Shiatsu, as a form of bodywork for humans, emerged from Japan in the early 20th century. The therapy became popular in the West in the early 1970’s with the development of equine shiatsu occurring in the early 1990’s.
What is Shiatsu
Shiatsu literally means Shi “finger” atsu “pressure” and is based on the same principles as acupuncture and acupressure. The application of pressure from fingers, thumbs, palms and elbows along with gentle stretches and rotations helps to stimulate the body’s natural healing ability.
The theoretical basis of shiatsu lies in traditional Oriental Medicine where the health and wellbeing of the individual is dependent upon the smooth flow of energy (“Ki”, Japanese or “Chi”, Chinese) around the body. Energy flows to the internal organs, muscles and tissues via channels, or “meridians”, similar to the body’s circulatory and nervous systems. Along these channels are points where the energy can be more readily accessed and stimulated.
Meridians link both to the internal organs and a wide range of physical and psychological functions. For example, the bladder meridian impacts directly on the urinary system but can also affect the autonomic nervous system, bones and teeth, plus on a psychological level, fear and stamina. Stimulation of the meridians and points can therefore directly affect the organs and body systems.
A smooth flow of energy is considered vital to maintaining health. Disruptions to the flow of energy will cause an imbalance which manifests as pain, discomfort or the symptoms of illness and disease. Both internal and external factors along with accident and trauma can affect the energetic balance.
Internal or emotional factors such as fear, anxiety or anger, when seen in excess over a prolonged period, will disrupt the energetic flow. External or environmental factors such as wind, cold, heat and damp can invade the body and upset the energetic balance. How often have you sat in a draught and had a stiff neck the following day? Other factors affecting the health of an individual include their basic constitution, diet, exercise and living conditions.
Effects of Equine Shiatsu
Shiatsu can have a profound effect on the body and is known to stimulate the body’s own natural healing ability, but how?
Firstly shiatsu affects the circulatory and lymphatic systems. Perpendicular pressure is applied to points on the meridians using parts of the hands and elbows. The level of pressure should be enough to connect with the energy in the meridian. Too much pressure can induce a pain response from the body and too little pressure can be irritating and ineffective. When pressure is applied to the skin the blood flow in the capillaries is disrupted. Once the pressure is removed the blood rushes back to the area increasing circulation and aiding lymphatic drainage. Try this yourself – using your thumb apply pressure to a spot on your arm for up to 30 seconds. When you remove the pressure a pale area of skin marks the position of your thumb. The change in skin colour occurs because of the disturbance of the blood flow, the skin quickly returns to its normal colour as blood flow is restored to the area.
Additionally, circulation is improved by any stroking or effleurage performed as part of the shiatsu session. A rise in tissue temperature is known to occur after effleurage, due to the thermal regulating mechanism. Circulatory flow is enhanced as the horse’s body restores the temperature balance. Shiatsu can also help with pain reduction by stimulating the release of the body’s natural pain suppressing chemicals – endorphins.
Finally shiatsu can also affect the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is responsible for controlling most of the internal organs in the body. There are two divisions of the ANS which work together to govern the horses’ response to its surroundings. The sympathetic system is responsible for the fight or flight response of the horse, where the body is geared up to react – heart rate and respiratory rate increase as digestive functions slow. The parasympathetic system reverses the effect of the sympathetic system, so reducing heart and respiratory rates and increasing digestive function, inducing a calm and relaxed state. Shiatsu enhances the activities of the parasympathetic system promoting relaxation and calmness.
Benefits of Equine Shiatsu
In common with many other equine therapies Equine Shiatsu cannot diagnose conditions or diseases. Equine Shiatsu should not replace veterinary treatment and veterinary permission is always requested prior to an Equine Shiatsu practitioner undertaking a session.
The health and performance of the competition horse is critical and often difficult to maintain. Pre and post competition sessions can be used to relaxed the horse and address any physical issues or injuries that may have arisen during training or in competition.
Maintaining the health and wellbeing of the non-competitive horse is equally important. Equine shiatsu can be used for general relaxation or to help a wide variety of conditions such as:- respiratory problems and COPD, back pain, hormonal problems, digestive problems, skin conditions, arthritic conditions, joint pain, mobility issues, muscular tension and laminitis.
Finally, as owners we lavish so much time and money on the health of our horses and ponies that we often forget about our own health. Most equine practitioners also practise human shiatsu so why not feel the benefits by booking a session for yourself. Significant improvements can be seen in the horse when addressing the horse and rider combination as problems in the horse can originate from the rider‘s own physical imbalances.
If you wish to find out who your local practitioner is The Equine Shiatsu Association (www.equineshiatsu.org) maintains a list of registered practitioners for the UK. The Shiatsu Society (www.shiatsu.org) has the equivalent list for human shiatsu practitioners.