Your fingers automatically reach for your temples when a headache comes on; your hands move down to your belly after a big meal. This instinct to hold or press places on the body that hurt or don’t feel right is the foundation of shiatsu, a Japanese bodywork that translates as “finger pressure” and is also known as acupressure.
Shiatsu starts from the belief that we humans are equipped to heal ourselves, sometimes with a little help from our friends. In Japan, the discipline evolved over hundreds of years as a household ritual, a way for family members to connect, relax, and maintain good health. Parents, especially, used this bodywork to bond with their children. In the 20th century, shiatsu was formalized as a healing art and brought to the U.S. by various masters.
Traditional Chinese medicine, the conceptual framework for shiatsu, holds that the body’s vital energy, or “chi,” when flowing normally, supports healthy functioning of both mind and body. Stress and other lifestyle problems can cause chi to stagnate and, like a highway traffic jam, eventually throw the whole system out of whack. Enter the shiatsu practitioner, who applies pressure at key points along the body’s energy meridians with bare hands, knees, elbows, and sometimes feet, balancing energy flows and releasing tension. These are the same pressure points that would be used in acupuncture. Many common discomforts, such as migraines, menstrual pain, insomnia, digestive disorders, fatigue, and arthritis, as well as mood disorders like anxiety and depression, begin to resolve themselves when stuck chi gets a move on.
If you suffer from New York City’s award-winning brand of stress—neck and back tension from our perpetually hectic pace—shiatsu can help. Show up at a practitioner’s office wearing loose, comfortable clothing. You’ll be asked to lie on a soft mat on the floor. Forget the scented oils and Enya soundtrack—unless you’re at a spa, we’re talking no-frills therapeutic touch. The “giver” crawls around the body, sometimes leaning in to apply pressure, sometimes giving a gentle stretch or joint rotation. To an observer it looks like a slow, peaceful dance.
In Chinatown, you’ll see as many storefront windows advertising shiatsu as displaying roasted ducks. A number of therapists working in this neighborhood were trained in East Asia and are truly gifted, so if you hear a good recommendation or are willing to try your luck, go get your bargain healing. Otherwise, contact the Ohashi Institute (800-810-4190, ohashiatsu.org) and let the staff there help you choose from over 50 caring and well-trained experts practicing in the metropolitan area (starting at $75 for a one-hour session). Downtown denizens can try Herbal World Inc. (75 Nassau Street, 212-385-4973) for reasonably priced and skilled shiatsu ($55 an hour, or drop in for a shorter period: Increments of 15 minutes are available). Bring some extra cash, though, as you might be tempted to buy Chinese medicinal herbs or sign up for an acupuncture treatment on your way out. For midtown locations, a more spa-like atmosphere, and bigger price tags—$70 to $80 an hour—visit Salon de Tokyo (200 West 57th Street, room 1308, 212-582-2132) or Spa Sol (4 West 33rd Street, 212-564-2100, spasol.com). The Open Center in Soho (83 Spring Street, 212-274-1829) offers professional shiatsu sessions at $65 an hour, but if you don’t specifically request traditional shiatsu, you will receive what is essentially a Swedish massage with some pressure-point work mixed in. Purists complain that this combination disrupts the flow of the session by engaging the mind (“When’s he gonna stop pressing my toe and get back to rubbing my shoulders?”).
Giving shiatsu is not a selfless act—both giver and receiver walk away with a smile and a sense of peace. At the Ohashi Institute, where for 30 years the owner and his cohorts have been teaching a meditative and nurturing form called Ohashiatsu, you can learn how to relax and revitalize a lucky friend. While studying to serve others, you will also gain insights into the workings of your own mind and body, and the Zen teachings that are sprinkled into each lesson will likely shift your perspective on life. Plenty of professional massage therapists find their way to Ohashiatsu, often with a desire to improve their own posture and learn correct body mechanics that will help them avoid burnout. The Ohashi Institute, which has many locations, will be holding free introductory workshops this winter: December 18 at 2 p.m. at 211 Smith Street in Brooklyn, and January 12 at 6 p.m. and January 15 at 11 a.m. at 147 West 25th Street. Tuition discounts are available to those who register for a Beginning I class (10 weekly sessions or two intensive weekends, usually $450) during the workshop. Work-study exchanges are available, and enrolled students can attend weekly practice sessions.
Another beginner’s shiatsu course will be offered at the Open Center on six Wednesday evenings starting April 6 ($200), with a free introductory workshop March 30 (contact the Open Center for details). Marianne Fuenmayor, the instructor there, also teaches continuation courses geared toward working with family members and friends at the Motherhand Society, a cozy and tranquil shiatsu and acupuncture studio (51 West 14th Street, suite 3F, 212-929-6390, geocities.com/motherhandsociety/index.html).
Interested in a more immersive experience away from the city? Consider a five-day shiatsu intensive at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Lenox, Massachusetts (888-738-1822, kripalu.org), from March 27 to April 1 ($345 tuition, plus five-night accommodations at $260 and up). Kripalu is a retreat and holistic-health education center that sits in the beautiful Berkshire Hills, a three-hour drive north of the city. This course, taught by gifted shiatsu and Thai bodyworker Ken Nelson, is part of the formal bodywork training program at Kripalu and is also open to other interested individuals. With two yoga classes per day (optional), a week at Kripalu could limber you up for some expert shiatsu moves.
Those who take the time to learn the principles of shiatsu, in addition to bringing better health and relaxation to those they touch, will be carrying self-shiatsu tactics in their pocket at all times. Do you know the best place to press on your own body to calm your nerves before (or during) an important meeting? Hint: The hands hold this and many other secrets.
Bodywork books make excellent holiday gifts, especially if a real-life shiatsu course isn’t in the budget this year. Here are some titles that will get your loved ones purring:
Acu-Cat: A Guide to Feline Acupressure by Nancy Zidonis and Amy Snow ($23.95, redwingbooks.com/products/books/AcuCatGuiFel.cfm)
Learn the meridian chart of a cat’s body and start giving treatments to your favorite pet.
Acupressure for Emotional Healing by Michael Reed Gach and Beth Ann Henning (320 pp., $20, randomhouse.com/bantamdell/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=0553382438)
Great self-care resource for learning how to treat insomnia, nightmares, phobias, depression, and other common symptoms that result from emotional trauma or distress. Includes short routines, acupressure points, exercises, dietary suggestions, and spoken affirmations.
Acupressure for Lovers by Michael Gach ($18.95, redwingbooks.com/products/books/AcuLovGac.cfm)
All thumbs when it comes to lovemaking? Maybe you can use it to your advantage . . .
Book of Shiatsu—A Complete Guide by Paul Lundberg ($15.00, redwingbooks.com/products/books/BooShiLun.cfm)
Thick and beautifully illustrated—just flipping through the photos will relax you.