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How much is shiatsu limited or expanded by its relationship to meridians? ; Suzanne Yates

An article in the Shiatsu Society Journal  January 13

“for my children, in binding me to the earth, they freed me to fly”

This article is in part a response to the questions raised by Alice in the last Shiatsu Society journal about how much we should  base our work around what she calls “fickle” meridians. She seems to be arguing that we should place the authority of personal development over form and technique.    However, what does “personal development “ mean? It covers so many different things for different people and is a core part of any bodywork therapy and many other therapies, so can it really be a defining feature of shiatsu? And surely “personal development “is potentially a more fickle concept than meridians?  Do we not need both form and personal development?

Defining the form.

Both the Shiatsu Society and the CNHC  state that shiatsu is based in Chinese medicine and influenced by Japanese and Western knowledge.  They acknowledge that static pressure is a key part of shiatsu and that it is about supporting the body not just in a physical way but also emotionally, psychologically, emotionally and even spiritually.

Initially I was going to consider many aspects of the form, but realised that would become too long an article.  I have chosen to focus on how much our form is based in Chinese medicine. This seems especially relevant as other touch modalities such as massage, osteopathy, chiropractics, cranial sacral work and rolfing all have some overlaps in term of physical form and all involve an element of personal development.  A key feature which differentiates shiatsu from these modalities is its basis in Chinese medicine.

First of all we have to define what Chinese medicine is.  Alice seems to imply that TCM means “a product of Maoist revisionism”. However, I would argue that this is not generally how the term TCM is used.  Wikepedia describes it as “ a broad range of medicine practices sharing common theoretical concepts which have been developed in China and are based on a tradition of more than 2,000 years, “  It is true, that during the Cultural Revolution a lot of the more spiritual or esoteric  knowledge was lost or went underground. However Mao did a great service to TCM because he did at least value the more physical aspects of TCM over introducing Western medicine and this is why so much has survived.  We also have to remember that  the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) was very recent and by then Chinese medicine was already well integrated into Korea and India as well as Japan and indeed beginning to become known in Europe and the US. We can still refer to many of the key texts such as the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon and indeed many ancient Taoist texts which include the more spiritual aspects of TCM.   Only recently I found out why so much of what is taught in France, where I regularly teach, has a different emphasis. It has come from the Korean route because of France’s closer links with Korea. TCM is a broad and constantly developing body of knowledge which has spread across vast cultures and time frames.  We could question whether the term “ TCM” is broad enough to describe this vast knowledge, but as its original roots are in China, by using this term we are acknowledging the ancestry of this knowledge.

Chinese concepts underpin our work

I would argue that this knowledge is a fundamental aspect of shiatsu and that shiatsu in its early forms was very much steeped in this tradition and still is.

Alice says meridians were not originally part of shiatsu:  but were simply introduced by Masunaga as a way of explaining  the work. This is not how I understand it: but as Alice correctly points out, Masunaga’s work  has been misunderstood, and there is much myth about it. I would argue that some of what  Alice refers to as the limitations of meridians, are  in fact more about the limitations of the Masunaga approach.  His approach was never intended to carry the work, it was never fully developed and, while it has brought much to shiatsu, he is only one person in a long lineage.  The reason I understand that meridians are not mentioned in the Namikoshi model, is because they could not refer to TCM at the point in history when they were defining modern shiatsu.  What Alice euphemistically refers  to as  the “temporary American administration” was actually a force of occupation. It was trying to outlaw traditional forms of healing which were thousands of years old and very much based in traditions of manual therapy derived from China. This meant that shiatsu had to be defined in terms acceptable to the US.   In Japan today, while Namikoshi is the main school and does not refer overtly to TCM in its work, it still uses meridians and points and other schools and traditions in Japan work with meridians. Indeed TCM,  in its Japanese version is still very much alive in Japanese culture.

When we are working with meridians and acupuncture points we are connecting with a form which was developed over thousands of years, in a huge country, with its roots in the martial and warring history of China as well as in the more esoteric links with Buddhist and Taoist spiritual traditions. As we work we are tuning into this amazing system and the energy of the people who created it.

It gives us very specific tools which enable us to continue developing our work by connecting with the changed energies of the environment today.  In this respect I do not feel it is a limiting system and is plenty big enough to hold the form of shiatsu as well as supporting personal development. The most fundamental idea of the Tao and the human body as being a microcosm of the universe which is a macrocosm is very much alive and relevant today, as are the basic concepts of Yin and Yang: heaven and earth, expansion and contraction.  The five elements are still a valid way of connecting to movements of energy in our day to day life.

