What is shiatsu?

Shiatsu is a whole-body, holistic treatment that combines massage, acupressure and stretching. The word shiatsu means 'finger pressure', and sometimes, people describe the practice of shiatsu as 'acupuncture without needles'.

Shiatsu is in fact an ancient healing-massage from Asia, and is aimed at making sure that energy or 'qi' (pronounced 'chee') flows freely around your body, along its 'meridians' or energy-paths. Life can be difficult - emotionally and physically, and takes its toll on your body, leaving 'scars' or blockages to your energy, unbalances you. Like acupuncture, shiatsu aims to unblock the 'qi', restore your body's natural balance; when your body is balanced and the energy flows freely, your general health, and self, will be well.

Shiatsu uses a range of different techniques, many of which you would find in other treatments including physiotherapy, deep tissue massage or Thai massage.

As shiatsu is a healing-massage, regular treatments should work with your body's immune system and strengthen its ability to heal itself.

What is shiatsu good for?

As with other forms of massage, shiatsu encourages your blood and lymph to flow around your body, taking oxygen to your organs and skin, helping them to release toxins and stimulating your immune system. Shiatsu also acts on the nervous system and helps you to relax. Shiatsu can relieve pain and stiffness in your muscles and joints, and help your body to release tension, which in turn means that you should sleep better and feel more relaxed within yourself.

Before you go

As with most treatments, it will probably be easier, and you will be more comfortable, if you wear loose-fitting clothes, and not too many layers.


Always avoid eating a large meal, or drinking alcohol beforehand as this may make you uncomfortable during the treatment.

You should always tell the therapist if you:

  • have any health problems, or are receiving any medical treatments or medication - this is particularly important if you have varicose veins, a heart or blood disorder, or if you have any wounds or injuries
  • are - or think you might be - pregnant

as this is liable to affect the kind of techniques they can use safely with you.

What to expect from shiatsu

Shiatsu should be given in a warm, quiet and spacious room. You and the person giving you the shiatsu treatment will both wear loose-fitting clothing that will make it easy for both of you to move freely. You will probably be asked to lie on a futon or quilted floor mat and there will be pillows and cushions around that will be used during the treatment to make you more comfortable.

Shiatsu involves massage and acupressure, as well as some assisted-stretching techniques, and it is a pretty physical process. The person giving you the treatment will guide you through the different stages so don't worry about doing 'the right thing' - the most important and useful thing that you can do is relax.

A shiatsu treatment usually lasts between 45 minutes and an hour. You will get a lot of benefit from one session; lengths of course vary - you may want as many as six sessions over several months.

Hot tip!

Always tell the therapist if you are uncomfortable or anxious about any of the movements they are doing - the treatment is for you, and they can adapt movements and pressure to what you're happy with.


Everyone reacts slightly differently to shiatsu, but you are likely to feel relaxed and calm when you have first had the treatment. Some people have quite an emotional reaction to shiatsu, as the effects can be quite dramatic - you don't always know what you've got until it's gone, and the release of tension that may have been stored in muscles for years, or the 'unlocking' of joints, can be experienced as an emotional rush.

Because shiatsu works with your immune system, it can have some very surprising effects. You may find you have a cold or cough, or some aches, pains or even a headache after your first treatment. You may feel really tired and need to sleep. You may have vivid dreams. You shouldn't think of this as a bad sign - you might want to think of it as toxins coming to the surface and being released. After a few days any odd symptoms should subside, and if you have further treatments, you will find your general health improves bit by bit.

Different kinds of shiatsu

Zen Shiatsu is one of the most commonly practised forms of shiatsu in the UK, allied to Buddhist teachings.

Watsu - simply put, watsu is shiatsu in water. A very relaxing treatment that combines the feeling of weightlessness and water resistance with shiatsu massage techniques, this is a good treatment for people with physical disabilities or who are recovering from injury. It's also recommended for people who are very anxious or have other emotional difficulties.

Courtesy of the Good Spa Guide

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