By Shirley Vanderbilt
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, April/May 2003.
Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
Ping Lee’s training as an engineer comes in handy when he’s explaining the concept of energy. “Conceptualize the word air,” he says. “The Chinese have a lot of expressions with the word air. It sounds insignificant, so when you say something is air, what type of thing is it? Can you picture a steam locomotive, do you know how powerful that is? When we use the word steam we think of a cloud, but it is only a condensation of air — energy. What I teach in class, when we talk about energy, is seeing the word air as energy. You can feel a person’s presence, that’s energy. When you make eye contact, that’s more energy. When you get really upper level, you feel things from the body you can sense.”
In an interview from his office in San Francisco, Lee expands on one of the 12 “ingredients” he considers essential to the practice of Taikyo Shiatsu. These essentials, he notes, are also important for application in everyday life. Lee has brought together the principles of taijiquan, qigong and yin-yang to create his unique taikyo style of shiatsu. Taikyo (tai chi chuan) is taken from the Japanese term for taijiquan.
As an Asian-American, Lee was brought up with a strong sense of Asian culture and philosophy which influences his teaching. In 1970, he began studying shiatsu with Richard Hyatt who had trained under Shizuko Yamamoto (author of Barefoot Shiatsu). From there he went on to Zen style under the guidance of Shizuto Masunaga and Namikoshi style with Misha Cohen, director of the Quan Yin Healing Arts Center of San Francisco. In addition, Lee received training in tui na, including a two-week intensive at Guang An Men Hospital in Beijing, China. Concurrently, he explored external and internal martial arts, beginning with karate and expanding to taijiquan and qigong.
Lee’s depth of understanding of the essence of these disciplines led him to develop his approach. “Utilizing the principles of yin-yang, taijiquan and qigong has enhanced my posture and movements involved in bodywork,” he says. “There is a certain amount of ‘back to basics,’ as shiatsu has evolved from Taoism as well as Buddhism. As a result, the combination of these principles has enabled me to perform a highly efficient form of massage.” Rather than presenting just a hands-on approach, he integrates Asian culture and philosophy along with Chinese theory of medicine in his instruction and practice.
In addition to the 12 essentials, to be discussed later, there’s another aspect of Taikyo Shiatsu setting this practice apart. The taikyo wave technique is based on movement used in taijiquan and other martial arts. The “wave,” called jing in Chinese, or sei in Japanese, enables the therapist to subtly gather and emit transmitted energy effectively to the client. “An illustration of this technique,” Lee says, “can be equated to an ocean wave.” As the wave slowly builds, it is accumulating energy. When the wave reaches its height, the potential energy is at its highest peak. The wave then crashes — expending the gathered energy with dramatic force. The “force” in this illustration is not issued with a sudden, but rather a subtle pressure.
“There’s no such thing as ‘no pain, no gain’ or ‘feel the pain,’” Lee says. “If it hurts, that’s not good. The body will automatically want to protect (itself) and you lose what you do (in terms of the bodywork in progress). That’s why I use the wave. I got that from taiji.” Lee describes the movement in taiji as appearing to be seamless: “It’s called reeling in the silk. That’s adopted to the wave technique. It’s like making a circular motion to wave the person in.”
Ancient Chinese Roots
According to Lee, shiatsu as a bodywork modality has only been around about 100 years, but its origins date back to the ancient Chinese massage practices of anmo and tui na. “Way in the beginning,” he says, “an acupressure type of massage was practiced by blind people because of their ability to feel.” Anmo originally meant “comfort” and “touch.” Later the translation became an, meaning “to push” and mo, “to rub.” “The Chinese have a penchant to do that,” he says, explaining that words often evolve into new designations.
In contrast, taijiquan and qigong date back as early as 200 B.C., originating from Taoism. “Qigong,” Lee says, “is a series of exercises designed to gather and strengthen internal energy and develop power for issuing energy (qi in Chinese; ki in Japanese). Taijiquan, originally a form of martial arts, is now practiced by many mainly for exercise and health.” In his work, Lee uses the efficiency of taijiquan and the energy qualities of qigong.