A living system

I would argue that the limitations come when we do not connect with this system in a live and direct way.  My main training in shiatsu was with Sonia Moriceau at the Healing Shiatsu Education Centre in the 80’s. I am eternally grateful to the way that she enabled us to explore and connect with these energies. We lived the five elements. During residential courses in the Herefordshire, and later in the Welsh countryside, we were the trees sensing our roots into the earth and connecting heavenwards into our branches. We witnessed our voices and gestures and body shapes changing and when the different element groups interacted, we experienced the relationships with other elements. We then expressed the elemental energy in our shiatsu touch. This dramatically shifted my relationship to the world and has been a fundamental part of my shiatsu practice.  It has enabled me to live the energy of each meridian. Indeed, this is how the Chinese developed this amazing system: from their lived experience of it. They worked first with the bodies and then mapped through the meridians and points.    

As I continued living the meridians with my work with mothers and babies, in the 90’s, I found that I was experiencing another form of energy which I had not been taught . I  gradually began to realise that this was the energy of the Extra-ordinary vessels and the Essence (Jing) and this has become a fundamental part of my work.

A system more comprehensive than simply 12 meridians: The Extra-ordinary vessels

For me, without this understanding, TCM  is not a complete system and so could be considered limiting. How can it be complete if it does not include meridians which directly connect with the Brain and the reproductive organs ?  The Brain and the reproductive organs as so fundamental that they have their own system of meridians as well as being supported by the 12 meridians.   This is the system of the 8 meridians known as the Extra-ordinary vessels, especially the core four of Du, Ren, Chong and Mai (Governing, Conception, Pentrating and Girdle).

What is the energetic space of the Extra ordinary vessels and how do they open up the shiatsu form? In my quest to understand  their qualities,  I have immersed myself in exploring  our embryological time in a lived way: and am especially grateful to the pioneering work of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen  (ref) for opening up this field. As I have journied back into my body, I have experienced how the attributes that the Chinese gave to the Du, Ren,  Chong and Mai (Governing, Conception, Penetrating and Girdle vessel) mirror our embryological development.

These core four vessels are the first expression of our energy, formed at the moment of conception,  and represent the vastness of our energetic potential before we took on the form of our physical body .  The Chinese referred to this as the Jing or the Essence to differentiate it from Qi.  They are the early cellular energy when we were not just “us” but also our support system (amniotic sac and placenta) and so contain our basic cellular memory .  When I tune into this most deep aspect of the  energy of the Extraordinary vessels, I feel more a sense of space in the body as well as a connection to space around the body: the past, ancestors, even past lives. My touch is usually slower and energetically deeper. Although I may include points I also tend to connect more with areas and spaces . They open me up to a wider sensing. This energy is very present when we work with a pregnant woman and it is not always so easy to sense at other times, especially if one is not familiar with it, although it is always present.

I am also grateful for the work of Macciocia and Royston Low for helping me understand them.  Jeffrey Yuen’s work (ref) has enabled me to understand more  about  the other  four Extra ordinary vessels, Yin and Yang  Qiao (Heel)  and Wei (Linking) Vessels. He refers to these as the “second ancestory” vessels as opposed to the “first ancestory” of the Du, Ren, Chong and Mai. As the body starts to become more organised and creates the embryonic  form, these next four vessels develop. They have more of a direct relationship with day to day energy and Qi, as well as Essence, and can usually be felt in most people.  As they are energetically on a more superficial level than the core four, they can often serve as a way in to connecting with the deeper level of the “first ancestory “ vessels or offer a way of working if people are not ready to connect directly with the core four vessels.

Out of the Extra-ordinary Vessels arise the families of meridians and later the 6 super meridians

I am very much indebted to the work of both Karin Kalbanter Wernicke (ref) and Bill Palmer for helping me understand how the 12 meridians gradually start to form out of the Extra-ordinary vessels.  Their work has its roots in understanding how babies grow and develop. For a while I had struggled to connect with exactly how the meridians developed during the first year of life, as it felt that more than one meridian was involved. Once Karin introduced me to the idea of the three families, it all started to make more sense.  I enjoy working with Karin, because she studied shiatsu in Japan, originally with Namikoshi, but later with another school (get name) and her work is very rooted in Japanese traditions of ways of working with the meridians and points.  It is interesting she doesn’t work much with the Extraordinary vessels: I wonder how much that aspect of TCM came over to Japan. It could possibly explain why Masuanga did not work much with the Extra-ordinary vessels.

As our body form becomes more defined and organised , 3 families of meridians emerge :

Front (Karin)/ home (Bill) family ( Lung and Spleen (Tai Yin), Stomach and Large Intestine (Yang Ming) ,

Back (Karin) or core (My term) family: Heart and Kidney (Shao Yin) and Small Intestine and Bladder (Tai Yang)

Side (Karin) or integrating (My term)  family Pericardium and Liver (Jue Yin) and Gall Bladder and Triple Heater (Shao Yang ).

