When clients inquire about “walking on your back” massages, it’s ashiatsu they’re looking for. Ashiatsu barefoot massage is an ancient healing art that’s evolved from its origins in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to a sought-after spa massage technique. Ashiatsu offers massage therapists a unique way to set themselves apart while giving your arms and hands a break.
Upcoming Ashiatsu Massage Classes
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What Is Ashiatsu Massage?
“Ashiatsu” gets its name from the Japanese words for foot (“ashi”) and pressure (“atsu”). It’s a form of deep tissue bodywork performed only with the therapist’s bare feet. It uses the therapist’s body weight for a massage deeper than any standard deep tissue therapy.
While it can be performed through clothing, most sessions are performed directly on the skin using oil or lotion. Clients lie on a padded table, and the therapists use a pair of ceiling-mounted ashiatsu bars to steady themselves. The therapists are then able to perform deep, broad strokes safely and fluidly. It’s often referred to as “gravity-assisted effleurage“.
Ashiatsu works with gravity to achieve one of the deepest massages possible without feeling “pokey” or harsh. Therapists can use the ball, heel, side or whole bottom of their foot for targeted or broad pressure. Pressure is controlled using the overhead bars, by shifting weight or by using one or both feet at a time. Some therapists find that their clients achieve the results they want in shorter, 20- to 45-minute sessions instead of the typical 60 to 90 minutes.
It’s important to note that while their names are similar, shiatsu massage and ashiatsu bare foot massage are two different modalities. Ashiatsu has a distant relationship with TCM and uses the therapist’s feet as the primary tools. Shiatsu is firmly rooted in TCM and uses the thumbs as the primary tool.
History of Ashiatsu Massage
Barefoot massage techniques date back 3,000 years or more. It’s been practiced everywhere from Africa to the Pacific Islands. One of ashiatsu’s oldest ancestors is Chavutti Thirumal, an Ayurvedic technique that required the practitioner use a rope hung from the ceiling for balance.
Traditional ashiatsu is rooted in TCM. Its practitioners weren’t concerned with muscle aches or relaxation. They were preoccupied with the flow of energy, or chi, within the body. The steps they took were plotted along traditionally recognized energy meridians and were meant to stimulate or redirect energy flow in the body.
What we know today as ashiatsu is a Western invention. It was created by massage therapist Ruthie Piper Hardee, who first saw barefoot massage performed in the Philippines. Seeking a deep tissue method that was easier on her hands, Hardee combined barefoot massage techniques from multiple cultures with her Western massage training. She introduced her technique in 1999, and it’s grown in popularity ever since.
In an interview with Body Sense Magazine, Hardee emphasized that her technique is based in medically-based Western massage rather than tradition-based Eastern massage. “It is blood, bone, meat and potatoes, orthopedic surgeons, chiropractors, doctors,” she said. “That’s my world, that’s where I came from. So, our technique, even though the roots are Asian, it is Western.”
Benefits of Ashiatsu Massage
Ashiatsu offers the benefits of deep tissue massage with the feeling of a Swedish massage. It’s fluid and relaxing but deep and effective. Some clients even fall asleep on the table. Because the pressure can penetrate the stiffest muscles, it’s popular with athletes.
Key ashiatsu massage benefits include:
- Deep tissue massage without discomfort or bruising
- Deep relaxation in shorter sessions
- Deepest possible pressure for extreme tension, chronic stiffness or dense muscle mass
- Improved range-of-motion
- Improved posture
- Increased flexibility
- Improved circulation
- Relief from muscle pain and stiffness
- Increased feelings of relaxation and well-being
Because ashiatsu massage techniques focus on the back, it can be especially beneficial for people with chronic back or hip pain. It’s believed to help increase the space between discs in the back, freeing the nerve bundles that exit the spine and increasing blood flow to the area.
Ashiatsu is also beneficial to the massage therapist. Even with perfect body mechanics, traditional massage can wear down the thumbs, hands, arms and shoulders of a hard-working therapist. Ashiatsu takes the stress off of the upper body and makes performing massage a matter of gravity. It’s an ideal choice for bodyworkers with arthritis or back pain themselves.
Ashiatsu Massage Training
Both trademarked and non-trademarked ashiatsu certifications are available. Each school offers its own techniques and routines. Which you prefer is a matter of personal preference. Having a trademarked certification can also help with advertising, but the courses are often more expensive up-front. Because it doesn’t demand a large continuing education investment, ashiatsu is one of the easier modalities to get started in. Introductory ashiatsu massage training courses begin at around 8 credit hours. Standard training can take between 15 and 35 credit hours, and comprehensive training in multiple techniques averages just 65 credit hours.
There are other barefoot massage techniques available in continuing education as well. Ashi-Thai combines Thai massage stretching with ashiatsu. Non-bar and clothed ashiatsu is easier for mobile practices. You can also explore regional variations, such as Fijian barefoot massage.
Ashiatsu training doesn’t take long, and the its luxury appeal can be useful for attracting new clientele. Whether you’re looking to expand your practice or save your hands, ashiatsu is a valuable modality to explore.