismemberment of individual components in pursuit of the ever smaller, losing sight of the purpose, the unity, that is, man and his psychophysical balance.

Embedded in the macrocosm, humans are also powered by the same flow of vital energy, Qi (Breaths), which flows within the body along the network of meridians, the invisible channels that form the connecting system between organs and vital functions.

Qi is a kind of rarefied fluid that can be condensed to form a substance; it is the product of the interaction of Yin/Yang and forms the basis of the world of phenomena. In the human body it is the principle that moves, warms and protects against external influences. On a psychological level, its free flow allows us to change states, to alternate between different emotions, moving from work to pleasure, from activity to rest.

For TCM, health and physical well-being are, therefore, the natural consequence of the harmonious circulation of Qi, while its imbalances promote the onset of disease.

On this philosophical foundation were grafted Japanese studies that refined the original techniques imported from China, creating an autonomous style that is improperly referred to as “massage.” Shiatsu, in fact has been characterized since its inception, by the static nature of the pressure applied, which enters perpendicular to the surface of the body. The pressures enter deeply without slipping over the skin and produce a stimulus to which the person’s organism responds, recovering and manifesting its vital resources “from deep within.” This results in a renewed feeling of mental and physical well-being.

This is possible because our skin, which has the same embryological origin as the nervous system, is capable of receiving stimuli from the external environment, making them communicate with the interior, sifting and filtering the messages received, transmitting them through the network of meridians and the afferent nervous system, and facilitating the reconstruction of the balance of vital energy, Qi, which “spurs” the whole psycho-neuro-endocrinoimmune supersystem.

The diagnosis, which is typically oriental, makes it possible to extract information about the energy state of the human body through observation of the physique, habits, manner of movement and speech, as well as the choices the person makes.

According to ancient Chinese theories, the universe consists of five primordial elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Each element is energetically connected to an organ and viscera of the human body (see table). When energy circulates in the meridians without hindrance, the organism is healthy in all aspects; if, however, due to an external cause (cold, virus, etc…), or internal cause (stress, strong emotions, etc…), or rather the combination of the two, one type of force is used too much or too little, an imbalance is produced that manifests externally with both psychic and physical symptoms.

The therapist must always keep in mind the interdependent relationships between organs and functions of the body, emotions, climatic, environmental and seasonal situations. Experimental research in modern Western medicine has shown and confirmed that meridians consist of invisible currents of electromagnetic energy, circulating deep between muscles and bones, that is, in the hypodermis and the loose connective tissue.

They are governed by precise biophysical conditions; the loose connective infiltrates everywhere and is the most electroconductive tissue because it is the richest in water and salts. Energy (Qi) is electromagnetic in nature. Today it is thought to emanate from internal tissues where it is produced by cell polarization-depolarization.

Over the past two decades, Psychoneuroendocrinoimmunology (PNEI), the result of the interdisciplinary work of neurophysiologists, immunologists, and endocrinologists, has highlighted the links between the brain, the endocrine system, and the immune system. PNEI is the new science that tells how the mind and body communicate and regulate the balance of our body and our well-being. According to the most recent studies, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, Yang/Yin for Eastern culture, work in an integrated way, through a hormonal dialogue based on neuropeptides, cytokines to other active substances, powerfully influencing the activity of the immune system.

Once again, ancient Eastern medicine finds a scientific match in the West. And it is increasingly clear, how holistic physical therapies, among which Shiatsu stands out, assume a prominent role in maintaining and restoring the well-being of the body and
Of the mind.

Tao: It is the eternal, essential and fundamental force that flows through all matter in the Universe.
It is usually associated with Daoism, but Confucianism also refers to it.

: current of thought that states how the functional summation of parts is always greater
and different from the sum of the capacities of the parts taken individually.


  • Elements of Traditional Chinese Medicine – J.Schatz, C. Larre, E. Rochat De La Vallèe – Jaca Book
  • Psychosomatic shiatsu. Between body and emotions – G. Zanella – Ed. New Techniques
  • Shiatsu Do. The way of Shiatsu – C. Parolin et al. – Ed. Luni
  • The Book of Traditional Chinese Medicine- Carlo Moiraghi – Fabbri edizioni
  • Vital Energy Qi and Tuina – Franco Caspani – Semizzi – A Oriente n. 2 – September 2003
  • Shiatsu Theory and Practice – Carola Beresford Cook – ed. Utet

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