Welcome to the second interview in a series with female leaders, teachers and practitioners in the holistic therapeutic fields. These are women whose teaching has inspired me and I have been keen to learn more about their personal philosophy, experiences and the influences on their professional practice. I hope you enjoy hearing their story too! Let us know your thoughts, Nicole. For further articles by leading female practitioners visit:
Profile: Alice Whieldon, MA PhD SFHEA MRSS(T)
Alice has spent her life researching the keys to what helps in finding fulfilment and acting less from old traumas and patterns. In 1985 she came across Shiatsu and it was this work, along with the Enlightenment Intensives, that struck particularly strong chords for her. She has remained a student of both disciplines ever since.
In 1997, she also met Kishi Akinobu, internationally renowned Shiatsu master, however, in 1980, Kishi began to develop his work in a new direction called Seiki which is within the Shiatsu tradition and a development of that work. When Alice met Kishi she recognised the key she was looking for. When in 2008 Alice suggested they write a book together, Kishi was keen on the idea and Sei-ki: Life in Resonance, The Secret Art of Shiatsu was published in 2011. Kishi died in 2012 but Alice continues to work with Seiki.
She has also spent time training in and practicing Mind Clearing. Mind Clearing is based, like Seiki, on the principle that there is an essential person that is not the mind and not the body. In 2016 her book, Mind Clearing: the key to mindfulness mastery was published by Singing Dragon, London and Philadelphia.
Why did you choose to learn Shiatsu and Seiki, what brought you to the practice?
I was cooking at my father’s conference centre in 1985 when Cliff bought Pauline and Kiku there to teach a workshop. I was given a shiatsu treatment and recall never having felt so ‘touched’ before. It brought up a whole wave of emotion that, at 18, I hadn’t really known was there. And this with apparently so little. Pauline or Kiku, I forget which, told me that I had a very good hara. I had no idea what that meant but it stuck in my mind and the whole experience resulted in my determining to learn Shiatsu. It was in 1990 that I actually started my training and completed it with the Shiatsu College in 1994. But I never reconnected with that initial feeling of being touched until I met Kishi in 1997. As soon as he knelt down beside me I felt I had come home. In his touch and his presence, I recognised both that touch beyond the body as well as the openness and seeing of the mediation I had done. From that point on I worked with Kishi, until his death in 2012.
What does Seiki mean to you now, what purpose does it serve you as an individual?
It is my personal practice or discipline. Every time I work with someone it is new; an opportunity to invite understanding for myself and my client and recognise the real. It is my point of connection with others, the stone against which I form myself and the beauty of recognising others.
What is your philosophical approach to your practice – as a teacher and as a therapist? (i.e. what do you see the purpose of your healing practice in the life of the individual – why do it?)
For myself it is the above. For others I seek to recognise them and this is a moment of utter quiet and balm for both of us.
Who or what, has been the biggest influence on your path as a practitioner and why?
Kishi recognised what others are. It was a great relief to me to meet him as he understood what I understood about life. It is a great sadness that he is no longer around but he has left a powerful impression.
What significant lesson/s did one of your teachers teach you?
That surrender is the more important ‘discipline’ than discipline; that we can’t cure, only the client can do this; that shyness can be a form of arrogance; that setting aside ego, time and time again, is the only way.
With the insight you have now, what, if anything, do you wish you had known at the beginning of your journey?
Everything is in fact as it should be. But there is one thing – I wish I’d risked speaking more about my experience and not fearing so much what others might think of me.
What benefits or hindrances, if any, have you encountered as a female practitioner or noticed when teaching women?
Although there are lots of female teachers in Shiatsu, it remains male dominated. Women don’t generally get the support from partners and students that men automatically receive so it can be much harder to forge ahead as a teacher. It is harder to be recognised, unless perhaps one is working in the field of women’s health. Female students don’t put themselves forward as much as male students either.
What advice might you give to student practitioners training now?
Get the certificates if this smooths your path in life, but Seiki and Shiatsu are inner paths, so be prepared to be a student forever. Practice as you would a martial art, like Aikido. Find a teacher you want to learn from and steal everything you can from them mercilessly and without ego.
What is the next step or stage for you? What are you working on developing?
I’m seeing if it is possible and desirable to put together a Seiki training on a martial arts model which is layered rather than linear. I am also building a training and practice around Mind Clearing.
Any other reflections?
It’s a difficult path for me, but at least – and this is very important – it is interesting.
