KIATSU: The Healing Art of Aikido
by David Sonnenschein
Aikido, a martial art developed in Japan during the 20th century, translates
from its Japanese origin as "Flowing with the Universe as a way of Life." It
is distinct from other martial arts (that are often practiced to gain
fighting prowess) by developing a strong body and a mind that is calm, and
whose natural reaction in a confrontational environment is defense rather
than offense. The ultimate goal in Aikido is for the individual to develop
mental, physical, and spiritual integration with a general sense of
well-being, especially while dealing with the stress of daily life.
Along with training in self-defense, are Aikido practices in meditation,
breathing and healing. The healing practice is known as Kiatsu (not to be
confused with Shiatsu that works with the meridian system and deep pressure)
and was developed to correct injuries that occurred while practicing Aikido.
It expanded to encompass a broad range of techniques to help a myriad of
physical ailments such as backaches, headaches, menstrual cramps, painful or
dislocated joints, weak internal organs, scar tissue and circulation
problems. The basic principles of Aikido are fundamental to all the healing
work, so we'll first get an overview of what those are.
FOUR BASIC PRINCIPLES OF AIKIDO
All four of the following principles are interdependent and you cannot
accomplish one without all the others. Conversely, if one principle is being
done properly, you will naturally be able to do all of them.
1. KEEPING ONE-POINT
One-point is physically located just below the belly button and is the
balance point of the weight of our body. It is our center of movement,
will-power and knowledge of the physical world around us. There are many
centers in our body relating to different kinds of energy (e.g. heart for
emotions, throat for communication, third eye for intuition, etc.), but in
Aikido the one-point is the focus.
Keeping one-point basically means to keep your balance. This is accomplished
by having a sturdy triangular support of the body, whether you are standing,
sitting, or in any other posture. Exercises train and test the ability to
withstand a push or pull, so that ideally nothing can knock you over. You
are simply rooted to the ground with no effort.
2. BE RELAXED
This sounds simple, but most of us carry around tension somewhere in our body
(as well as our mind) which can keep us from being fully present. Relaxation
also requires attention and practice, especially with the daily stress most
of us endure. Breathing and meditation exercises are very useful to
alleviate this stress and increase relaxation. Kiatsu will not work properly
if the practitioner is carrying tension, as they will not be able to feel
what is going on with the subtle energies in the person being treated, only
3. WEIGHT UNDERSIDE
The concept of "weight underside" is analogous to the idea of water running
to its lowest possible level. As our body is made mostly of water, it should
feel like it is totally obeying gravity and allowing itself to drop toward
the ground with no resistance. This can be demonstrated by holding the top
end of a pole or cane that touches the floor on the other end, using first
the thumb and forefinger. Someone tries lifting the pole and finds it fairly
easy because the muscle tension created follows the top of the arm toward the
neck and head. Doing this a second time holding the pole with the two
smallest fingers, we discover that when someone tries to lift the pole now,
it seems much heavier. This is because the muscle tension follows a line
downward like water, under the arm, down the chest to the one-point.
4. EXTENSION OF KI
Tai Chi refers to this as "chi", yoga calls it "prana." Ki is the life force
that flows through the universe and our beings. Although it is not normally
visible, this energy can be recorded with Kirilian photography, and some
clairvoyants can actually see this in colors and shapes around bodies.
The extension of Ki means that we are not holding on or keeping this for
ourselves. We have no fear in sharing, because there is an abundance of this
energy available for all. As a matter of fact, by extending Ki to another,
the universe actually supplies even more to yourself as you become an
effective conductor. When you practice Kiatsu, it is common to feel more
energized after you have been giving to another, because the channeling of
this energy benefits both the healer and receiver.
THE FEELING OF KI ENERGY
A simple exercise helps to feel how Ki can be expressed for each person.
Holding your hands palms facing each other a few inches apart, imagine a ball
of energy. (This is very similar to the Tai Chi exercise of creating an
imaginary sun between the curved arms.) When you feel any sensation at all,
experiment with the distance between the hands to see if the energy rises and
falls accordingly. There is no one correct sensation, so it can be as
diverse as heat, pressure, tingling, electrical, cooling or magnetic force.
Further exercises refine both sensation and projection of Ki, so that the
practitioner can be very specific in the treatment needed. The field of Ki
energy coming from an injury or unhealthy tissue can be distinguished by its
texture, size, boundaries, origin and directionality. After sensing this,
the healer adapts their quality of extension of Ki to what is appropriate for
the condition being treated.
WHEN TO USE KIATSU
Sometimes there can be an occasion to apply Kiatsu in first-aid. For
example, someone may twist an ankle on a curb and with Kiatsu treatment done
immediately, this can prevent any swelling and diminish the pain greatly, as
well as avoid a long recovery period. However, in these circumstances one
must be aware of the social and legal implications, using good judgement and
intelligent verbal communication so that both the healer and the injured
person are comfortable with this kind of treatment.
