SHIATSU ON THE TABLE
Article written by Diego Sanchez for the European Shiatsu Congress in Switzerland 2014- www.diego-sanchez.com
“If it’s not on the floor, it’s not shiatsu”. This is what I was told during my foundation training and that’s how I worked my first few years as a shiatsu practitioner. It’s the traditional way and that’s how I teach my beginner students even today, but there’s more to this art than we can imagine sometimes.
I injured my knee practicing aikido in New York City and a few months after, working as a volunteer giving shiatsu to rescue workers at Ground Zero after the 9-11 attack, my injury got seriously bad. I was due to have surgery but decided to stick to my self-shiatsu routine and eventually managed to improve. However, continuing to give shiatsu sessions on the floor was out of the question. I had recently decided to quit my former career and make a living with shiatsu, so I had to find a way to keep working. Giving shiatsu on the table seemed the only way forward.
I was lucky to have my dear teacher Pauline Sasaki beside me during this time and she helped me make the transition from the floor to the table. She had experienced back-pain in the past and had received Alexander Technique lessons from a friend of hers to help improve her posture. Out of those classes came a prolific series of discoveries about energy that ultimately led to some radical changes in her work.
Some of those discoveries are that aligning your energy in the spine, your energy field expands and seals, increasing your speed of vibration, your sense of relaxation, grounding and protection, a feeling of unification with the Universe and your surroundings and it activates your peripheral vision where energy movement can easier be seen.
The alignment of the spine as she taught it to me, gave me all that and more. It can be done while you give shiatsu both on the floor and standing, but it’s essential to do it while giving shiatsu on the table, in order to achieve the correct depth of penetration you need to access the meridians.
VERTICAL VS. HORIZONTAL
Pauline was born to Japanese parents in the United States. She lived in the US but visited Japan for long periods of time, to study with Shizuto Masunaga, Akinobu Kishi and also to be with her family.
Pauline observed that Japanese people do everything on the floor: sleep, eat, even watch TV. In the West we have a more vertical alignment of our energy and that’s why receiving shiatsu is so refreshing to Westerners: it puts you in close contact with the ground and that is in itself “grounding”. However, we have a harder time to adjust to that horizontal alignment as practitioners, especially if you are taller. As a teacher, she noticed that there was a lot of contraction happening while a Westerner tries to adapt to working on the floor and that it could be solved through postural alignment. While she was helping me re-adapt the shiatsu techniques to the table, she found it so efficient energetically, that she ended up working on the table herself from that moment on. When I shot the documentary about her work, nearly all the demonstrations we did, were on tables.
I continued taking Alexander Technique lessons in New York with several teachers. It was interesting to see that almost none had any idea about the energetic changes that the postural alignments do. Only a few, more intuitive ones seemed to grasp the concept enough to work with it. They followed other parameters linked to the physical structure of the body, but not the energetics. The technique is quite simple and consists in giving yourself some verbal instructions, like: “my head moves up towards the sky and it takes with it the cervical and the upper thoracic vertebrae”, or “my sacrum relaxes down towards the earth and takes with it the lower thoracic and lumbar vertebrae”. The idea is that you don’t “do” anything and let the body respond to that command internally. (Try it now and see what happens! First up, then down, then together at the same time).
As you align your body in this way, exploring the vertical, horizontal and diagonal axes, the energy flows freely in the spine and you get a sense of lightness and expansion, but at the same time, a feeling of groundedness.
I personally felt an enormous relief and freedom when I tried it. It changed my breathing, my capacity to release tension and I even feel the bones of my skull adjusting gently every time I do it now. When I experienced this, applied to my shiatsu, many new possibilities opened before me that greatly enhanced the efficiency of my work. My knee problem stopped being an issue when I was working upright but I also felt an enhancement of my stamina and I started to be able to see many more clients per day, without getting tired. It was as if I was using less of my own energy to work.
When you work on the floor, on your knees, you lean your body weight on the client by centering your energy in your Hara. But if you keep your center in the Hara when you are working on a table, you only have access to your bodyweight from the waist up. This doesn’t give you enough penetration on the tsubos, unless you use a very low table which forces you to continuously bend at the waist. To really be in the upright position, you have to work on a table that is fairly high. (I use the table at the height of my hips, roughly).
The real change between the floor or the table, is the internal body mechanics. By doing the Spine Alignment technique, you allow your energy to flow vertically all along your spine. This connects the center of the Hara with all the other energy centers higher up in the body, giving you more access to your own energy. It’s as if a rush of energy runs through the spine, making your energy more accessible everywhere in your body. This puts you in contact with Heaven and Earth in one move, giving yourself and your touch a sense of unification that clients feel immediately.
Although I felt a big benefit, the process of moving from the floor to the table was not as straight forward for some of my clients. In the first days, I used a table that happened to be around at the studio where I worked. It had all the attributes one might expect from a table (comfortable padding, adjustable height, etc.) and I was doing OK with it, but I had a client or two that still preferred receiving the sessions on the floor.
That made me try a lot of things, including “bringing the floor up to the table”, that is: channeling the energy of the Earth up, as if the client was completely supported by the floor but at the height I chose, or focusing on how the legs of the table were communicating the energy of the Earth up to the client, or imagining a “geyser” or “bubbling spring” of energy underneath the area of the client that needed extra support, amongst other visualizations that I still use.
It was not until I realized that it was a light creaking sound the table would do at the wooden joints that gave the clients the idea of instability. I then realized that the quality of the table is of paramount importance. I ordered a special one with my specifications (extra padding, extra wide, very firm joints, space at the head to allow my knees under the table when I sit, etc.) and never had a problem again.
