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The Essence of Bodywork

At its core, Bodywork is about communication.

As an “Art of Touch,” it is about making connections and allowing for a dialogue to emerge between the practitioner and receiver through the medium of touch. Using the lens of East Asian Medicine, the treatment becomes a healing encounter or ‘communicative act’ that addresses all dimensions of our human microcosm as an integral part of the broader dimensions of life. A practitioner unlocks the full potential of Bodywork as a healing encounter when they embody and engage with these profound connections.

Shinzui The Essence of Bodywork

This dialogue strengthens not only the receiver’s well-being it also fortifies the practitioner’s attunement to the web of life, allowing for it to touch on all aspects of our being.  In this brief exploration, my aim is to shed light on the multifaceted nature of Bodywork through the lens of Tian Di Ren (天地人), a central concept of East Asian Medicine embedded in East Asian culture that symbolizes the harmonious interconnection of Earth, Heaven, and Human.In our body, this concept of Tian Di Ren is represented by the tree Dantien, with the lower Dantian connected to the Earth, the middle Dantian connected to the Human plane, and the Upper Dantian connected to the Heavens. By understanding Bodywork through this prism of our human existence between the dualities of Heaven and Earth, we can better uncover and appreciate the breadth of Bodywork’s capabilities to heal and create balance. Then, we can see why it enables us to reconnect, realign, and harmonize the physical aspects of our being while helping to release what is stuck or out of balance in others.  Let us further unpack this concept of Earth, Heaven, and Human.Earth is our physical, energetic, and vital foundation, represented in the human body by the Hara or lower Dantian. At this physical, energetic, and vital level, Bodywork uses pressure, manipulations, and stretches, giving the skilled practitioner the necessary tools to open and regulate the energy flow in the channels and restore communication within and between the body’s systems. This, together with the supporting presence of Earth and the practitioner’s ability to listen with the hands, gut, and heart, enhances the therapeutic healing efficacy of Bodywork. Embodying these qualities requires the practitioner to focus on working from the Hara while continuously developing and refining their body mechanics. By doing this, the practitioner strengthens their life force center or Hara and enhances a deeper connection to the Earth’s grounding energy. We cannot stress enough the importance of the Hara, or lower Dantian, in Bodywork. It is our vital center and serves as a reservoir for Jing (精), the essence of vitality, and Genki (元氣), as the house of our primal energy. Hara grounds the practitioner. It is foundational to life and critical to the healing process. This is why Ampuku and Hara diagnostic techniques are fundamental and play an essential role in the practice and history of for example Shiatsu.

Shinzui Bodywork The Essence of Bodywork

The healing interaction between the practitioner and the receiver also involves the middle Dantien or Heart exemplifying the human aspect of connection. Being a tactile therapy that conducts the heart’s intention through the hands to harmonize and balance the body’s energies.  The power of the human touch allows for an immediate and direct bond between the receiver and practitioner. This silent dialogue relies heavily on the practitioner’s ability to listen attentively and engage authentically, offering their presence without judgment or preconceived objectives. In Bodywork, listening is a multi-sensory capacity, transcending beyond just the auditory. The traditional Chinese character ‘tīng’ (聽) best illustrates this capacity, embodying its meaning and symbolism. The character combines several elements, each contributing to the more profound connotation of what it truly means to listen. The radical ‘ěr’ (耳) on the left signifies the ear, and ‘mù’ (目) on the right represents the eye, indicating that actively listening involves hearing and seeing. Beneath the ear, the radical ‘wán’ (王), meaning King or Emperor, implies the integrity of mastering the art of listening. The base of the character ‘xī’ (心), represents the heart, mind, and spirit, signifying that deep listening involves the Heart, Mind, and Spirit. Adopting this holistic approach to listening with the Heart and Mind empowers us to empathize, understand, and connect deeply with our patients. Combining these characters into ‘tīng’ (聽) reminds practitioners that listening is an act of complete attentiveness and presence, engaging all the senses.

To anchor listening, it must be supported by ‘Dé’ (德), a Daoist attribute often interpreted as virtue, inner power, or integrity. By embodying this level of practice, bodywork transcends simple therapeutic intervention and becomes a practice of cultivating virtue and character. In this space, practitioners can communicate peace and alleviate needless suffering.

The Essence of Bodywork

In the upper Dantien, Shen transmutes into Emptiness or ‘Wu Ji’  (無極), a process naturally supported by a strong Hara and an open and balanced Heart center. This foundational support allows informed bodywork to deepen our spiritual connection and harmonize with the Dao. Dedicated practitioners can unlock this potential through meditative practices that nurture stillness and emptiness. With a firm grounding in these principles, in both practice and life, practitioners can more effortlessly address the challenges we encounter. Anchoring our practice in stillness and  ‘Wu Wei’ (無為) or non-action, we attain an understanding of and communication with our patients, aligned with the holistic patterns and unity of the web of life as described in the Huangdi Neijing Lingshu. This ancient text illustrates how “The six vibrational patterns of the universe establish the twelve channels, therefore, represent the concrete way in which the organ systems of the human body are receiving, and are in resonance with, the Dao of heaven.” [1] The twelve channels epitomize how connected our physical being is with the universal energies. When we embody this understanding, we capture the essence of Bodywork.

In summary, informed by East Asian Medicine principles, bodywork facilitates communication and connection through touch. It enables a profound dialogue between practitioner and receiver, touching on all dimensions of existence and contributing to overall well-being. Ultimately, this brings forward the essence of bodywork, which is about honing our ability to connect with and communicate stillness and clarity.

[1] Huangdi Neijing Lingshu, Chapter 11, Heiner Fruehauf “The Lung and the Tiger Image”


Philippe Vandenabeele is a Senior Shiatsu practitioner and teacher based in Fukuoka Japan. With more than 30 years of clinical and teaching experience, Philippe has consolidated his knowledge, insights and practical experience to de- velop his own unique approach: Ampuku Visceral Therapy.

For more information about his work: Ampuku Visceral Therapy is a whole-body manual therapy firmly rooted in Eastern bodywork traditions with a special focus on abdominal work, meridian work, and enriched with Western visceral, craniosacral, fascial and musculoskeletal bodywork.

He is the author of ‘Ampuku Abdominal Acupressure: The Classics at the Heart of Japanese Bodywork’ which includes the first complete English translation of the ‘Ampuku Zukai‘ and the chapters on Ampuku and Fukushin from the ‘Anma Tebiki’

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