As body-based therapists, as creative people, we need to be uncompromising in our pursuit and propagation of the truth. We need to be asking ourselves some basic questions and we need to be unflinching in offering and debating answers. This is the way to our own health, the health of our clients and the health of Shiatsu.
One of these questions is simply: what do we think we’re doing? It is one we often assume we know the answer to but can rarely articulate. Indeed, I have met hostility from therapists on asking this question – I find this breathtaking. What business do we have being therapists if we are unable to approach the most basic questions about what we are setting out to do?
There are all kinds of answers that Shiatsu therapists offer, but: ‘I want to help/rescue people’ is the most common one in some form or another.
Well – you can’t help people, you can’t rescue people, you can’t make it better for people, you can’t cure them, you can’t heal them…. This is not possible and we need to understand this and know it in our hearts. You can’t change people and there is always an ulterior motive behind the desire to do so. This motive is not bad or wrong; it is simply about our own pain. I am not dismissing compassion here, but compassion is an attitude, an understanding, not a verb.
Yet health is our business. But real health is not about eating the right things and getting enough exercise and conforming to some idea of balance… this is all window dressing. Health is about becoming more ourselves in whatever twisted or serene form we are manifested in. This being the case, how can Shiatsu contribute to our health? Tricky. Yet not being able to help actually relieves us of a considerable burden and forces us to keep asking questions. Something clearly happens in Shiatsu sessions, so what is that ‘something’?
The therapy situation works in the following way: pain (in the sense of life condition perceived as problem) is blindness to how it really is. The pain condition is actually a very small thing, but, when right in front of our eyes, it appears to take up all space and we identify with it.
While no one can help us out of that condition, since it depends on our becoming conscious, what we can do is set up space in which we might recognise ourselves more and so come into a different relationship with our pain condition. In therapy, the therapist is that space, which means that the therapist must be internally spacious, a task previously left to priests – a sacred task – and no mean feat. A good therapist is a rare treasure and the space offered can be real balm to our troubled body-minds.
We need to achieve enough engaged distance from our pain condition to begin to see a wider context greater than what is, actually, an infinitesimal pain event in a universe of change. Sitting in meditation/reflection we can begin to see this.
But we are also communal and it is the reflection of ourselves in others, in particular, that helps us to become more ourselves. The therapy situation is a microcosm and an intensification of this natural process. That is why it works in any but the most fleeting sense.
Pain perceived as problem is turned in on itself, like an ingrown nail, and, when we are in the condition of pain (as we are in some way most of the time) we think that the pain takes up all or most space and that we are alone since we do not, in this state, differentiate self from world. But this is not true and if we can glimpse that this pain is only a dot in infinite space, then we can uncurl and begin to see the problem in a new light.
In the therapeutic space, the therapist takes up a consciously conscious position in relation to the other with their whole, disinterested, attention. This space is the only kind of ‘help’ that can be offered, and is an example of true compassion.
This does not mean that the therapist needs to be an enlightened being. It is
enough to choose to take up a position in relation to the other. By taking up this position one effectively says, “I am here and you are there and I am going to reflect your condition back to you”. This creates a conscious (on one side, which is all that is needed initially) subject-object situation. It intensifies, and makes manifest, the previously unrealised duality, the two of us.
Now, dualism has become a dirty word these days, everyone wants to talk about unity and the beauty of Oneness. But you can’t have unity without dualism, nor dualism without unity. They are one and the same, but we make a mistake in thereby assuming that all is unity. We, in our unconscious or semi-conscious states, can only begin by setting out to understand duality, which is the condition of human consciousness.
Otherwise it would be like being so fixed on studying the moon that we miss the fact that we see it through a telescope and so assume that the image we see is the real thing.
So, as human beings it is necessary to develop duality as a priority. As therapists this must be central to our understanding – it must drive us and commit us to rigorous self-examination.
Psychotherapy has known this for years. In that jargon, we must learn to recognise and withdraw our projections in order to become truly ourselves.
That most Shiatsu therapists have settled for less self-examination than even the most mediocre psychotherapist is unacceptable.
Asking about what we are doing is essential to developing both personally and professionally. Also, while I believe that even a flicker of understanding of the nature of the therapeutic space is enough to make a good-enough therapist (as this merest hint or sliver of a crack between watcher and watched is the beginning of space), the more internally spacious a person is, the more powerful the space they offer will be.
Duality needs to be developed because unless we are truly two (you and I), we cannot recognise one other. Unless we are truly two there can be no real relationship as there is no space between us and, as therapists, we will be fixed in a hierarchy and identity of doctor/patient. But in a relationship of two we are one and One (or three, the holy trinity of you, me and us). Yet, how do we achieve this?
