Shiatsu for Yoga and Self-Massage

Shiatsu (which means, literally, ‘finger pressure’) is a Japanese preventative manual therapy technique. In Shiatsu massage, vertical pressure (usually from the fingertips or palms) is applied to various points on the body—found using both anatomical knowledge and meridian knowledge—to produce wellness and ‘flow’ within the body’s energy systems. Pressure is usually applied, in order to guide energy through the body and clear blocked channels.

Many of us use these points unconsciously: when people feel pain in their bodies, they often naturally squeeze, massage and apply pressure to the area. This stimulates blood circulation, increases awareness (and thereby ability to respond to pain) and supports the metabolism of healing in the affected area. Shiatsu is especially successful in treating things like neck pain, but can also be used to deal with allergiesheadaches,  chronic pain, exhaustion and all sorts of other problems you might have. Plus, it just feels really nice.

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Learning a few Shiatsu points on your own body is a wonderful way to add a special level of care and support to your yoga practice. You can practice Shiatsu points regularly, and then use them in stressful situations as part of emotional first aid! In our English yoga classes at English Yoga Berlin, we integrate this teaching, step by step, so that students can slowly begin to learn their own bodies areas of strength and weakness, and thereby develop a highly personalized practice that meets their own health needs. Here is a blog discussing how Shiatsu and Yoga can complement each other, from a student’s perspective.

Two very useful points that relieve anxiety, exhaustion, sore eyes, neck tension, jaw ache and shoulder pain are Heavenly Pillar and Heavenly Rejuvenation. Heavenly Pillar is located on both sides of the neck, about one finger-width below the base of the skull and about one finger width on either side of the neck. Heavenly Rejuvenation is located on the shoulders, midway between the base of the neck and the outside of the shoulders, about 2cm below the top of the shoulders. Here is a graphic that shows both points.

The most important part of self massage is listening to your own body, so breathe deeply while you try finding these points and, when you find a point that feels good, stay there and apply gentle pressure. You might feel the point radiating outwards, into the muscles surrounding it. That’s a good sign. You don’t want to hurt yourself, so only press as firmly as you need to in order to feel a nice sensation. It’s recommended to press for about 1 minute—but feel free to stay longer if it feels good!

Yoga for Jaw and Neck Tension: Finding and Relaxing your Atlanto-occipital Joint

jaw tension

jaw tension

The atlanto-occipital joint is the joint at the very top of the cervical vertebrae: where the spine meets the skull. The very top vertebrae on the spine is called the atlas, and the two little curved, kidney-shaped bones that it meets at the skull are called the occipital condyles: hence the name, atlanto-occipital joint. It’s between your ears, at the back of your head—the spot where your head balances on your spine. Here is a cool 3D picture to give you a visual.

This is the joint that you use to nod your head (like you’re saying ”yes”). It’s connected to the upper back, to the shoulders, to the jaw and to the arms. So, if this joint is restricted, it can cause all kinds of chaos: headaches, shoulder ache, jaw ache, poor posture and overall difficulty balancing and moving freely. If you spend a lot of time looking at a computer screen, you probably have some rigidity in this joint. Equally, if you grind your teeth or have jaw or shoulder pain, you should probably learn to relax your atlanto-occipital joint—it will help! Conversely, when this joint is relaxed and stable, you will hold your head properly and your posture will be ”up” and ”open”.

Like with all bodywork, the first step is awareness. This joint is a very fine and subtle one. To find it, you need to gently explore, with small movements, the spot where your spine meets your skull. You can try making small circles with your head—imagine drawing little circles on the wall with your nose. You can also try making figure of eights (infinity symbols). Make sure you release your jaw and tongue intentionally as you do this. And, most important: these movements should feel good. They’re helping you bring fluidity and space to an area that is probably very tight. Just doing these movements for 5 or 10 minutes every day will help you bring awareness to the area, and that will begin to change your posture and habitual movements. Here is a cool video that shows you some ways to gain awareness of your atlanto-occipital joint.

As your awareness of the joint builds, you can start to build ”softening” it into your yoga practice. Every time you catch yourself glaring, setting your jaw, wrinkling your forehead—you’re probably contracting your atlanto-occipital joint, too. Make those little head movements a part of settling into every static pose, and release your jaw and tongue whenever you can remember to! Particularly good asana for feeling the state of the atlanto-occipital joint are Standing Forward Bend (Uttasana—please keep your knees a bit bent, especially for those of you with disc issues!) and Downward Facing Dog (keep that head loose!).