What is Asian bodywork therapy? How is it related to traditional Chinese medicine?
“Asian bodywork therapy,” also called ABT, is a term used to describe a wide range of manual (and sometimes mechanical) treatments to the human body. As with most forms of Asian healing, Asian bodywork therapy treats not just the body, but a person’s mind and spirit, and helps one achieve optimal health on a variety of levels.
All forms of ABT involve touching to some degree. Some forms are more comprehensive than others. Some therapies involve only light touching on various pressure points or regions of the body; others may involve specific motions along specific parts of the body at specific times, and may include the use of herbs, applications of cold and heat, and stretching.
When performing Asian bodywork, a practitioner will first assess a patient’s condition before determining a proper form of care. Most assessments are based on traditional Chinese medicine principles. In addition to bodywork, many ABT practitioners may also recommend dietary and lifestyle changes, and specific exercises designed to promote health and enhance wellness.
Although Asian bodywork therapy has existed at least as long as – and perhaps longer than – acupuncture and herbal medicine, it has come to be a recognized form of traditional Chinese medicine only recently. In 1996, the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) developed the first certification program in Asian bodywork therapy, due in large response to members of the Oriental medicine profession. The NCCAOM now offers a written comprehensive examination in Asian bodywork therapy, in addition to its existing exams on acupuncture and herbal medicine.
What are the most popular forms of Asian bodywork therapy? Are they all alike?
There are more than a dozen recognized forms of Asian bodywork therapy currently practiced in the United States, the most popular of which is shiatsu (which is described in further detail on our “Shiatsu” page). In fact, there are at least five recognized versions of shiatsu, and many practitioners may incorporate one or more versions while treating patients. The most popular forms of ABT include:
Acupressure: Acupressure attempts to balance the body’s energy levels by applying pressure to specific acupuncture points, thus releasing tension and promoting circulation of blood and qi.
Amma: Amma is a specialized form of Korean touch therapy that combines deep tissue manipulation with pressure, friction massage and touch to specific acupuncture points, along with various muscles, ligaments, joints and tendinomuscular junctions. Translated literally, amma means “push-pull.” As with acupuncture, the goals of amma are to remove blockages, ease stress and promote the circulation of qi, which helps restore and maintain health. Most amma practitioners also receive extensive training in nutrition and dietary advice.
AMMA: Not to be confused with amma, AMMA therapy is an extensive form of ABT that includes not only bodywork, but dietary therapy, supplement use, and applying herbal remedies to the skin. AMMA promotes health by treating the body, along with a person’s biological energy and emotions, which are believed to be intertwined with a person’s neuromuscular system.
Chi Nei Tsang: Chi nei tsang is a system of Chinese deep healing that uses the flow of energy created by the body’s five major systems – the vascular system, the lymphatic system, the nervous system, the musculotendinous system, and the meridian system. According to the principles of chi nei tsang, massaging a series of points in the area of a person’s navel breaks up energy blockages and increases the flow of energy to specific organs elsewhere in the body.
Five-Element Shiatsu: Five-element shiatsu’s objective is to identify patterns of disharmony in the body, using the traditional Chinese medical methods of examination (observation, listening, asking and touching). Once a pattern is identified, the five-element shiatsu practitioner then implements a treatment plan to bring the pattern back into balance. Five-element shiatsu practitioners may palpate the back and/or stomach, examine the pulse, and take into account lifestyle, emotional and psychological issues to arrive at the correct diagnosis. In addition to shiatsu, five-element practitioners may also use heat and cold therapies to help bring patterns of disharmony back into balance.
Integrative Eclectic Shiatsu: Integrative eclectic shiatsu is one of the most comprehensive forms of ABT practiced in the United States. In addition to Japanese shiatsu, practitioners may utilize traditional Chinese medical therapies, Western styles of soft-tissue manipulation, herbal remedies and dietary modifications to achieve the desired result.
Japanese Shiatsu: The oldest and most commonly practiced form of shiatsu, Japanese shiatsu consists primarily of pressure (usually delivered with the thumbs or elbows) along acupuncture meridians. Manipulation of soft tissues, and active and passive stretching and exercise routines may also be involved in a Japanese shiatsu session. Occasionally, practitioners may apply pressure to specific acupuncture points instead of entire meridians, although treatment of an entire meridian is usually employed.
Jin Shin Do: Jin shin do combines traditional Japanese acupuncture with classic Chinese acupuncture practices, Taoism and specialized breathing methods. Whereas shiatsu is usually applied with the thumbs, jin shin do emphasize finger pressure on specific acupuncture points. Jin shin do also utilizes body-mind exercises and mental techniques designed to release physical and emotional tension.
Macrobiotic Shiatsu: Macrobiotic shiatsu puts an emphasis on living a natural lifestyle and heightening one’s instincts in order to achieve optimal health and well-being. Treatments consist of non-invasive touch and pressure using the hands and feet, along with stretching exercises to increase the flow of qi and strengthen one’s body-mind connection. In addition to pressure and stretching, macrobiotic shiatsu also uses techniques and therapies such as dietary advice, functional foods, breathing exercises, postural control, qigong and self-performed shiatsu.
Nuad Bo Rarn: Nuad Bo Rarn is a form of traditional Thai manual medicine, which itself is based upon a combination of Indian Buddhist medicine and traditional Chinese medicine. Nuad bo rarn emphasizes specific hand techniques, passive movement and stretching, which open up a patient’s venous system, thus allowing energy to pass through and releasing tension from the body. Some spiritual elements are also employed with nuad bo rarn. In addition, some scholars believe that nuad bo rarn derives more from ancient vedic and Buddhist practices, rather than Chinese medicine.
Tuina: Tuina is a method of ABT that combines manipulation of soft tissues, applying pressure at acupuncture points and realigning the spine and other structures to treat musculoskeletal and internal conditions. Click here for a more detailed description of tuina and its healing benefits.
Zen Shiatsu: Zen shiatsu is based on an extended meridian system that expands the size and location of traditional meridians, with specific emphasis placed on the abdomen. Unlike some forms of shiatsu, zen shiatsu does not stick to an ordered sequence or set of methods to deliver care. In addition, zen shiatsu focuses on the use of entire acupuncture meridian lines, rather than specific acupoints.
Does Asian bodywork therapy hurt? Is it safe?
For the most part, ABT does not hurt. In the course of treatment, some Asian bodywork therapists may include therapies such as cupping and moxibustion, which may cause bruising and slight discomfort in especially sensitive individuals. For the most part, however, ABT does not hurt, and because it is an external application that does not involve puncturing the skin or any otherwise invasive procedure, it is considered extremely safe.
Where can I find someone licensed to practice Asian bodywork therapy?
The American Organization for Bodywork Therapies of Asia (AOBTA) includes a list of Asian bodywork therapists on its website. In addition, the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine maintains a list of ABT certified practitioners on its website. Information on each organization is listed below.
I would like to know more about Asian bodywork therapy.
The best place to learn about Asian bodywork therapy is the American Organization for Bodywork Therapies of Asia (AOBTA). The AOBTA is located in Voorhees, New Jersey; its website contains information on popular ABT techniques, educational seminars, links to ABT schools and other essential data. To contact the AOBTA, visit www.aobta.org or call (856) 782-1616.
The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) maintains a listing of certified ABT practitioners on its website, along with information on upcoming ABT examinations. You can visit the NCCAOM at www.nccaom.org.