The therapy situation artificially sets up this duality of you and I. The degree to which this artificial set-up collides with the reality of the duality, (i.e. the length of time and degree to which the therapist is present in that reality) dictates the powerfulness of the therapeutic space. But the mere set-up is also enough to magnify the process in the same way that cleaning a very dirty mirror just a little will nevertheless improve the reflection, though the reflection still be ever so murky. For in this situation, we choose to be subject and object, seer and seen, you and I. Here, I surrender to your gaze, to your touch. There, I see you, I touch you. So we are two and true dualism naturally unfolds into unity; one doesn’t have to try to achieve it.
As the therapist, my hand/gaze reflects your self-absorbed pain and offers your projections back to you. When we see ourselves in a mirror, we are contextualised, we become aware of our borders and so the space around us. The hand/gaze offers another viewpoint; we offer objectivity to unconscious solipsism. This is an offering of space to something that thinks it takes up all space. Like roots transferred to a larger pot, we can uncurl and recognise borders to our pain where we had thought the pain was infinite. As e.e.cummings writes so beautifully, “…open always petal by petal myself as spring opens/ (touchingly skilfully, mysteriously) her first rose”. As therapists, the best and the most we can do is be the condition of spring.
Thus we can begin to recognise ourselves. We can begin to recognise that we can have distance from our pain condition, that we are both watcher and watched. Gradually this extends to others and is helped by submitting to the therapeutic situation as patient or therapist (though there is a moral imperative on the therapist to do so consciously; this is the difference between patient and therapist). Thus, Shiatsu is a Practice or Way.
Finally, as two, we can begin to relate for perhaps the first time as “I” relating to “you” rather than me relating to my own projections in a false (because unconscious) unity of me and you. It is only when there are really two that there can be relationship and, thus, unity. Here, also, the loneliness of the unconscious condition is relieved. Where we had experienced ourselves as alone in the universe when ‘we’ were the whole of experience, now there is the possibility of relationship. So now we can be truly alone and together.
Touch therapy is particularly powerful as it also asserts the here and now of the embodied state. It concretises our experience of the world and reminds us of the physical borders between ‘me’ and world. So, while therapy is also other things such as comfort, relaxation and even medicine, central to it is the set up of you, me, us, the physical representation of dualism and the promotion of my conscious objectivity to your unconscious subjectivity with the aim of separation – which is true unity.
This is how and why therapy ‘works’, this is how and why Shiatsu ‘works’. This work is inherently radical and not for the faint-hearted. Shiatsu is not medicine and, while the language of medicine may perhaps serve us from time to time, it is a waste of time to think that this is what we are doing. There is no point in practicing unless one has at least some of this understanding; some understanding that goes beyond mere mechanics.
Mechanics are just scaffolding that might help us to appreciate a deeper reality, in which case they can be dispensed with. But this is left to chance unless teachers themselves understand the nature of therapy and, even if they don’t teach it explicitly, exude it powerfully.
Kishi by Alice Whieldon & Paul Lundberg
Paris, 1971, the ragged end of Cultural Revolution and a city raw from student protest; a backdrop of Vietnam spiralling to the inevitable crash. A tired young Japanese man emerges from the dark of Gare de L’Est after a long journey by sea and the Trans-Siberian through Russia. Clutching only a suitcase and a piece of paper with a name and address, with little English and no French, a half-completed degree in landscape architecture and the blessings of his Shiatsu masters, Namikoshi and Masunaga, to carry the torch of Shiatsu to Europe, 21 year old Kishi Akinobu (then Shinmei) takes a step into the dusty European bustle of the city of his dreams and marks the beginning of a cross-cultural love affair that would last over half a century.
On 23rd October 2012, age 63, Kishi died peacefully, at home in Maebashi, Japan, with his wife and long-time collaborator, Kyoko at his side.
It is hard to characterise Kishi. He was so much himself that he slipped through the categories that might have captured him. From the outside, his life was one of contrasts: the traditional tatami sitting room of his home next to a kitchen decorated with old Delft tiles; the Italian cashmere sweaters worn over traditional handmade hakama trousers; the Peugeot, driven fast round bends on the weekly trip to the Shinto shrine for spring water and to offer sake to the gods; sashimi and fine green tea one week, steak and chips in Aberdeen the next. The contradictions spun out, always and only, from a central clarity of purpose, discipline, practice. The touch of an angel informed by the humour of a shy man who cared too deeply about how things really are to mind what others thought for long.
