Shiatsu is a wonderful tool for every massage therapist’s toolbox. Whether one chooses to incorporate specific shiatsu techniques or stretches, the knowledge of meridian locations, or simply an awareness of the theory of the five elements, shiatsu can add to any massage practice.


Shiatsu is Good for the Practitioner

The Chinese character for shiatsu is a picture of two people leaning on each other. The practice of shiatsu teaches reciprocity, or the ability to receive as one gives. Practicing this principle alone can increase the longevity of a massage career by many years.

Shiatsu is also traditionally practiced on a mat on the floor. This enables the practitioner to use the power of leverage. It also keeps the therapist limber and flexible. Giving a treatment is always an opportunity to stretch, breathe and practice self-care.


Five Element Shiatsu

The practice of Five Element Shiatsu is unique among massage modalities, because of its reflective connection to the natural world. It recognizes that we humans are the microcosm reflecting the macrocosm, or the world in which we live. We are made up of the same basic elements as Earth itself: water, wood, fire, earth and metal. Just as the earth is made up of 78 percent water, so are we. Just as the seasons change around us, they change within us. We are reborn with hope in the spring, and like the trees around us, we let go in the fall.

Shiatsu theory has its roots in Chinese medicine, with a strong emphasis on the five elements. From the Tao came the two fundamental forces of the universe, yin and yang. The two were further broken down into the five phases of energy, known as the five elements; from the five emerge the 10,000 things, or everything in creation. In this view, the body is seen as a kingdom, and our organs are seen as officials in the kingdom. These officials have physical functions that often reflect our Western medical views, but they also have mental and emotional functions as well.

The five-element theory offers us a complete way to explore and understand one’s self and others in a compassionate yet impersonal way.

Each element has both natural and physical correspondences related to it. Each has a corresponding body tissue, sense organ, color, emotion, sound, and yin and yang organ. The functions of the organs, the tissues being affected, the emotional state, and the pain or discomfort felt along a meridian pathway are all indications that can point to which elements are in disharmony within. These correspondences serve as guideposts for the practitioner, indicating which organs or meridians need the most attention.

The elements and phases move through us and we them in the endless cycles of our lives, providing endless gifts. Here are some of the ways the elements manifest within and without:

Water: The water, or all fluid movements within us; moistens, bathes, hydrates and makes life possible. Water gives us the gift of flow and determination, as well as stillness and renewal. Water sinks to the deepest places in nature, as it does in us, corresponding to our bones, teeth and marrow.

Wood: The stability that wood—trees and roots—provides Earth is also within us in the strength and flexibility of our tendons and ligaments. All of the mind-body forces required to birth us into the next creation is reflected in springtime, the season of wood. Wood represents strong, yet flexible, energy rising.

Fire: Fire in the body activates the systems. The miracle of heat gets things cooking, within and without. Summertime is characterized with warmth, joy, communication, activity and growth—the garden of our lives growing in the sun. The sun outside is the heat within us. Expanding consciousness represents fire.

Earth: Earth within us is our fleshy body, the container being contained, supported and grounded by Earth. Our ability to have reciprocity, to give and receive nurturance in equal measure, to be at peace within and without are all dependent on our relationship with our mother, Earth.

Metal: The behind-the-scene structures and boundaries represent metal. It is the network left behind when all the leaves fall off, revealing beauty, precision and stark clarity. The lungs, the prime minister of the kingdom, take in the new as the large intestine, the drainer of the dregs, lets go of the old. Metal represents intake and elimination.

Each of the elements corresponds to the yin and yang organs associated with them, all functioning together to restore wellness in the body’s kingdom. Just as in nature we can see imbalances, such as flooding, landslides and forest fires, these imbalances can inhabit the body and create disharmony within.

Five Element Shiatsu provides the trained therapist with a tool to restore harmony in both the giver and receiver. As balance is found within, it radiates without to the world around us. Shiatsu reminds us that we are not separate from nature, but rather an intricate part of the whole.


About the Authors

Dagny Alexander and Mary CrinninMary Crinnin, L.M.T. (right), and Dagny Alexander, L.M.T., R.Y.T. (left), have been the principal instructors of the Shiatsu course at The Center For Natural Wellness School of Massage Therapy (CNWSMT) in Albany, New York, since 2000. Alexander’s practice integrates classical Chinese medicine and chi nei tsang. Crinnin’s work is influenced by her study of Thai massage and watsu. They offer shiatsu-related continuing education (CE) through the CNWSMT, which offers a variety of New York State-approved CE for allied health professionals. Crinnin and Alexander each run private practices and also share a four-handed shiatsu practice together in Albany.