Shiatsu - at the source

1992 was when I first learned shiatsu. I was studying to become a massage therapist and learning shiatsu introduced me to the eastern ways of thinking about the body, it’s health and it’s healing. Shiatsu is a japanese form of bodywork and what I learned in those classes still underlies the work I do today. My techniques and tools have changed and I’ve built on that foundation, but the basic ideas of qi and affecting it’s circulation by stimulating points on certain pathways to help the body re-establish healthy function is still at the core of the acupuncture I do today.

While in Japan I was excited to get some shiatsu treatments - I was at the source! Shiatsu massage is traditionally done with the receiver lying on a futon on the floor as the practitioner moves around them, applying pressure to certain points and moving your limbs through range of motion stretches. The intention is to open blockages and activate the body’s qi circulation. It’s precise work - much like the country I was experiencing as I travelled through Japan. Shiatsu is done over the clothes - both times I was handed a pair of pajamas to change into before the treatment. During each massage the practitioner covered the part of my body they were working on with a small towel.

The first appt was done on a massage table and was just finger pressure. It was as if I had twenty vertical lines on my back and she was going to trace each one slowly, one thumb press at a time. Once I stopped wondering if there was going to be more to it, I found it relaxing, just different than the shiatsu I was expecting. Once again learning the lesson - let go of expectations! Language was quite a barrier for me in Japan (ie I speak and read zero Japanese) so I was limited to places that were open to foreigners. I had found this spa because they had a signboard in english out on the street, around the corner from my airbnb. It was a lovely space on the 4th floor of what appeared to be an office building. I couldn’t ask any questions so I just went with it.

there’s a spa is tucked away on the 4th floor of this building

there’s a spa is tucked away on the 4th floor of this building

The 2nd treatment was at Hiyoshido, a spa in a traditional japanese house on a back alley in Gion, a neighborhood in Kyoto. The treatment room was typical old style japanese - tatami mats and a futon on the floor. There were several bolsters and for most of the treatment I lay on my side supported by a long body pillow. This was more similar to the shiatsu I had studied so many years ago, I could recognize the meridians she was working and the stretches she was moving me through. I felt deeply relaxed but totally awake afterwards. My practitioner spoke a little english (for which I was grateful) and she told me my lower back was very tight. Then she thanked me for coming to their spa and gave me a gift - a thank you card with a sheet of stickers! I heart Japan.

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Treat the feet

In Chinese Medicine, many meridian pathways start and end on the feet. Treating the feet activates circulation in these pathways and has a strong therapeutic effect on the body. As I traveled through Asia, it became clear that treating the feet is a part of traditional medicines in many countries.

We stayed a small, locally owned hotel in Vietnam. When we got back to our room the first night, we found a small wooden tub with salt and herbs lining the bottom along with instructions for a foot soak. The next morning the owner told us that the evening herbal foot baths had been a tradition in her family for generations. She said treating the feet “opens up the whole body” and pretty much guarantees a sound sleep. We agreed.

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Japan also gets the importance of treating the feet. There are traditional and more modern treatments to be found. It is a volcanic island, dotted with hot mineral springs. An onsen is traditional spas built near a hot spring and people come to bathe and soak in the hot mineral healing waters. The spas run the gamut from luxury hotel/inns to the public bath houses. Often times the towns will also have a public foot spa called Ashiyu. These are small pools lined by benches where people can sit and soak their feet in the local healing waters. These ashiyu are free and open to the public. We stayed at an iinn in the town of Kaga Onsen and there was an ashiyu next door. I’m still sad I didn’t get my feet in there!

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But if you are in Japan and don’t have access to a healing hot spring , you can always go to the drugstore and pick up a box of detox foot pads. There are lots of options. Put one on each foot at the end of the day, go to sleep and let it pull the toxins out of your body overnight. I didn’t get a chance to try these while I was in Japan but I may buy a box at San Mart (NYC’s local japanese grocery) and see how it goes!

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Medicinal herbs in Vietnam. Same, same.

Yesterday we visited the Museum for Traditional Vietnamese Medicine here in Ho Chi Minh City. It’s run by a medicinal herb company (FITO) so understandably the focus is primarily on herbal medicine. It’s filled with all kinds of antiques - herb processing tools, early texts and vessels for cooking and storing herbs. One wall of shelves holds small glass bottles, each containing an herb sample. The walls of another room are covered floor to ceiling with botanical watercolors of individual herbs. Most of the herbs are the same ones I study and use in my practice today.