Kishi began his Shiatsu training with his father aged 9, and formally in 1968 with Namikoshi, the great man having spotted the youngster at a taster class where Kishi was moonlighting from university. On entering the busy school he was immediately drawn, like everyone, to the charismatic and controversial Masunaga who taught a potent mix of philosophy and Shiatsu to packed classes. When the latter left shortly after to found the Iokai, a post-graduate college where he could further his own research unquestioned, his young acolyte tagged along.
Diligent application and obvious talent brought Kishi to the master’s attention and before long the two became a formidable team, Masunaga explaining his principles of Shiatsu and the disciple demonstrating, in classes and at conferences where Kishi, a handsome, snappily-dressed affront to solemnity, was encouraged to expound on the subject in front of the Shiatsu elite of Japan and Korea. For ten years the relationship was an important one for both of them. But the younger man finally reached a crisis in his own Way. Dedicated to mastering Shiatsu, he had worked himself to an impasse. Exhausted, he surrendered to the moment and turned his back on Shiatsu only to find it returning to him in a new form and with renewed vigour. Kishi was acknowledged by Masunaga as a master in his own right, and thus the two agreed to part company.
Calling his own approach, Seiki Soho, to honour his insight and individual approach, Kishi set out again for Europe on a mission to develop and disseminate his own Way as well as enjoy what he loved of the West, living for some years in Germany and Belgium. Right up until June 2012, when his health suddenly faltered, he developed and shared his vision in countless workshops. What grew up around him was a body of students, some from Shiatsu but still others from various walks of life, all of them appreciating, not just the transformative treatments, but recognising in Kishi’s few words and way of life, a devotion to authenticity and a ruthless compassion that touched the hearts of those who felt its gravity and wanted more.
Even when a car accident in 1983 threatened to consign him to a wheelchair, he continued his teaching in Europe, applying the practises he had developed to recover against all predictions. Marrying Kyoko in 1989 began a new and even more creative era and she increasingly travelled with him as his devoted accomplice, expanding his already extensive circuit and the demanding sequence of workshops that, though interspersed with respites in Japan, continued unabated until this summer.
As if not satisfied with this, Kishi (and later Kyoko too) also hosted an extraordinary series of extended residential workshops in Japan. Every three or four years he offered his Western students a unique opportunity to experience the many and varied manifestations of what he called Ki Culture, so linking Seiki with its roots in Shinto and the hara arts.
Kishi was sometimes a controversial figure in Shiatsu, not least for his occasionally critical words about what he saw practised in the West. In more recent years his appreciation for European practitioners led to a desire for greater unity and collaboration between the different styles, but his earlier reputation dogged the great master at times, his words still jarring for some. For others they were a wake-up call to examine their own lives and practice with greater rigour. Out of the thousands who met him over the years, many found in his touch a world-stopping moment of peace that, like a drop of calm in troubled waters, rippled out down the years to open a precious space. It was not necessarily comfortable, but it was always valuable.
Kishi will be missed, is missed, by all who loved him personally. But he is also a great loss to Shiatsu. Although he turned his back on schools and structure and lineage with brusque dismissal, the baton had been passed to him whether he always liked and acknowledged it or not; and more lately he did. Like his teachers before him, he was an original seeker and carried with him the knowledge, at a molecular level, of the warm, maternal hands of Namikoshi and restless genius of Masunaga, both men honoured in his own approach. That approach has proved difficult to pin down. It is difficult because he had a unique talent for capturing life movement in the present moment and offering back to each person, only themselves. How do you name that? It is a hard act to follow. But Kishi wanted nothing more than for those around him to find their own moment and Way, in whatever form that took, not least, he once said, because he was keen to have a decent conversation.
Alice Whieldon and in conversation with Gill Hall
Growing out of the 2017 European Shiatsu Congress (ESF), a conversation started about women in Shiatsu. Specifically, some people at the Vienna Congress expressed a view that the lack of women on podiums and running high profile workshops reflected an ongoing problem. Gill Hall and I discussed this together and collaborated in a webinar and in developing these thoughts.
As we know, the overwhelming majority of practitioners are women and a disproportionate number of international teachers are men. For some of us, the Shiatsu environment can feel like stepping back into a world we thought we had left behind in the 1980s. This essay is a reflection on some of the issues discussed, privately and publicly. It is not based on formal research and, I suggest, it would be good to put some research together to get a better idea of some of the facts. That so many international Shiatsu teachers are men may be puzzling given that so many teachers at a local level are women. But I suggest there are some fairly straightforward reasons for this.