EXPANSION & GROUNDING
A common misconception we have about the word “expansion” in energetic or even spiritual terms, is that when we expand, our energy moves out and up. In my opinion, that responds to a social conditioning that conceives world order and spirituality as a vertical affair. That God, or spirituality is up or elevated and we are down, “climbing up the ladder”, so anything going up is better that anything that goes down (Heaven and Hell, for example). As shiatsu practitioners we are showing people one by one, the benfits of “down” mainly as the balance against too much emphasis for sending all the energy up towards the head. Lying on the floor does the trick, but can you have the same connection with the Earth when you are standing?
I believe we are moving into a new arrangement of the energetic order, where relationships (even with God), will be played more horizontally. That doesn’t mean cancelling the vertical. It means that we need to integrate everything and that expansion is in every direction, including down. We still seem to have the idea that if we expand, we’ll tend to fly-off and lose contact with the ground, while it’s the contrary: the more we expand, the more we ground ourselves through our feet.
When you are standing, grounding is a bigger challenge than when you lay down, or kneel on the floor. The surface of contact with the ground is smaller. The alignment of the spine is what I use to open up the portals of my body to receive more energy from the Earth through my feet. The more expanded I am, the more I can connect and channel up this energy of the Earth to the rest of my body. Thinking of my feet and the image of the “Bubbling Spring” of the Kidney-1 point, helps me a lot if I need extra grounding during a session, or in my day to day life. I also use a Shamanic technique to activate the energy of my First Chakra, also called the Root Chakra, to connect with the stream of energy of the Earth up through my body, into my hands. In this way, I bring the groundedness into my touch, whatever position I, or my client, may be.
A DIFFERENT TOUCH
When I decided to pursue the idea of giving shiatsu to critical illness patients in hospitals, my training on the table was perfectly suited for the situation. Beds could not always be put at the height you’d like and climbing on a bed to use my bodyweight on the patient would cause alarm, at least, in that environment. A different approach was needed and I found many creative ways to work.
I had discovered that working in the standing position, my touch could be physically lighter but energetically stronger. I found I didn’t need to do vigorous physical
work to get results, so I also eliminated most of the stretching and rotations that were inappropriate for hospitalized patients in critical care. I stopped doing them with my healthy clients too, replacing external physical by internal energetic movement techniques, like expanding a joint from within, for example.
My posture, observed from the outside, looks a lot more static than in a regular shiatsu. I don’t do much physical movement at all, let alone the “dance” around the client we learned to do on the floor with the different katas. But there’s a lot going on internally and the speed of my hands as they contact the client body increased markedly. Centering the energy on the spine and being freed of having to lean the bodyweight in, calls for a higher speed of touch. Anyone that has seen Pauline work, would have noticed her tempo, or rythm of touch was a lot faster (Kishi used to make a joke and laugh a lot about it). I once calculated the amount of times my thumbs landed on the client’s body and it was between 3500 and 4000 times per session. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t feel frantic for the client and the sense of grounding is profound.
The relationship of Mother and Child hand changes in order to support this speed, but it does not diminish the effect of the function each hand has in this respect. The difference is that instead of having a more static Mother hand to give stability as the Child hand moves along the channel, Mother and Child hands alternate in their function rapidly. The stabilizing effect then, is achieved at a different level, by finding the right combination of tempo, depth of penetration, perpendicular penetration and energetic expansion through the alignment of the spine. This generates an energetic field between client and practitioner, that contains what is necessary for grounding while the changes are happening at a faster speed.
And changes do happen fast. Instead of doing your diagnostic and treatment and waiting to see at the end of the session what happend by comparing the Hara readings, etc., you start seeing the changes as they happen in real time. This makes you have to adjust your treatment moment to moment, as you take the response of your client in.
picture 2- Contact with fingertips
Some traditional techniques of touch are not appropriate when you are working on a table and different techniques are arising to substitute them. I mentioned joint rotations as an example, but that is optional, because you can still do almost any rotation technique on a table. What I’ve seen that doesn’t work well on the table, is the palming technique and that is a big change for most practitioners.
I’ve almost completely eradicated palming from my sessions, except when I’m working on the shoulders from a sitting position at the head of the table
and I’m facing the shoulders directly. Palming only works when you can lean your bodyweight in. If you just get your perpendicular depth of penetration from the alignment of your spine when you are standing, you’ll see that palming becomes too dense and slow a technique to use. Instead, I use extended fingers (see picture 2), making contact at the fingertips of all fingers except the thumb. It feels as deep and nurturing as palming does, but is a lot more precise and flexible technique. A softer version of this is to flex the distal and middle phalanges of the hand and make contact with the proximal interphalangeal joints on the body. (see picture 3). Thumbing works as well as in any other position.
picture 3- contact with interphalangeal joints
I think a revolution is needed in shiatsu. It’s the same for practitioners that work on the floor or the table. When I started learning shiatsu, we knew that even if we gave the “wrong” treatment, Nature, or homeostasis would redress the mistake. I believe that Humans have a lot more power over Nature now; that our minds have a lot more influence over matter, even than just 20 years ago. Our potential to do good has increased as much as our potential to do harm, so now we have a bigger responsibility in our hands. We are entering into a new relationship with Mother Earth where she demands more of us, not so much as her children, but as co-creators of a new reality. In this new reality, the power of intention or Mindset, as Pauline used to call it, has increased in importance.
I found that this energetic approach and way of working matches the time that we live in. I feel the tradition is being respected and Masunaga’s practice (maybe not the theory completely) already contained most of the information that was coming ahead. Now is the time to apply it.-
copyright Diego Sanchez 2013 / www.diego-sanchez.com