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Today we walked through HCMC’s Chinatown and found a street lined with medicinal herb shops. The storefronts are open and giant sacks of raw herbs are stacked along the street. Herbs in baskets and on mats are drying in the sun Scooters lined up in front of shops as people stopped to pick up their prescriptions. I appreciated the historical preservation at the museum but was even more happy to see the herbs out in the sunshine and on the streets, readily available and doing their thing in the present day.

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Peppercorn appreciation in Kampot, Cambodia.

Today I took a tuk tuk to an organic pepper farm in the hills outside Kampot, Cambodia. The soil is rich in red quartz and is fertilized by the guano of bats that live in the nearby caves. This soil, in combination with moderate amounts of sun, rainfall and temperatures make for remarkable peppercorns. Until today, I really knew nothing about peppercorns…. I just say yes whenever someone offers to grind it on my pasta. Happily, I know more now.

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Advice from Singapore

When my husband joined me in Singapore he had a bit of a lingering cough from a nasty Brooklyn winter cold. As we were exploring the city, we found ourselves in Chinatown so we stopped in a chinese medicine pharmacy to get him a formula. We talked with the woman there and she recommended a couple options. I looked them over and picked the one I thought was the best fit for him. As she was ringing us up, he took a bite of the ice cream popsicle I was eating (it was Durian flavored - I had to try it!) Our friend at the register gasped, she seemed horrified, and she admonished Cesar “You will never get better eating ice cream! You need to control your mouth!”

I love her. I’m not sure I can carry it off with the same style she had but “you need to control your mouth” may now be my new favorite wellness recommendation for patients, for myself and for Cesar. He has started the formula and he says he had every intention of taking control of his mouth just as soon as we leave Singapore.

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Skimmed, scrubbed, and steamed the surface

I did not panchakarma. Time, enemas - it was just more than I wanted to take on… But I was curious about aruveydic body treatments so I went the day spa route. My treatments were more focused on maintaining balance as opposed to specifically addressing a medical issue. There are earlier posts about the massage (abyhanga) and the oil therapy on the forehead (shirodhara) but let’s talk sweat box (swedana karma) and powder scrub (udwarthana). HIGHLY RECOMMEND!

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You say ama , I say damp.

This started as a blog post about Cinnamon, the differences and similarities between the Chinese Medicine uses of cinnamon and the Aruveydic uses of cinnamon. The primary differentiation I could find was that in Chinese Medicine we use Cinnamon Cassia which is darker in color that the Cinnamomum Verum that is used in Aruveyda. Chinese medicine uses the twig (gui zhi) as well as the bark (rou gui). Aruveyda uses the inner bark, which is lighter in color then the twig, as well as cinnamon oil, which is usually used topically and is found in the leaves.

But it’s the shared theory that I found more interesting. In Chinese Medicine we talk a lot about “damp”. Damp is what accumulates in the body when the digestive process is compromised. When our system can’t simply absorb what we need and eliminate the rest, a murky in-between substance develops. This is damp. It mucks up the smooth functioning of pretty much every system - including the digestive, skin, gynecological and respiratory. Western medicine hasn’t quite figured out a corresponding theory to “damp” but Aruveyda did. “Ama” is the aruveydic parallel to damp. It’s a sanskrit word that literally translates to “undigested” or “uncooked”. I found a paper that describes Ama as “toxic goo”. That pretty much says it right? Ama, like Damp is created when the digestive fires are weak and the body isn’t able to fully absorb nutrients and eliminate waste products. An undigested substance accumulates and systems get sluggish, symptoms of murky accumulation begin to show. Bloating, swollen joints, skin eruptions, cysts, fatigue - the list is long.

Damp in the body is generally not this picturesque

Damp in the body is generally not this picturesque

Both medicines agree that the way to treat Ama / Damp is to stoke the digestive fires. Enter cinnamon. Cinnamon is warm and spicy in nature and activates circulation. It brings spark (yang) to the center and stokes the body’s fire. In both medicines, we steep it into tea, add it to food and rub it on the body (either as an oil or as part of a liniment). Cinnamon warms the qi, gets it moving and helps it burn off the damp. Once the damp is gone, the body’s qi mechanism is restored and healthy smooth functioning is restored!

The sun, like cinnamon, brings the yang and clears the mist / damp / ama.

The sun, like cinnamon, brings the yang and clears the mist / damp / ama.