Women still tend to be in caring roles in relation to children or other family members; they have commitments that make travelling abroad regularly, and for weekends, next to impossible. It would be interesting to know how many female international teachers have children. I do not have children but, despite this, my own sense of freedom is somewhat compromised by my dog!
My former partner and I decided to have a dog and he, my partner not the dog, travelled the world for work as a well-known speaker on human rights. But the perceived pressure to care for our canine friend wasn’t a consideration for him when he agreed to speak in Australia, or the US. I, on the other hand, started planning dog-care the moment I was invited down the road for an evening. This is a very personal instance and won’t reflect all relationships, but many women nod in recognition when I mention it. This is what women do and this has made it hard for us to establish ourselves on the international scene; we feel bad about those we believe we may be failing at home.
Also, there is a question of whether many women want to be on the international scene. It is hardly glamourous, and women tend not to have the kind of support from partners or students that many men seem to attract automatically. Exacerbating this is that women may not notice the support on offer and so fail to reach for it; we fear to claim it as our own.
Moreover, women may be slower to assume the mantle of authority. Classically we do not assume we have something to say that others will automatically want to hear. We may be surprised when people show an interest. Men seem, sometimes, to be happily freer of these particular anxieties. Gill notes here to say that women don’t have to follow the same model of authority as men. She is right: this model of authority is arguably patriarchal. Not only do we need to find a way to take on our authority so that is not aggressively patriarchal, but being an authoritative woman, and likely an intelligent, articulate one, often attracts vilification from women at least as much as men.
We discussed the way this links with the medical model and medical training which is often highly hierarchical and awards huge authority to doctors. Are we aping that in Shiatsu by buying into this model of what we do? Gill, a group facilitator, comments that training in business has developed in such that employees are encouraged to be more aware and empowered, where team work and decision-making are encouraged; lectures are less and less the norm. This is very unlike most Shiatsu training.
Shiatsu is a chronically low-paid business too. In 2018 in the UK, all companies employing more than 200 people were legally obliged to publish data on pay. It is already well established that the UK is a relatively poor performer in terms of gender equality in the workplace, but the figures still sent shock-waves through us as the reality of the discrimination became clear in hard numbers.
We are not geared to think of Shiatsu in terms of salaried work but, if it were examined as such, I suggest it would be down there at subsistence pay in many cases. Whether we like to admit it or not, women are programmed to undervalue their work and accept low pay, especially for work that can be classified as caring. To think of charging proper money for Shiatsu sessions, let alone workshops, can send us into states of worry about our worth that highlights how deeply disempowered we can feel in the whole arena of the money and business. It is a sense of disempowerment that is thoroughly internalised.
The world of work is still the world of men; we are there on sufferance. It’s not on our terms; the hours do not suit the cycles of our bodies, our caring commitments. Arguably it does not really suit anyone, but we haven’t finished the work of carving out a space for ourselves that serves us better. Working from home on a part-time basis in Shiatsu may suit us nicely on the face of it, but few people earn well at it.
Men, are under greater pressure to earn a proper living and show up in the public domain. This mindset more easily lends itself to cultivating connections and promoting therapy work as a business. There are of course women who make a living from therapies, but I suggest that there are a disproportionate number of men in the therapy industry making enough to live on comfortably. This is due to a web of attitudes and assumptions so complex and so unconscious that it is hard to untangle the personal from the general.
The independent nature of Shiatsu practitioners also leaves us potentially isolated and often outside the institutions in which the majority pass their working week. While many of us have gladly left those institutions behind or never engaged with them in the first place, it is nevertheless those institutions which, at their best, perform a consciousness-raising service that is invaluable. Workplace diversity workshops, fair recruitment processes and protocols for dealing with harassment and bullying may be dull or heavy-handed at times, but they educate in ways that Shiatsu trainings are unlikely to address.
The lone wolf practitioner may have avoided the numbing political correctness of office etiquette, but they may also be in danger of ending up in a backwater of outmoded and unexamined prejudice. Women have, after all, been the majority participants in Shiatsu workshops led by male teachers; men may have put themselves forward, and why wouldn’t they, but it is women who have chosen to attend.
Should we perhaps be weaving consciousness raising into the fabric of Shiatsu training? Along with the active support of talented women on the international stage?