In a classroom situation or with a client, the controlled atmosphere lends
itself to treating more complex, long-term ailments, and can utilize multiple
treatments with follow-up. It can be applied as purely a Kiatsu treatment,
or integrated into other disciplines and techniques. The principles of
Aikido can enhance any practitioner's awareness and application of energy, as
well as helping the patients with their own health.
THE FOURS STAGES OF KIATSU TREATMENT
A Kiatsu treatment ideally consists of a complete, relaxed approach to the
health problem with four consecutive stages: diagnosis, set-up,
First through dialogue, the practitioner establishes a history of the
ailment, including both physical and psychological elements. What happened?
How long ago? Is it chronic or acute? What health and environmental
conditions surround the problem? What was the baseline healthy state before
the problem occurred?
Then through scanning with the Ki energy, a direct diagnosis of the
individual's problem is obtained, including information relating to tissues,
interaction between organs, and pathways of nervous or muscular disorders.
An analogy is sonar, which emits a signal which reflects back a simile of the
environment. Movement of the joints using principles of Aikido can also
reveal the exact origin of a problem. Note that the more subtle energies are
easier to read before touching the physical body.
Sometimes it is useful to ask about the history of the ailment only after
doing the scanning, so that there is no intellectual influence upon the
energy diagnosis. If indeed the healer is working from one-point, then the
information can be remarkably accurate and serve both the healer and the one
being healed in building a strong confidence level in the treatment. This
psychological factor can add an extra boost to the recovery rate.
To prepare an area for a direct injection of Ki energy, sometimes it is
necessary to treat the surrounding area first. In the case of a very
sensitive or painful point, this can be a kind of anesthetizing of the area.
If there is a lot of tension, the soft tissues may need to be relaxed above
and below the trauma. And in more cases, it is necessary to actually induce
tension at specific points so that the body itself will work in conjunction
with the healer when, for example, a vertebra must be moved.
When a long-term problem is being dealt with, often there are a series of
compensations that the body has created to try to balance itself. Like a
temporal jigsaw puzzle, it is important to follow a specific sequence of
preparations to be able to reach the root cause.
In general, the flow of Ki energy originates from the spine and moves outward
along the nerve pathways, accumulating at specific "trigger" points. This is
contrary to massage (e.g. Swedish) that works with the cardiac system by
moving the fluids from the extremities toward the heart. Therefore, these
styles of treatment can be best used during separate sessions.
Weakened or diseased organs can be treated with the revitalizing energy of
Ki, which increases the blood flow and nourishment to the area. This type of
treatment usually requires a series of applications to make a significant
change in health, but the symptoms may begin to improve within the first
On the grosser physical side of treatment, Kiatsu can set out-of-place joints
with a minimal use of force by applying the Aikido principles and proper
preparation of the surrounding tissues. In fact, the injured body helps to
rectify the problem by simply being guided to the position for the joint to
fall back into place by itself. The guiding must be exact, though, following
a specific trajectory lead by the practitioner.
Pain (headaches, contusions, cramps, etc.) can be alleviated with application
of Kiatsu, by affecting the nerves and blood pressure. Treating the symptoms
can often lead to a shift in the core cause, as the traumatic walls are
dissolved. So once the acute pain subsides, then there can be a deeper area
accessed to be treated effectively.
Note, however, that eliminating the pain entirely may not be the best path
(even if it feels so good at the moment for both the healer and the healed),
as this pain can serve to remind the person that their body is still
healing. Unfortunately most people disregard the advice to take it easy if
there is no pain, and can worsen the problem by using and abusing the injured
area too soon.
Immediately after receiving a Kiatsu treatment, a person should be made aware
of the changes that may have occurred on deeper levels than they feel
physically, and what they might expect in regards to their recovery over the
following hours, days and weeks. Perhaps they may need to avoid some
activities, food or environment, or do some rehabilitation exercises.
Why has the person entered into this state of dis-ease in the first place?
Perhaps the cause of, for example, a lower back problem stems from
compensation with the neck that is straining because of bad eyesight in front
of the computer for many hours. Besides alleviating the painful symptoms,
the Kiatsu practitioner can be most helpful in discovering the underlying
cause of the problem. If it is some habit that develops bad posture, then
the person must first become aware of this and be given some suggestion for
rectifying the cause (like get a new eyeglass prescription).
Often there may be subconscious emotional issues or perhaps even a deeper
layer of karmic or pastlife elements that have provoked the physical
symptoms. These analyses are outside the realm of Kiatsu per se, but are
worthwhile to be mentioned if they seem apparent. If the person is open to
pursuing a more complete healing, other health practitioners can be
recommended in the appropriate areas.
NERVE "TRIGGER POINTS"
There exists a neural network of "trigger points" that are fundamental in
Kiatsu. When activated, these release muscle tension, increase blood flow
and stimulate nerve pathways. Some lie near the surface and others are deep
under muscle tissue or behind bones. They often are activated in specific
sequences during the set-up stage of the treatment.
The application of Ki is done usually with some pressure, but interestingly
the points respond more effectively when the pressure is released and the Ki
continues to increase with a light touch. It is as though the tissues relax
their guard, and then the Ki has much freer entrance.
