“Work smarter, not harder!” This familiar expression is what I continue to come back to time and time again as I teach massage therapists how to use their feet to provide massage therapy. This phrase is the simmered-down takeaway of my shortest possible elevator pitch I could make about the benefits of ashiatsu massage.
Ashiatsu is a Japanese word that translates to foot pressure. In this style of massage, the massage therapist stands on top of the table and uses their feet to provide the massage techniques. The therapist uses bars that are attached via hardware to the ceiling to provide support and balance.
In this fashion, the therapist is provided an incredible opportunity to hone some outstanding body mechanics, given the advantage of standing on a table.
I have been practicing ashiatsu massage for about 10 years out of my 12 years as a licensed massage therapist. I firmly believe I would not still be practicing massage if it wasn’t for finding the style of ashiatsu.
Here’s my quick backstory: My body was hurting in my first two years of full-time massage therapy work, as I was giving lots of deep tissue massage and working five days a week. My hands and forearms were tired and often a little bit strained. On top of that, my lower back was achy from leaning over a massage table to some degree. My body was calling out for a better way.
Thankfully, I found it in ashiatsu massage.
If you want to give therapeutic massage in the sense of Western-style Swedish and deep tissue massage, you’ll be providing manual therapy in some fashion. My question is: If you learn to use tools such as your arms and hands to provide manual therapy, then why not also use your feet?
With ashiatsu, it is possible for the therapist to position their body weight directly over the client’s body. With this advantage, the therapist can typically apply three to four times more pressure than they could if they were standing on the floor and attempting to lean over top of the client while applying downward pressure onto the massage table.
Not only that, the therapist can relax fully into applying their body weight from the standing position on top of the table and allow gravity to assist them in doing the work. Once the therapist has stacked their joints and is applying pressure through their foot onto the client’s body, they adjust pressure by simply leaning their hips back and forth over their working foot.
I encourage the therapist to move from their hips and to continually be aware of bringing their natural center of gravity over their working foot or feet. It can be a wonderful experience to move around the top of the table with the grace of a dancer or a tai chi practitioner while also being able to sink into strokes with three to four times more pressure than you could before.
The therapist can firm their core and straighten their spine from the sacrum up to the cervical vertebrae. This is when a therapist can truly start to appreciate the beauty of working smarter, not harder.
Strokes & Techniques
Ashiatsu can encompass a variety of strokes and techniques that range from effleurage to petrissage, to friction, and to deep tissue compressions.
The feet are very well-designed to comfortably connect with the curves and design of the human body. The broadness of the feet also makes for a comfortable tool in which to sink into large muscle groups.
I find clients have an easier time relaxing when I provide broad, compressive techniques with my foot to areas that are sometimes a bit more sensitive and jumpy in the massage experience, such as quadriceps or glute muscles. Other parts of the feet work well for smaller muscles.
For example, the heel is an excellent tool for hooking into trapezius muscles, and the toes are well-equipped to handle stripping techniques in rotator cuffs or neck muscles.
I enjoy the feedback I hear from my clients from my ashiatsu sessions. I often hear things like how good it feels to be so therapeutically worked, to have one’s muscles feel like jelly, or to hear a client feels like they have been pleasantly steamrolled. I find that clients typically go very deep in their relaxation with this style of work as well.
Typically, the nature of compression is it is very soothing to the nervous system. Using broad tools such as the feet along with the compressive force of one’s body weight is the key to providing soothing strokes that can also sink in deeply to the muscle tissue.
“But Can You Feel with Your Feet?”
People often ask how well I can feel the details of muscles through my toes and feet. The answer is extremely well. I would say sometimes I can feel the details even better than when I’m using my hands. One of the reasons for that is I can more easily sink into tight muscles or large muscles like the hamstrings or glutes, which allows me to relax my nervous system and focus on what I’m feeling.
There are some areas where the ashiatsu therapist should not use their feet, including the abdominal region, face, scalp and anterior neck muscles. Therefore, I still use my hands for bits and pieces of massage throughout each session.
I am grateful I have such a variety of tools to choose from between my arms, hands and feet. There have been times when I have had upper body injuries that would have prevented me from performing massage work until I was healed.
Thankfully, I was able to continue providing massage therapy work using my feet for the entirety of the session. It is a comfort to know I am trained with more tools to use in case I should incur another injury, whether it be to my upper body or my lower body.
Knowing ashiatsu, I know there is a greater probability I will continue to be able to provide massage sessions and continue to support my livelihood.
The Ashiatsu Career
Choosing to study Ashiatsu can absolutely be a career-changing choice. It is a very full and encompassing modality to venture into.
A beginner can choose to study techniques that are based off a stool that focus on upper back, shoulders and neck muscles. At this kind of training, a therapist can learn to use their feet to accomplish a lot of work on some key muscle areas without even having to stand on top of a table.
A therapist can continue their training through a variety of foot-based options that range from beginner techniques, advanced two-footed strokes, ashi-Thai sequences, medical massage, and portable tables with silks instead of bars.
I know we are slowly building awareness in our culture around the possibilities of receiving therapeutic and relaxation massage via barefoot massage techniques. I look forward to the day when all massage therapists are shown the possibility that their feet can be some of their main massage therapy tools.
I believe ashiatsu can be very helpful in extending the careers of massage therapists by reducing injuries and improving therapists’ physical well-being.
About the Author
Brady Preyss, LMT, has been a licensed massage therapist since 2011, and a certified instructor with DeepFeet and an NCBTMB Approved Provider since 2017. He is located in the beautiful Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina in the city of Asheville. He holds a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education from the Ohio University.