This is a difficult task when, we observe, many people don’t recognise the problem to start with. I think we can only keep standing up and speaking and educating and it can be exhausting. Women are still being written out of history, and often by women themselves who don’t appreciate what they are doing. I experience this regularly with respect to the book I co-authored with Kishi. Both in my hearing and in print, time and again, people talk to me about ‘Kishi’s book’. Who exactly do they think wrote it? What names are on the cover? It is clearly incomprehensible to many people that I might actually have written it with him, in partnership. I suggest this is partly because of the book itself and Kishi’s standing as a teacher but I think it unavoidable that it is also because I am a woman. Whatever I may personally feel about this (anything from indifference to rage in fact) it is astonishing to me that this still happens.
Talking about all of this only gets us so far. Action is essential. To make Shiatsu an environment in which women are represented at all levels in the proportions in which they practise Shiatsu will need structural change. Here are a few suggestions:
Not teaching at weekends – in the 1980s and 1990s, with big classes, it was possible in the larger schools to train during the week. While it is true that many people need to work during the week to fund their training, other trainings and education happen during the week, so this might say something about Shiatsu self-identifying as a fringe activity. A move towards working hours training as an option would not only demonstrate that we were taking Shiatsu seriously as a profession but would enable women to teach and study while children were at school or older relatives cared for.
We need to take a fresh look also at how we teach Shiatsu. There still predominates in Shiatsu a presentation style which is more expert-lecturer than skilled teacher and she notes that here with respect to medical training. This approach encourages an attitude of awe which often disempowers participants. Given that teaching and learning must ideally be focused on empowering students to take ownership of the material, we need to examine and emphasise the importance of teaching skills in our profession. Modern approaches effectively erase the teacher as a personality, lecturing from the front, and fosters an environment of dynamic learning driven by curiosity through support. This would also model our Seiki approach rather than the medical model of ‘doing to’ the patient.
We could make a clear distinction between grassroots Shiatsu for friends and family and those who want to make a career of it. Knowing the difference would enable us to make a choice. Choosing Shiatsu as a career would help us focus on what it takes to earn a good living from this kind of work and work more closely together to achieve this. As we worked together more, through professional associations and schools, we would have the critical mass to offer the kind of workplace consciousness raising that has hitherto been difficult.
For those who want Shiatsu to be their career it is vital that schools and associations actively support practitioners in charging proper money for their services which will, in turn, make it a more attractive profession to people from diverse backgrounds who may not have the luxury of working in Shiatsu as a second, or low, income. It would serve, not only to raise income, but also morale and competence; if you are paid more it focuses your mind on doing a good job. It is empowering.
Also, again for those who want to make a career in Shiatsu, national associations need to make sure that ratification is in alignment with recognised educational levels so that those without the funds to study may have access to education funding to study Shiatsu. If we are intelligent about this, we do not need to compromise our work to do so but we do have to get better at explaining and defending our approach as different from the medical model. We would all benefit from this. If we work together as a bigger body we could be eligible to apply for funding for adult education and thus enable less well-off women to train; this would be a great gain for diversity.
Some practitioners like to take Shiatsu to a sector of the public who cannot afford it as private health support. By not charging sufficiently in this way and in general, they are not creating some alternative to the health service. If we do not charge appropriately, we are not encouraging people to value and maintain their health. We are offering a cheap and easier option to going to a regular yoga, Tai Chi etc. If we charge appropriately it may free up some time to do volunteer work or promote shiatsu for free and make it a more widely used option.
Finally, a few words about women and the body and women and words. Barely at the level of consciousness we are inhabited with ideas about men and women; about gendered identities. We may have come some way in changing these, but the symbolisms of gender are still hard-wired in our systems. Woman or the feminine is object, associated with the body, the inchoate, feeling, emotional inarticulate body, Gaia, earth, defined by her relationships rather than her separate personhood. Man is subject, aligned with the public, the spoken word, the assumption of an individual, speaking self.
Shiatsu speaks to the emotion body, but the emotion body does not speak back much in ways we fully understand. We can get lost in it too easily and end up at the mercy of feeling; disempowered in fact by an accidental over-emphasis on the felt. We must speak the body, the emotions and, if we don’t know how yet, we must keep on trying until language emerges and we recognise it as our own.
There is more to this issue than equal rights. We need to press for equality of opportunity as a vital outward manifestation of stepping into our power. We, women, need to keep speaking and finding our place in the outer, the public, world without losing our connection to feeling. Maybe this is what makes Shiatsu and Seiki so exciting and crucial – this work sits on that edge between those worlds. We can embrace our connection with body and feeling but please not at the expense of our ability to speak and act. The personal is the political and it goes both ways.
Gill Hall is a Shiatsu teacher and Seiki practitioner in Spain. She is a professional translator and group facilitator.