The Western world has only recently become aware of the power of qi, primarily through energy demonstrations in martial arts and healing. “Prior to World War II,” Lee says, “no one conceived of breaking bricks with bare hands. The West was astounded. They had now seen energy at work. When China opened doors to the Western world, they saw more demonstrations of qi. As more news of these stories unfolded, the evidence of this form of qi became more apparent.” Lee defines external qi as a basic level of energy, generated through muscular tension and consisting of bones, tendons, skin, eyes, hands, body, waist and stance. Internal qi is the higher level of energy generated through the mind, consisting of heart, mind, spirit and courage.
As a demonstration of the power of qi, Lee shared a personal experience involving his late taiji master. After seeing the master do a taiji warm-up, Lee questioned how this could be martial arts. The master exerted what Lee felt as a punch, accompanied by an electric shock. In actuality, the master had only pushed him. “That was the beginning of something very valuable, but I never paid attention until I got to be older, when I decided to try the internal stuff. That’s what taiji is about.
“In actual situations, taijiquan is not slow. It’s martial arts.” Lee explains its evolution: A martial artist was practicing taijiquan in the forest when a Manchurian entourage came by. A statesman, seeing the movements he was executing, stopped to ask what he was doing. When the man replied it was martial arts, the statesman requested a demonstration of its use in fighting. A chief archer shot an arrow. The man caught the arrow and hurled it into a tree using qi. The man then caught a bird flying in mid-air. When he opened his hand, the bird could not fly away because of the position of the man’s hand. The statesman, duly impressed, invited the man to be in his court and teach him taijiquan. Because the statesman was portly and sedentary, the man was unsure if he could learn such a physical art. When he finally agreed to accept the statesman as a student, he modified the hard moves of the martial art to better match the stateman’s lack of fitness. “That is why the yang style is so soft and silky,” Lee concludes, noting that in the slowness of the yang style of taijichuan one can see his or her imperfections and correct them.
The necessary essentials for the taikyo style of discipline,” Lee says, “are compared to flavoring and ingredients of food required to form a whole dish.” They include spirit, energy, intent, calm, efficiency, posture, simplicity, balance, empty mind, readiness, intuition and presence.
“Spirit (shen) is a state of being,” Lee says, “a vital principle that emits qi.” When spirit is harmoniously orchestrated with mind (for planning and focus) and body (for movement, energy distribution and physical application of techniques) the result is enhanced performance of shiatsu as well as balance in everyday living. “Energy (ki) is familiar throughout the world as a force field. In human terms it is a life force or vitality, projecting vigor and well-being,” Lee says.
“Intent (I) is a volition or plan of action. It is a recipe for any preparation. Knowing the subject’s medical history would enable the therapist to focus the intention of primary assessment. Before I even touch the person I want to intend for that area to be tonified and not stagnated.” With intent, while the eyes are focused on the work area, and the therapist maintains presence with concentration and deliberate focused techniques, there is also an all-encompassing awareness of surroundings.
“Calm (shizuka na) is a state of non-agitation and serenity where the mind is stilled to receive any signals emanating from the subject,” Lee says. This increases the ability to focus. Efficiency (noritsu) as well as balance is important for full attention. Lee describes efficiency as “productivity without excessive motion, or minimum movement with maximum results.” This is illustrated by his tale of the martial artist and the judo teacher. “I don’t understand it,” the student says. “I’m bigger than you but I can’t seem to throw you.” The teacher replies, “It’s very simple. You make two moves, I only make one. I was more efficient than you.”
Simplicity (shibui), according to Lee, is also connected to efficiency. “It is unpretentious and unassuming virtue. You know how some people make an effort to create a windblown effect in hairstyling? That’s contrived. Simplicity is to let it go. Another term you can use, closely related to Zen, is called a single flower in a bare room. When you walk in there’s nothing there but one flower and that one flower becomes the focus. You can’t miss it; yet it’s only a single flower. It’s the thing that pulls your attention. In Zen they say it is the essence of nothingness. If it gets too elaborate, then it loses it’s meaning. Can you imagine a whole room with flowers all over the place? Take it all away and leave that one flower.”
