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Massage Today
January, 2001, Vol. 01, Issue 01

Bodywork Therapies of Asia

By Barbra Esher, AOBTA CI. Dipl. ABT & Ac. (NCCAOM), LAc

"What are you doing here?" was the question put to me 10 years ago at a meeting in Maryland to create a massage law. It may be the same question you are asking now when you look at an Asian medicine column in a massage publication.

The woman who made that comment had a point.

Asian bodywork therapies (ABT), a term used to include shiatsu, acupressure and other forms of bodywork with their roots in China, have no resemblance to "massage" as she knew it and would complicate the process of getting her law passed. She was right, there are few similarities.

If you put massage and ABT curricula side by side, the only places they would overlap are anatomy, physiology, ethics and CPR, leaving the remaining 400 hours to deal with entirely different techniques, treatment principles and practice. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) administers our national board exam. For all intents and purposes, Asian Bodywork Therapies (ABT) are not massage, they fall under the umbrella of Asian medicine.

But wait a minute. Of the 30 states with massage laws, and the 23 responding to a survey given by the Maryland Board of Chiropractors, 20 of those states include shiatsu and other forms of ABT under their laws. And over 1,000 massage therapists list that they on the AMTA website locator service, perform forms of ABT (like shiatsu and acupressure).

According to the AMTA standards of practice and code of ethics, their members, "meet the standards established for his or her profession" and they "market themselves in an accurate, truthful and ethical manner." So you would assume that they have passed the NCCAOM OBT exam or at least have met the standards to sit for it. Sadly, this is not the case. Few have met a fraction of the standards established for the profession.

I do not mean to single out AMTA this seems to be an accepted practice in the massage field. Yet I find it more painful to see it done by AMTA members because I associate them with high ethical and professional standards.

ABMP's website is no better, revealing just as many practitioners who misrepresent themselves. They don't list shiatsu as a separate modality, though. They call it an "interest."

The International Massage Association (IMA) has far fewer practitioners who listed other modalities on their website, but that may be because it costs more to list techniques. The more they pay, the more they can list, with no verification in training. Still, the most skilled shiatsu practitioner that I could come up with only had 20 hours of training!

I know there are many well-trained, proficient bodywork therapists practicing forms of Asian Bodywork Therapy (ABT), but unfortunately, they seem to be outnumbered by those with minimal or no training in ABT.

Many massage therapists think of ABT forms such as shiatsu and acupressure as "massage," but few have had the training to fulfill the national standards. So, I see my column as a great opportunity to educate people on the depth and breadth of Asian Bodywork Therapy (ABT).

In this column, you are not going to find simplistic suggestions like, "for a headache, press LI-4." That may mask the symptoms, but it won't address the cause, and besides, it will only be effective if it is a yangming headache. What you need to do first is look at the client's five element type and emotional and spiritual relationship to the headache. Then differentiate whether it is jueyin, yangming, shaoyang or taiyang; if it is caused by an excess or deficiency; dampness, wind, heat or cold and so on. Then you can choose points and meridians that will not only relieve the symptoms of the headache, but treat the root of the problem as well.

Besides headaches, other topics I'd like to focus on include back pain, shoulder pain, menstrual irregularities and other common problems our clients bring to us.

Send in your suggestions for future topics. I must emphasize, though, we don't "treat" any of these conditions. We look at the signs and symptoms that the client is presenting, then find and treat the underlying root of the problem. Using Chinese medicine treatment principles and techniques, our goal is to bring our clients into a state of homeostasis in which they can heal themselves.

Reading this column will not give you the level of skill to say that you practice shiatsu or acupressure. But I'm hoping that it will inspire you to study this ancient healing art so that you can truly call it your own.

For a list of schools that fulfill the standards to sit for the national NCCAOM OBT exam, go to For information about the exam, go to

Click here for previous articles by Barbra Esher, AOBTA CI. Dipl. ABT & Ac. (NCCAOM), LAc.


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