Alice Whieldon has degrees in Philosophy, Religious Studies and Theology and a PhD in Feminist Philosophy and Psychoanalytic Theory. She presents Seiki workshops and Mind Clearing in the UK and internationally.
This article was inspired by my work with Kishi on our book, Sei-ki: Life in Resonance, The Secret Art of Shiatsu 2011 Singing Dragon. Kishi worked closely with Masunaga for 10 years before developing his own approach. While writing the book he looked back with renewed interest at those years with his teacher, recalling the man and reading his work, some of which he had rescued from a rubbish bin where they languished after Masunaga’s resignation from The Japan Shiatsu College in 1968. These are not his words or thoughts but are informed by our many conversations.
Meridians were not originally part of Shiatsu; they were introduced by Masunaga sensei for about 10 years as he experimented with different ways of explaining the work for the purpose of teaching. They are not mentioned in Japan’s official Shiatsu training which follows Namikoshi’s original model. By defining Shiatsu in major part as ‘meridian work’, I wonder if we are limiting it unhelpfully and sticking with a format that was never intended to carry the practise as it does now?The term, shiatsu, started out at the beginning of the 20th century as a fairly loose umbrella for a variety of touch therapies and was only defined officially in Japan during the 1940s and ‘50s. This move was prompted by the temporary American administration (1945-1952) threatening to regulate ‘traditional’ therapies in ways that did not serve the infant profession. Those at the forefront of Shiatsu wanted to assert its difference from other methods and they, along with other professional bodies, were granted eight years to account for its unique efficacy in scientific terms to establish a case for a named license. The academics and practitioners who came together on this project embraced the challenge as part of a more widespread movement to revive Japanese culture or ‘Ki Culture’. On the team were both pioneering practitioner, Tokujiro Namikoshi, and clinical psychologist and practitioner, Shizuto Masunaga.
Under instructions laid down by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, they established a scientific methodology and ran exhaustive trials on the relative effects of Shiatsu. Research was conducted on the evidence-based medical model that had represented the gold standard since the official adoption of German medicine by the Japanese Government in the mid-19th century. The resulting description was expounded in the language of anatomy and physiology. In response to this thorough account, Shiatsu was awarded a named license and the official report established the foundations of Shiatsu training in Japan, giving impetus to a Golden Age that continued through to the late 1970s.
While Acupuncture and Kanpo herbal medicine had never really lost their statuses and could be studied at degree level, manual therapy, the third and historically key element of Japanese medicine, had never been on a university curriculum, subsisting at the fringes of medicine along with any number of folk methods. In establishing a coherent scientific account, the researchers had taken an important step towards its accommodation within the fold of university-taught Eastern medicine; a goal finally achieved, briefly, by Masunaga when he was appointed Professor at the Institute of Oriental Medical Research at Kitazano University in Tokyo. Sadly, he died soon afterwards and the position was not filled again.
The license was a mixed blessing however; in the course of research it had become plain that the scientific model was philosophically incompatible with the model of health on which Eastern medicine was based. It was not going to be as simple as translating Shiatsu into another, comparable language. Western narratives of health and help depend on assumptions about humanity, sickness and health into which Eastern philosophy and medicine cannot be forced. While some practitioners were content with having achieved a status that enabled them to work unhindered by the authorities, Masunaga saw the group’s achievement as merely the start of explaining Shiatsu in terms that were faithful to Eastern philosophy and satisfied the demands of text based teaching.
Given his background in psychology, it was natural that he should consider this discipline early on as a structure through which to explain Shiatsu; and it has some merit. The traces of this attempt remained in his work and were picked up readily by later Western interpreters who found it familiar and accessible. But Masunaga quickly came up against its limitations and moved on to Chinese medicine as a potentially better fit.
It is worth noting that when the Japanese talk about Chinese medicine they do not exactly mean the medicine of China and they certainly do not mean Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a product of Maoist cultural revisionism. Japan did borrow explicitly and extensively from its illustrious neighbour between the 7th and 17th centuries CE. But what it took was re-moulded and re-formed to a Japanese sensibility. The ‘Chinese’ medicine that held Masunaga’s interest for a decade was interpreted through a Japanese lens. A Westerner going back to the Chinese texts will not see what he did.
Also, the classical Chinese medical texts were never intended to be either exhaustive or fixed. They were written down as teaching aids in addition to the more important teaching that took place in close, personal, supervision. While Masunaga did extensive research using the old charts and texts, his own meridian chart with its thick, vague, some would have it, inaccurate, lines, emphasises incompleteness and fluidity. This is not the accident of a slap-dash artist and poor scholar. The lines were not what mattered. What mattered to Masunaga was meridian philosophy and not, as is so easy to assume in a more literalist culture, lines mapping some concrete reality. Meridians, in fact, have no existence outside the skilled touch of the practitioner. More than this, no map can ever represent the present moment of flux so will always only be a rough suggestion and snapshot of something past.
