What puts the "zen" in Zen Shiatsu?

On hearing the word “shiatsu,” most people either give me a blank stare or grimace a bit, no doubt conjuring images and/or sensations of incredibly painful to almost unbearable pressure that digs into specific points throughout the body.  After seeing their discomfort, I assure them that that no, that is not what I do.  


Shiatsu, simply meaning “finger pressure” (although often palms, elbows, forearms, knees and feet are also used when appropriate), is a Japanese style of massage that affects the body’s chi or “energy.”  There are many types of shiatsu these days but there are two main styles that form the foundation of modern shiatsu.  The first is Namikoshi Shiatsu, after the founder, Tokujiro Namikoshi.  This method focuses the use of pressure on specific pressure points of the body.  It is often described as “vigorous” as much as it is efffective in treating an assortment of conditions from physical pain to insomnia to menstrual pain and constipation.  In my experience, if people have a basic familiarity with shiatsu, this is the style that comes to mind.  


Zen Shiatsu was founded by Shizuto Masunaga, a student of Namikoshi who studied psychology concurrently with developing his shiatsu practice and theoretical model.  The main difference of Zen Shiatsu is that the focus is on the meridian system rather than the points alone.  Masunaga defined meridians as “channels of living magnetic energy in the body.” If there is a blockage in one of the channels or pathways, the result will manifest as some kind of dysfunction; physical, mental, emotional or spiritual.  In Zen Shiatsu we look for the kyo meridians, the channels that have the greatest need for chi- the ones that feel hollow and weak, and the jitsu meridians, the pathways that feel full and active.  A Zen shiatsu session amounts to finding the kyo and jitsu meridians and bringing them back into balance.  Because of this, at times a session may be more gentle and nourishing to give energy to the kyo and other times it may be more of a clearing and purging to release the energy of the jitsu.  Most often, both aspects are incorporated into one session..


While classical shiatsu can sometimes feel mechanical, clinical and painful, Zen Shiatsu is ideally an experience in Zen for both the giver and the receiver.  It is an opportunity to discover and intuit the body’s own natural healing power.  Masanuga integrated shiatsu with Chinese medicine theories including taoist philosophy; the foundational principle of yin and yang, and five element theory; the balance of the elements of earth, metal, water, wood and fire in the body. The theory behind Zen Shiatsu sets it apart from other styles that operate based on technique alone.   


In my experience as both a giver and a reciever, Zen Shiatsu has been by far the most profound, advanced and holistic system of therapy I have encountered.  Imagine being able to access the code that underlies the physical, mental, emotional and spritual functioning of a person.  I believe Zen Shiatsu works in the same way meditation does to invite both practitioner and reciever into their natural state of wholeness and well-being, the place where healing happens.