Balance (heiken) encompasses the physical, mental and spiritual state. “Balance is required to be centered. If a person is in good balance, everything is working efficiently. If a person is mentally balanced, then they shall become physically balanced. If they are not physically balanced, then the mental and spiritual balance is not there either, Lee says. “The therapist must be physically centered with proper weight distribution at all times. If not, then part of the energy is being used to keep the person from falling. Then the person is also distracted from doing what they’re supposed to do by not being balanced. When a student says, ‘I can see,’ then I know their energy is flowing efficiently. It’s the same with ‘I can feel it.’ Then I know they have accomplished a balance.”
Receptiveness to information is an important aspect of any bodywork. “Empty mind (mu shin),” Lee says, “is the seat of receptivity. An empty mind, combined with calmness, will result in a high state of receptivity. Readiness (zanshin) is a state of alertness that is focused, and an awareness of the final move of a technique. The last move of a technique should be as strong as the first move.”
Lee delights in sharing stories and old tales to illustrate his point. For intuition (chokkan), he tells the samurai version of The Magnificent Seven. A man was seated at a desk opposite a doorway. He told his assistant to stand inside the doorway and as each of seven men entered, to hit them over their heads with a mallet. So, as each man entered, he was hit with the mallet — until the seventh one approached. This man walked to within three feet of the door and said, “Please, no tricks. Lower the mallet.” He used his intuition, as Lee emphasizes we should do in everyday life. “It is an instinctive sixth sense of insight. Intuition is perception and [for the therapist] sensing of troubled areas that need to be treated,” Lee says.
Working together with balance, posture (shisei) is “the proper body position without straining, thus enabling the full use of issuing energy. If there is imbalance, posture is affected and vice versa,” Lee says. Another important component of bodywork is breathing (shin kokyu). “What do most styles of qigong have in common? Slow deep breathing. This type of non-strenuous breathing literally permeates all the organs of the body with abundant oxygenated blood. It is the prime life force of the human system.”
And finally, there is presence (seisui). “Presence,” Lee says, “is the sum total of all the essentials mentioned. It is the person’s state of being. A person who has all these attributes mentioned above has presence, or a high state of being.”
Technique and Movement
The dantian/mingmen is the center of the person’s universe,” Lee says. “All energy emanates from this area.” The dantian is the frontal center just below the navel and connects to the mingmen, the posterior center directly opposite. Giving an example of how the dantian works, Lee refers to a toy found in Chinese curio shops. “It’s a drum with a handle and a string and ball attached to each side of the drum. When the handle is twirled, the balls will strike the front and back of the drum simultaneously. The drum signifies the center of one’s body. The balls signify the person’s extremities. In order for the balls to strike, the drum has to move. If not, nothing moves — there is no energy.
“Everything works from dantian, even when getting up or sitting down. It isn’t necessary to have to be very showy. You don’t have to see a large movement from dantian. Even when you’re standing still, the dantian is still working, collecting energy. A lot of therapists will work from the upper body while the rest of the body just hangs out. You have to work from the body as a team. That is where the wave technique is important, coupled with the dantian.”
The principles of yin–yang also factor into proper practice of Taikyo Shiatsu. “Techniques should use movements that will have an advantage of optimum efficiency,” Lee says. “One hand balances (yin), the opposite hand works (yang).” Similar to the positive/negative interaction of battery terminals in an automobile, the yin–yang terminals must be connected to transmit energy. “Eyes focused on the work area increase energy, concentration and transmission,” Lee explains. “Both hands must be on the subject so that there will be more efficient energy in action. If both hands are doing simultaneous motion, they will be the positive (yang) and the feet will become the negative (yin).”
Although shiatsu has traditionally been performed on a floor mat, with the therapist in the seiza position (sitting on the heels), for many people this approach is uncomfortable. Lee notes an increase in the use of table style shiatsu, due to the influence of European and Western approaches. Therefore, Taikyo Shiatsu has been adapted to tablework, with body mechanics and posture reconfigured to accommodate the change and maintain maximum efficiency. In his basic table style workshops, Lee’s instruction focuses on body posture (taiji) and proper breathing to promote energy and efficiency. In addition, training includes qigong and yin-yang principles to restore balance to meridians, and Japanese and Chinese philosophy and theory for release of stress-induced systemic imbalances.
