Ten years ago, following the recommendation of a friend, Emma Michael went to her first Shiatsu therapy session. Unsure what to expect, the treatment changed the course of her life forever, leading her along a path of self-discovery, healing and personal growth. Today Emma has stopped “being selfish with Shiatsu,” and is using her innate ability to feel energy imbalances within the body as a full-time Shiatsu practitioner and supporting her clients on their own journeys. We speak to Emma to find out more about this ancient holistic therapy.
What exactly is Shiatsu and how does it differ from other types of massage?
Shiatsu is a fully clothed, full body therapy traditionally practiced on a futon on the floor. The practice was refined in Japan with roots in Chinese medicine. Archeologists have found stone acupuncture needles in Chinese graves dating as far back as 7000 years old. To be able to use acupuncture to find the pressure points you have to be palpate, so there has been a practice of palpating –which is the continuous touching and pressing technique used in Shiatsu – for centuries.
It differs from other forms of massage because it is not actually a massage, it is instead a therapy, and every treatment is different. You can come for a specific ailment, or for something physical, emotional or mentally based. I use the body as a diagnosis to treat the patient. The fundamental basis of it is that all conditions, ailments, or disharmonies are a sign that the energy within your body is out of balance. Shiatsu takes that basic point of view and applies other therapies such as Chinese medicine and also western therapies like cranial sacral therapy, physiotherapy and osteopathy to harmonize the imbalance in the system.
What led you to Shiatsu and were you always interested in holistic therapies?
It started with yoga really. I started practicing yoga regularly about 17 years ago. Although it is a physical thing and it makes you feel good, yoga also works with the energy systems -so once you start getting interested in the philosophy of it, you realize there is something else going on.
At University I had some stomach problems and normal western techniques weren’t working. I decided to visit a herbalist and that quickly resolved it. It was this that led me into the more esoteric side of things like the properties and energies of plants.
Also I have always liked touch. I’ve been interested in massage ever since I was little. First I did an Indian head massage course and then I went to Thailand and did a Thai massage course. After a recommendation from a friend, I went and got a Shiatsu treatment and I remember the woman was doing something to my feet and she asked me if I had had a cold recently. I was amazed that she knew from touching my feet that I had had a cold! I was so interested that I went for a weekend course, and then I went for a three month course and then I just continued with it. Shiatsu has now been part of my life for the past ten years.
How does an average Shiatsu treatment session go?
A session usually lasts around an hour. In the first session I do a case study. I ask why you came for Shiatsu and about your lifestyle, what you do, what you eat and how you sleep. I’m basically trying to put together who you are and what is going on; to identify what are the things that need supporting and are out of balance. People who come to Shiatsu are usually stressed or there is something specific physically or emotionally that they want to deal with.
Following the case study I get the person to lie down front up and I palpate the stomach and intestine area from the ribs down to the pelvis, in Japan this area is called the hara and the hara is where all the 12 meridians go through. I am using my technique and my ability to feel energy, to feel which one feels the weakest or most empty, and which one feels the fullest. I use the most lacking and the most full as my diagnosis also drawing on the case study to find out why that energy is out of balance. Then I will treat those meridians.
I use my thumbs, my hands, my elbows and my knees sometimes to touch the body. There is always a connection between me and the client and I am always supporting them.
How does the recipient benefit from this kind of treatment?
They benefit from it because what Shiatsu does is it treats the energy below that pain so that the problem doesn’t come back. The treatment is subtler so it might take more sessions, but you get a longer term difference. If you have a massage, you feel relaxed, but then if you continue with your lifestyle and you don’t adjust then the problem simply repeats itself.
Being based on the concept of moving energy around the body are there some types of problems where Shiatsu can’t help or certain ailments where it can help more so than others?
Since Shiatsu both works with the energy system and is also capable of switching off the nervous system, which ultimately allows your immune system to function properly, I would say that everyone can benefit from Shiatsu. It’s really about adapting the treatment to suit the client. If someone comes in and is very fragile you don’t go in using your elbows, you instead use a more delicate touch. On the other hand if you get a rugby player as a client a simple touch might not even be felt.
You talk about shifting energy in the body, what exactly do you mean by this?
You have to start with the acceptance that energy exists, after that it’s quite a logical science. Everything is energy, potential energy, actual energy or kinetic energy, and everything has a vibration. What you are taught with Shiatsu is how to touch that energy and how to feel it. In Chinese medicine everything can be categorized into five different elements: wood, water, fire, earth and metal. The Chinese looked at the seasons, when things grew and when people felt most energized during the day. Wood energy for example is related to spring because everything is uprising and there is therefore flexibility within nature. If someone comes to me with stiffness, feeling stuck and frustrated in life, it sounds like wood out of balance, they’re not being flexible, not moving, not feeling creative or productive. They have stiffness in their joints, they might feel frustrated, angry and unable to make decisions.
With Shiatsu you learn how to feel the difference between the types of energy and you learn to trust yourself in boosting someone’s energy or dispersing it. If someone has a lot of tension or is very stuck you would disperse their energy, or if someone is lacking in energy, exhausted or emotional you learn to feed it.
Alternative medicine and holistic or energy therapies often follow a theory that ailments in the physical body are caused by past traumas, issues or stored memories and emotions. What are your thoughts on this matter and how does Shiatsu fit in with this belief system?
When something traumatic happens to you, if you don’t release it, then you are going to hold onto it psychologically and it is going to affect you. Shiatsu believes that trauma is not just stored in the psyche but also somewhere in the physical body. We are holistic so everything relates to each other. If something is physical, it is also energetic and emotional, and if you don’t deal with the trauma than it is just going to build up. In Shiatsu you work with the body to help the mind.
Additionally, if you fall over and break a bone, you might have stored some fear and shock in there and that may make you cautious, affecting the way you move. Shiatsu can work on letting go of the fear that you are holding onto.
Solutions for many mental health issues today are often short term, using medication rather than really getting to the roots of the problem, what are your personal thought on this matter?
My personal thoughts stem from my personal experiences; I studied psychology and worked as a psychotherapist. I also worked in a mental health centre so I know how ill people can get. I’ve seen and I understand why someone who is dangerous to themselves and others may need drugs to manage their condition. But for the most part, as humans we will have difficult times. Life isn’t always easy and often we need support in dealing with it. If you are working with a medical system that can’t afford to give, or recommend a therapy that could help then I can understand why a Doctor would give someone pills to make them feel better, and I think a lot of people would actually want that. Personally I would recommend that for you to really sort out what is happening in your life, you need to take responsibility and accept the way life is.
Thank you so much for your time Emma, we really appreciate you doing this interview for Collective Evolution!
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