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Shiatsu massage is both a preventative treatment and an emergency therapy. ALIX NORMAN finds 8,000 years of practise are able to cure her ills

Although many of in the West are blithely unaware of the benefits of eastern practices, shiatsu massage is worth getting to know better. A dynamic body therapy, it restores the balance of energy in the body. An 8,000-year-old therapy, shiatsu is based on the assumption that the body is a self-healing organism, and that the practitioner can aid and support the process, assisting with self-development and self-healing while balancing the underlying causes of a condition. And, after a horrendous bout of summer flu my body, mind and spirit were in sore need of some TLC.
“Western medicine tends to treat only the symptoms of an ailment, rather than looking at patterns of illness and lifestyle,” says Emma Michael, shiatsu therapist at Serenity House in Nicosia. Half English, half Cypriot, Emma emigrated from London six months ago, at a time when most people were strongly considering a move in the opposite direction. “I was tired of the lifestyle in London,” she says, “and Cyprus is opening up in terms of complementary forms of healing.”
With everything that’s happening on the island, Emma seems to be in the right place at the right time – there’s an inherent serenity and peace to this 32-year-old that immediately soothes my frantic mind. A psychology graduate with a background in yoga, Emma has been practising shiatsu for five years, assisting and teaching at the British School of Shiatsu where she completed her studies. As part of the course, she’s studied traditional Chinese medicine theory, nutrition, anatomy and physiology, and has also travelled the Orient, exploring Ayurvedic medicine, acupuncture, Thai massage and Indian head massage. And as she takes my medical case history, I’m hit by the realisation that she’s asking me in depth questions about – not just my current symptoms – but my entire medical background.
It’s the first time I’ve ever been medically treated in a manner which doesn’t involve a 40 minute wait in a sterile corridor, a hurried listing of symptoms and eventual egress with packets of pills. It’s eye-opening to see this young woman piece together the patterns of my ailments, as we discuss everything from my annual brushes with allergy to the broken wrists I sustained – years ago – in an overenthusiastic game of volleyball.
“Shiatsu is both a preventative treatment that builds the immune system and deals with stress before the body is in crisis, and also an emergency therapy if you’ve got to the point where it’s hard to get out of bed,” Emma explains. While I’m busy thinking that I could greatly benefit from the former, but probably fall into the latter category, I arrange myself on the comfortable floor mat fully clothed (Shiatsu works through the medium of rubbing and palpating various points on the body, easily accomplished through my yoga outfit) and prepare for treatment.
For the shiatsu practitioner any physical or psychological complaint is evidence that the flow of energy in the body has been disrupted, and Emma is attempting to confront the root of the problem, re-establishing this balance. I’m kneaded and prodded and rolled from side to side as she works first and foremost on my hara, or stomach area, the basis of all the energy centres. The whole process is strangely cathartic and very relaxing, even when she swings my legs from side to side. At one point, she massages the sole of my foot and I literally feel my whole body sinking into the earth. Later, she presses my left knee, and I let out a spontaneous giggle of happiness. It’s like being hugged, protected and energised all at the same time, a telepathic rubdown from someone who knows exactly which part of your body you want massaged next.
“Part of the training is to observe the body, constantly responding to its needs,” she says, when – after a blissful three quarters of an hour, during which I quietly nod off – we’re done, and she’s giving me feedback on my treatment. “Your chi (energy) is very strong, very yang,” she explains. “But the danger is that you push yourself too hard and forget to nurture your body nutritionally; your spleen meridian, which is the centre of nurture, of support, came up as lacking, and your large intestine is blocked.” Once we laughingly clear up my misconception that it’s not literally clogged, but rather the energy flow has stagnated and I need to let go of whatever this stagnation is, allowing space for the new. I’m struck by a pattern: every time I get ill, I push on through, neglecting my diet, rather than letting my body heal.
Now, this isn’t something I implied during the pre-treatment discussion – in fact, I believe I was quite careful about not mentioning my dreadful eating habits or my tendency to get everything done, no matter the cost. So it’s very interesting to note that Emma has picked up on my biggest sins, purely through the medium of touch. It’s consistent with her work ethic, though: “Shiatsu is about helping people perceive who they really are and what they really need,” she explains. “It’s about finding a safe space to listen.” And though I think she might be referring to her response to my body’s physiological, psychological and emotional requirements, she’s certainly made me pay attention: this is the first time that anyone has treated my lifestyle, rather than my current ailments, and I feel wonderful.
A Shiatsu massage session lasts approximately an hour and costs €50, or €30 for 30 minutes in a chair, rather than on the floor. There will also be three-hour introductory Shiatsu workshop costing €30 on September 21 at Serenity House. The workshop covers an introduction to Shiatsu, and meridian exercises and pressure points for common ailments that can be used at home. Emma also runs Yoga classes at 6pm on Mondays and Wednesdays, and 10am on Tuesdays. For further information, visit www.emmanotemma.com or call Emma directly on 97 873494.

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