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Home > Publications > Finding Great Asian Bodywork Therapists

Finding Great Asian Bodywork Therapists

Dear Karlo,

I’m curious about getting an Asian bodywork treatment, but there are so many types it makes my head spin. Which one do you think is the best, and how can I find a good practitioner?


Dear Confused,

You have every right to be. There are over 15 major varieties of Asian bodywork practiced in America today, by my count. They all have great qualities—perhaps it might help you if I outlined some of the more popular forms practiced in the US today. Of these, I recommend you choose the one that you feel best suits your current needs. As you will see, although they all work to restore the body’s life energy (or chi), the way each form of Asian bodywork enables this to happen is different and distinct. Like acupuncture and Chinese herbalism, most Asian bodywork styles have their roots in Traditional Chinese Medicine, which dates back over 2,000 years. Unlike a typical spa massage, most forms of Asian bodywork do not involve the application of massage oils. Instead, clients are asked to wear loose but comfortable clothing for treatments which run typically from ½ to 1 hour in duration. Here are the most popular ones practiced in America:

Tuina, or Tui Na, originated in ancient China and is the oldest known system of massage. If you’re keen on experiencing a traditional therapeutic massage "Chinatown-style," chances are you’ll be in the hands of a tuina practitioner. Tuina consists of vigorous rubbing, stroking, and direct finger, palm, and elbow pressure on traditional acupressure points to stimulate the flow of chi through the body. And if an acupuncturist offers hands-on work as well as needling, it is likely tuina that they have studied. As one tuina therapist I know put it, “Don't expect a light, relaxing massage, this therapeutic method goes directly after the problems, sometimes requiring significant pressure.” I don’t doubt it—many tuina practitioners I know are pretty brawny, and as such I think are drawn to its forceful style.

Shiatsu is the Japanese cousin of tuina and is perhaps the most widely practiced form of Asian bodywork in America. (Full disclosure: I am trained as a shiatsu therapist). Shiatsu is Japanese for “finger pressure,” and in fact the bulk of a shiatsu session consists of finger or palm pressure on traditional acupressure points and energy pathways known as meridians, to balance the flow of chi. This work is often combined with stretches, breathing exercises, and massaging. The pressure involved can range from light to intense, depending on the wishes of the client. This lends shiatsu the flexibility to help both people who want “deep” bodywork and those who are frail and require a very gentle, nurturing touch. Most shiatsu therapists prefer to work in traditional Japanese-style on a comfortable futon on the floor, although many also practice on a massage table. (A therapeutic, pool-based variation of shiatsu is appropriately named Watsu, to find a qualified practitioner near you, visit the Worldwide Aquatic Bodywork Association on the web at www.waba.edu.)

Acupressure is so similar to shiatsu that the two are often considered to be one in the same, although there is an important difference. While shiatsu therapists have a more eclectic style and use a variety of manual techniques to stimulate the chi, acupressurists concentrate more intently on the body’s many pressure points. Think of acupressure as acupuncture without the needles. A qualified acupressurist is probably your best resource for using these pressure points to help with chronic pain, asthma, digestive problems, and stress—and can show you how you can press on those points yourself at home to extend the benefits of your session.

How do I find a qualified acupressurist (or tuina or shiatsu therapist) in your area, you may ask? There’s no better resource than the AOBTA—the American Organization for Bodywork Therapies of Asia, the national association for Asian bodyworkers. AOBTA-certified practitioners have all had at least 500 hours of training. You can find one near you by visiting the AOBTA’s website at www.aobta.org.

Additionally, the National Certification Commission on Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) has recently offered a certification exam for Asian bodywork. You can be sure that Asian bodywork therapists who have passed the exam are well-versed in the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine. To find a certified therapist near you, visit their website at www.nccaom.org.

Traditional Thai Massage (also know as Thai Bodywork, Thai Yoga Massage or Nuad Bo Rarn) is less commonly practiced in the Boston area than the forms of Asian bodywork I’ve already described, but is worth seeking out, particularly if you enjoy a good stretch. Based on both Traditional Chinese Medicine and Indian ayurvedic medical principles, traditional Thai massage employs a complex sequence of hand techniques, rocking and especially passive stretches to unblock stuck energy in the body. Treatments are comprehensive and can run from 1 ½ to 2 hours. Lying on a futon, clients are expertly rocked, pulled and twisted in just about every way imaginable. If you want to give your stiff joints a treat, let them experience 2 hours of this.

Jin Shin Jyutsu® is a special form of acupressure that uses gentle finger pressure to open twenty-six “safety energy locks” on the body to reharmonize body, mind, and spirit. In a typical session, the client lies back while the practitioner holds pairs of acupressure points on the body to open these locks. Jin Shin Jyutsu practitioners aren’t shy to admit that theirs is a simple and straightforward healing approach—that, they say, is the beauty of it. I must admit I was skeptical about Jin Shin Jyutsu until I tried a session. As those energy locks started opening I found it powerfully charging. It is a remarkable healing art, and I can understand why its practitioners are so deeply enthusiastic about it.

Jin Shin Do® Bodymind Acupressure™ is similar to Jin Shin Jyutsu in that it involves holding various pressure points, but different in that it is based on both eastern healing principles and Reichian psychotherapy. Unlike most forms of Asian bodywork, the client plays a more active role in the treatment through a set of breathing, focusing and visualization exercises designed to release mind-body tension patterns. As the treatment progresses, clients might experience sensations, messages or images, which they are free to explore with the Jin Shin Do practitioner if they choose. To find a qualified Jin Shin Do practitioner near you, I recommend checking out the non-profit Jin Shin Do Foundation, which maintains a directory of certified practitioners on their website at www.jinshindo.org.

Reiki (pronounced “ray-kee”) is not Asian bodywork in the sense that it does not involve any manual pressure on the body, but I mention it nonetheless since it is energetic and believed to have its roots in ancient Tibet. Reiki is a form of spiritual healing, although it is not affiliated with any particular religion or religious practice. In a reiki session, the reiki practitioner channels universal healing energy to the client by placing their hands on specific parts of the body. Reiki can be deeply relaxing, and can help the body heal itself on all levels. Reiki falls in the scope of nursing practice in many states, and a growing number of nurses are providing it on and off the job. Since there is no state or national certifying body for reiki professionals, it is difficult to determine who can offer the best reiki sessions. I recommend receiving care from fully-trained Reiki Masters who either have had a long track record of care and can provide references, or who have additional credentials in massage, nursing, counseling, or other healthcare professions.

No matter which form of Asian Bodywork you choose, remember to wear comfortable clothing, let the practitioner know if you are experiencing any discomfort, and be sure to drink plenty of water afterwards to flush out any toxins that may have been released. Enjoy!

First published in Boston Natural Awakenings magazine's April 2005 "Ask Karlo" column.

Whole Health Solutions can connect you to the most talented practitioners of shiatsu, thai massage, jin shin jyutsu, jin shin do, and other Asian bodywork therapies in your community. Click here for details.

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