In his postgraduate institute, the Iokai, Masunaga did not teach meridians. He taught feeling or sesshin, first and foremost. His theory, and the connection he made between it and concrete manual practice was difficult. Few of his disciples understood it, requiring as it did, a depth understanding of classical Eastern philosophy as well as great skill and experience in manual performance. Masunaga, excelling in both, was a rare exception.
Although in his own time Masunaga was a figure of considerable standing within the wider world of traditional medicine, his path was by no means smooth. He outraged his contemporaries by proposing Western psychology as a model for Eastern medicine, left his teaching post at Namikoshi’s Japan Shiatsu College indignant at the opposition some of his colleagues expressed to his unorthodox teaching and, in turning to Acupuncture theory for inspiration, found himself set against the Japanese Acupuncture Association in his interpretation of core principles. Few really understood his work and his extensive publications have left barely a mark, though his influence and myth live on. This is perhaps fuelled more by Youtube now, than anything he ever wrote or taught to his close disciples.
There is evidence in his later writing that Masunaga reached the limitations of meridian and Acupuncture theory for use in Shiatsu. An indefatigable researcher, his ideas were moving closer to a Buddhist account that called for a language outside medicine and honoured the present moment. Sadly this work was never completed and we cannot know for certain where he was heading.
One could ask what we can draw from this history. One thing is certain: Western, Masunaga-style, Shiatsu has considerable investment in maintaining the meridian model as a teaching tool and has identified itself so closely with this system that is would now be quite radical to change it. Even knowing this history, it would take courage and energy to rework Shiatsu, though it is clear that there are practitioners who understand its limitations and do interesting work in supplementing and developing it.
Knowing a little more about the history of Shiatsu in Japan can be useful to Western practitioners. For instance, it is clear that claims that Shiatsu is either unscientific or needs to be made to fit with science miss the point for they use the wrong model. Some understanding of the Eastern approach to health and well-being can give us a strong, alternative account into which Western medicine fits as a subset, rather than the other way around. Conversely, the scientific research conducted by the Japanese licensing project is currently mostly lost to the West but could, in principle, provide the foundation for judicious use of scientific language in instances where this might be useful; thus employing the Buddhist principle of skilful means which advocates using any (ethical) means to get an important message across.
An intelligently led professional body could steer a creative path through the potential pitfalls and use the language of science strategically while fostering a more subtle, over-arching and informed profession that acknowledges the history of Shiatsu in its entirety.
Masunaga’s interest was not confined to Shiatsu but extended to a life philosophy that was utopian in seeking to re-locate an Eastern or Buddhist account of humanity at the heart of all aspects of life. Many practitioners have found for themselves that meridians and TCM are fickle guides in real life and have sought other languages for their work, often pillaging from Reiki, Chi Gong and a host of New Age therapies and spiritualties or simply following their feeling and quietly dropping the formalities of school Shiatsu. The proliferation of styles, all trying to fill gaps in theory and make a whole out of the scraps that have found their way to the West, speak volumes about the lack of a clear philosophical foundation. It also speaks of a fantastic spirit of enquiry, enthusiasm and need for a more satisfying approach to health through human touch.
There is an argument for having the courage to resist definitions based on theory and technique in favour of repositioning Shiatsu as, first and foremost, a discipline that places personal development and authority over form and technique. The imperative is to look with innocent eyes and touch with empty minds for the fleeting now. Perhaps name what you find ‘meridians’ if it seems appropriate…or maybe be braver than that.
Alice Whieldon began her Shiatsu training in 1991 and met Kishi sensei in 1998. She worked with him from that point, culminating in writing a book with him. She practices Seiki and psychotherapy in London, leads Seiki workshops and is also a senior manager and tutor for the Open University in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. See: www.alicewhieldon.com for details of treatments. If you find this article interesting and want to know more, it is recommended that you read: Seiki, Life in Resonance: The Secret Art of Shiatsu by Akinobu Kishi and Alice Whieldon
 ‘Traditional’ medicine is something of a problematic notion. It is difficult, if not impossible, to establish what it actually refers to and more usually refers to a revival based on often political ideology. This was clearly the case with the ‘traditional’ Japanese arts in the mid-20th century as the Japanese strove to re-establish national identity.