For seated Taikyo Shiatsu, only a simple stool or office chair is required. “This chair massage,” Lee says, “is ideal for work sites or as a prelude to a full body massage for stubborn neck and shoulder situations. It opens the body’s energy pathways to release stagnated circulation.” Chair Taikyo Shiatsu uses the same ancient principles and techniques mentioned above, in a 15- to 20-minute application to the neck, shoulders, arms, hands and upper back areas. “The subject sits upright and relaxed while the therapist balances the subject with a supporting (yin) hand. The massaging (yang) hand, arm or elbow will complete the circuitry of energy transmission.” Lee notes that monks often sit for hours in this meditative position, so it is quite comfortable for the client. In both chair and table techniques, stretching is used to open meridians and promote energy flow.
Lee emphasizes the use of proper stances for performance of Taikyo Shiatsu (see “Movement and Stance”). “There’s a weakness and strong point for each stance. When you need forward and backward strength, you use a forward motion using the frontal stance.” When pushing, you are using the back leg. For pulling, use the front leg. “In taiji, it’s the balance,” Lee says. “In most cases, the body is in line with the head. When I see a therapist working at the table, it’s very important that the head not be bent.” To alleviate stress on the hands, Lee uses the palms, forearms and elbows to work on the client.
From this proper positioning, the therapist then uses the wave movement described earlier. “You don’t have to make a big wave on arms or on thighs and feet,” Lee says. “There’s a different timing, but they’re all waves.” Describing the swooshing sound made by a wave, Lee says, “Starting at the wrist is a shorter swoosh. On the leg or back, a longer swoosh. If the person says, ‘I’ve got this dull pain,’ you find the stagnation and use more repetition — use a bigger wave, but more waves. It’s still all waves. When a therapist goes in very hard, by the time the person says ‘ouch,’ it’s too late. When you have a buildup, the person can sense it may be a little too much pressure going in. When you just go in hard, it’s too deep.”
“This shiatsu style uses slow taikyo wave movements. There are no rapid, abrupt, hard or percussive movements. It is a yin (soft) form of meridian-oriented (not points) shiatsu. We’re not so much concerned about the stoplight (point) on the road; we’re more concerned about the roads (meridians) going from one to another. Given that problem areas will merit special attention, breathing from the dantian while doing this style will eventually become smooth and rhythmic as if performing taijiquan. That’s why I chose the Zen style, augmented by my taiji,” Lee says. “I am taught if you place your hand with a gripping palm, it covers the meridians. Since the application of taikyo style is derived from Zen shiatsu, taijiquan and qigong, it can help improve a healthier way of life as well as an efficient shiatsu practice.”
For more information on Taikyo Shiatsu and Lee’s training workshops, visit www.taikyoshiatsu.com.
Shirley Vanderbilt is a staff writer for Massage & Bodywork magazine.
Movement and Stance for Taikyo Shiatsu
Proper stances are essential for efficient transmission of energy from therapist to subject. The application of taikyo movement enables the transferring of energy from the therapist to the subject by the whole body working as a team rather than just the shoulders, arms and hands. Just having “good hands” has its merits, but having good qi emanating from the dantian has more value when the energy reaches the hands.
Forward motion: One foot forward in a “running position” when pushing or pulling. The back foot should be pointing slightly forward, not at a right angle to the front leg. Strength: Forward and backward.
Even weight: Plant both feet evenly apart when applying downward or spiraling pressure. This sinking movement increases the efficiency of the gravitational power when the weight of both feet are even. This sinking effect is called chum in taijiquan. Strength: Side and downward pressure.
Body bending: If bending is required, it should be from the waist with the leg in a lunge position. Taoists believed that energy flows up to the posterior aspect of the body (governing vessel) and flows down the frontal aspect (conception vessel) forming a continuous circuitry. This is known as microcosmic orbit. The head should not be bent from the neck. When this happens, the qi ascending from the back (governing vessel) will become impeded at the bent area. From a Western perspective, imagine the head as a bowling ball. When standing erect, the head is in line with the torso; it is at zero degrees axis. When the head tilts from the neck, there is a series of muscles restraining the head so that it won’t topple. If the head is in line with the body, there will be less strain on the muscles. If one has to bend, bend from the waist.
Pressure: Adhering to the wave technique, energy is gathered on inhale and is expended during exhale. Even though the breath is held while applying pressure, it is still considered to be in the exhale cycle.
—Ping Lee, C.S.T.