Home - T Singapore

What Exactly Is Shiatsu Massage?

By Guan Tan

 
Carolyn Cheng
 

We were in a conversation about the recent trend of alternative medicine. 33-year-old massage therapist Geonalin Barroa agrees that she has seen many regulars turn to massage for minor ailments such as low immunity, frequent bouts of cold or flu, irritable bowel syndrome, acid reflux and indigestion. But to her, massage is not a newfangled method of alternative medicine. "It's the original medicine," she exclaims. 

Long before Western medicine descended, Asian cultures had their individual massage techniques. These therapy sessions were often coupled with herbal concoctions, Barroa adds. The ancient school of Shiatsu massage was one of them. 

"In Shiatsu, 'Shi' is finger, and 'atsu' is pressure," Barroa explains. There are 12 Meridian lines that run throughout our bodies. "Each one corresponds to an organ... Shiatsu believes that [the] Meridian is the flow of our energy." When points on any of the lines are blocked, the individual suffers from health ailments. "Shiatsu is about releasing the blockages. That's the theory behind Shiatsu." 

Carolyn ChengThe ancient method of Shiatsu massage stresses on a slow, rhythmic, finger press technique.
The ancient method of Shiatsu massage stresses on a slow, rhythmic, finger press technique.

That being said, Barroa explains that there is no salient health problem that Shiatsu addresses. It all boils down to the needs of the individual. Quite like a doctor's appointment that we are familiar with, the session begins with a consultation. Therapists like Barroa will start pressing on acupoints from the back, then to the arms and legs, before working on what the Japanese believe is the origin of life – the belly. Along the way, she will invest more time on the problematic areas pointed out earlier. The therapy session is oil-free, and clients are fully clothed. 

There are no kneading or gliding. Shiatsu focusses on a rhythmic finger pressure technique. Barroa presses on acupoints located along all 12 Meridian lines. But it's not all work for the therapist only. The receiver has to harmonise with the giver. "Inhale [first]. When I press down you exhale. When I release you inhale." The idea behind this, Barroa explains, is that muscles contract when one inhales. Muscles relax when one exhales, which allows the therapist to feel the acupoints accurately. 

Carolyn ChengThe Shiatsu school of thought believes that there are 12 Merdian lines running through the body. Each line corresponds to an organ.
The Shiatsu school of thought believes that there are 12 Merdian lines running through the body. Each line corresponds to an organ.

Experienced Shiatsu practitioners like Barroa will know when there's a knotted acupoint. According to her, it will either feel rubbery or spongy. It's surprising, but she is able to differentiate a straightforward case of muscle soreness from a problematic, blocked acupoint – highlighting an issue with the related organ.

Barroa's heightened sense of touch comes from a decade-long career. To her, the best therapists are the blind. Shiatsu in the past was exclusively practised by blind therapists. "Shiatsu was first introduced to the blind. The first massage therapists [were] blind. You see, when I trained... I got to train with blind masseurs." Although it was a very slow, rhythmic session, Barroa remembers she was so impressed by their techniques.  

It all makes a Shiatsu treatment a very revealing hour for the customers. Along the way, while Barroa is working on my legs, down the liver Merdian line, she will drop little remarks such as, "Eating too much spicy food is not good for the liver. Also, drinking." I gasped a little, wondering what else will she uncover about my lifestyle. "You sit a lot, your lower back is very stiff. Oh, you have mild scoliosis. You carry your bag on your left-hand side?" 

Carolyn ChengA simple way to destress according to Shiatsu. From the hairline, press on six acupoints leading to the crown of one's head.
A simple way to destress according to Shiatsu. From the hairline, press on six acupoints leading to the crown of one's head.

At the end of a Shiatsu treatment is yet another consultation. Over a cup of tea and biscuits, Barroa dishes out some minor dietary, posture, and lifestyle advice. She then demonstrates some small Shiatsu massages that individuals can do at home. For us who are always on our laptops and mobile phones, she recommends a simple method to remove stress and anxiety. From the middle of the hairline, directly above the nose bridge, there are six acupoints leading into the crown of the head. Slowly, rhythmically, press on all six points. It should relieve some stress, and encourage sleep. 

A Shiatsu session with Barroa does, to some extent, feel like a doctor's appointment. Although Barroa repeatedly stresses that Shiatsu is not scientifically proven by Western medicine to boost any health benefits, it does have a lengthy history in Japan. And for it to sustain for a thousand years, it must be working. 

Geonalin Barroa is a Shiatsu therapist at Ikeda Spa Prestige, 6 Eu Tong Sen Street, The Central.

T magazine

T: The New York Times Style Magazine Singapore's best videos: digital house tours from around the world, behind-the-scenes looks at cover shoots and more.