During our first year, as we unfold from our fetal position,  the meridians do not have a specific direction. It is only when, sometime around the first postnatal year, as the body takes its upright posture, that a  Yin/Yang relationship to earth and heaven is defined and the Yin/Yang flow is established. The 3 families become what I call the 6 super meridians : Tai Yin, Yang Ming,  Shao Yin, Tai Yang, Jue Yin and Shao Yang.  In understanding these, my work has been informed less by the 6 divisions theory, which I understand as a system of how pathogens invade the body, but more through the work of Yves Requena, who refers to the idea of composite types: ie Tai Yin earth/metal type and my own work with babies.  Gradually as we grow and develop we get a more definite flow in 12 meridians. The 12 meridians  then are the last expression of  our energetic  development and are much more about day to day movement of Qi and are more specific in their nature than any of the other meridians.

If we only work with the 12 meridians, it is a fairly limiting system as there is so much which is left out.  Most shiatsu schools do only teach the 12 meridians and not the Extra-ordinary vessels, or indeed the family system and the 6 super meridians and so their theory and philosophy is incomplete. We need to expand the core philosophy of shiatsu to include these aspects.

In understanding TCM in this way, I have realised how much there is a convergence of the Western and eastern model. Understanding embryology, and childhood development from a western point of view helps us understand it from an eastern point of view. Phil Beech’s (ref)  work on understanding meridian maps takes the embryological view one step further as he considers how the human species has evolved from prior species.  Science now is moving away from the Cartesian duality model towards a more holistic view of the universe: indeed we could even argue, Daoist view where everything is interconnected.  The new fields of neuro science and epigenetics and quantum biology (Bruce Lipton) demonstrate this more holistic view of the body/ mind  which develops in relation to its environment.  Neil deGrasse Tyson ,astrophysicist, explains it even one step further:  we are made from the same atoms as the stars.  Thus we are connected atomically to the whole universe.    We can then see that within each cell of our body is the potential for healing the whole body, and indeed, as one cell changes it has the potential to affect the whole universe!

How does this system express and support personal development? A container for the practitioner

Once we work with such a complete system in a living way, it offers a form which is open and expansive and offers a way to connect fully with the “now” in all its aspects, both personal and universal. This is a support  for both the practitioner and the client. It is a challenge to the practitioner to be in the now, alert to the energy of the past and the potential of the future, while remaining responsive to the energy of the moment.  Personal development was always an integral part of TCM: Tai Chi, Qi Qung and indeed shiatsu are all about supporting our own personal development as well as our client’s.

When we first learn the form, we do need to follow it more closely so “school shiatsu” can sometimes feel limiting.  As we work with our clients and ourselves, we start to inhabit the form and begin to express it through our individual Spirit, Shen, contributing to its development.  However, in expressing ourselves in our work, I feel it is still important to retain the link with the form because it is our support,  our ancestral connection, our Jing.

In my own work, I have found that trying to understand  the form has enabled me to expand and develop my work and myself.  Many people feel limited by form, but surely this is the nature of our life? By being in our body and on the earth, we have chosen to experience limitation. This is the nature of Yin, the power of the energy of contraction. It can often feel more liberating to connect with the expansive Yang energy of the heaven, the Spirit, but we need to connect with both Yin and Yang.  It is in fully accepting the limits of the earth, that we learn to respect her and the Yin.  We are not separate from the world in which we live: as the Chinese said, we stand between heaven and earth.  My own personal development is intertwined with the whole world and I need to respect that interdependence.  If  I simply rely on my intuition, whatever that is, I could go into my own present state which is fickle and varies from day to day. By having a form, which connects me to a greater energetic field, I am contained and learn to respect my own limits and boundaries as well as those of others.  Ultimately I am able to go beyond my ego and connect with the wider energetic field that the Chinese called the Tao.


Yves Requena Character and Health: the relationship of acupuncture and psychology, Paradigm 1989

Terrains and pathology in acupuncture 1986 Paradigm

Phil Beech Muscle and meridians ; the manipulation of shape Churchill Livingstone 2010

Suzanne Yates, Pregnancy and Childbirth, Birth Elsevier 2012

Macciocia G, The Channels of acupuncture 2006 Churchill Livingstone

Jean Marc Essaylet  Au confluent du ciel-terre…. Emotions et Passions, Tredaniel

Karin Kalbantner Wernicke Baby Shiatsu Singing Dragon 2012

Jeffrey Yuen  The Eight Extraordinary Vessels, New England School of acupuncture. 2005


Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal medicine (various editions available)

Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen Sensing feeling and action Contact 2008

Claude Larre and Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallee The Eight Extraordinary vessels

Bruce Lipton Biology of Belief Hay House 2008

Neil deGrasse Tyson, various books


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