THE FOUR DIMENSIONS IN KIATSU
The idea of dimensionality is a useful image for learning the concepts of
Kiatsu, as well as applying this in practice. This is not a traditional
teaching, but rather an approach to the subject that I have developed on my
1. FIRST DIMENSION - EXISTENCE
The first question arises, does this energy exist? To feel this reality, we
must bring it into our awareness, its first dimension of being.
Consciousness, energy and matter are transmutable according to esoteric
philosophies, as well as quantum physics and holographic theories of the mind
and the universe. The first dimension helps us with the "where" or position
of the experience.
In this healing work, it's very important to know that what you're feeling is
being generated internally or externally, even though in an ultimate sense,
we transcend these boundaries. So we use different hands to feel one area on
another person, or use the same hand on different areas. This helps us
distinguish where the energies are originating from, what is being
transmitted from outside and what you are fabricating from the inside.
When you scan with your hand you should always maintain one-point, so as not
to generate muscle tension or change in blood pressure in your own body that
might create a kind of energy "noise" or interference. The more relaxed you
are, the easier it is to sense the changes outside of your own body.
2. SECOND DIMENSION - DIRECTION
The second dimension helps us first to perceive, then to control the
direction of the flow of Ki. This is most easily developed in exercises with
a partner, where one person receives in the palm while the other transmits
from their fingertips. The flow has a very distinct direction that can
consciously be altered simply by changing from the fingers to the palm
between the partners.
The principle of directionality applies to both diagnosis and treatment of a
condition. When the flow (or lack) of Ki is observed in an unhealthy body,
this can give clues as to the cause of the problem, which may not be where
the symptom or pain is occurring. During treatment, the Ki may need to flow
up or down, right or left, so that the practitioner should learn to master
this ability to control directionality with extension of Ki.
3. THIRD DIMENSION - FORM
The third dimension is what we commonly sense as the solid nature of our
world, giving form to our bodies and their tissues, organs and energies.
Beyond the physical touch, visual cues and verbal descriptions, the Ki energy
can help identify the shapes, boundaries, textures, linkages and current
state of health in the body.
The interrelationship between cause and effect within the body can often be
traced through a sequence of three-dimensional linkages. For example, if
someone has a bad knee, this may be from an imbalance in the hip or lower
spine that is being compensated in the leg. Like a jigsaw puzzle, this can
be discovered and treated with Kiatsu.
4. FOURTH DIMENSION - TIME
Diagnosis, treatment and education function in the context of time, meaning
that the past, present and future must be perceived as integral to the
process. Information of the past can come verbally, visually or intuitively
through the awareness of energy fields. There can be several possible roots
of a problem, such as illness, trauma, environment, posture, emotions or
genetics. These past experiences and elements come together like a funnel
into the "now."
This "now" spreads forward in time toward many branches, possible futures,
including health, relative stasis or disease. Our task is to visualize a
healthy future. This can be fairly rapid, for example, in the form of seeing
a tense muscle relax before it has actually relaxed. Or it can be a longer
term imaging, like healing broken bones or unravelling a complex pathology
that has taken years to build up.
Sharing this "future vision" with the person helps greatly, as the mutual
positive imaging helps generate the transformation of consciousness to energy
to matter. Words can be very helpful in communicating and synchronizing
intent through the fourth dimension, while educating the person as to how to
avoid aggravating the problem and increasing the chances of a complete cure.
This can include modification of posture, work habits, exercise, diet,
emotional states, relationships or seeking diagnosis and/or treatment from
other therapists in specific fields.
My experience is that everyone can learn Kiatsu and that it can certainly
improve your own mental and physical health along the way. The speed to which
each person can develop these skills will vary, but it is surprising how many
can feel the Ki energy when it may have never even been a conscious presence
I am a case in point. My introduction to Kiatsu was through a couple
personal injuries (not related to Aikido) that were healed by my Aikido
master, B.J. Carlisle in La Jolla, California in 1975. Having a father as a
medical doctor and holding a degree in Biology, I was very grounded in
rational science at the time. So I was completely astounded by the ease and
quickness of the healings and inquired as to how I might learn this as well.
B.J. was just beginning to teach Kiatsu, so I eagerly joined the class and
studied intensely for a year.
We developed our sensitivities to Ki, learning how to perceive, direct and
modulate the energy with exercises in pairs. Our experience of how the body
worked without worrying about the anatomical names allowed us to note when
the flows were smooth or broken, aligned or out of balance.
Each week we would treat a different part of the body with a guest who really
needed help. B.J. would first do the diagnosis without speaking, then each
student would do the same and then we would all share our perceptions,
comparing notes. The differences were as important as the similarities, so
that each person could identify their own style of perception and receive
validation for this. There are no set rules how the Ki should feel, but the
emphasis is on how to interpret and what to do with the energy forms.
In return for receiving this teaching, B.J. requested that we pass this on to
whoever is motivated to also learn and practice the healing art. I feel
privileged to do this now.