Best Foot Forward: Barefoot Ashiatsu Massage Therapy

Written by Ruthie Piper Hardee

In the world of massage therapy, the dreaded burnout comes in many forms. Lumbar, wrist and hand injury from repetitive use can all lead to even the most seasoned of professionals getting out of the massage business altogether. But, do not throw in the towel just yet! Learning how to use feet to deliver massage could be the answer for career longevity. While there is a plethora of various styles of massage – Swedish, hot stone, sports, reflexology, myofascial, medical, Thai, lymphatic, Shiatsu, and the list goes on and on – typically these are all techniques reserved for the use of hands. Ashiatsu focuses solely on using the various parts of the foot to deliver a deep tissue massage, thus elevating all the repetitive hand use associated with many of the other well-known modalities.
In the Japanese dictionary “ashi” means “foot” and “atsu” means “pressure.” The term “ashiatsu” translates into the word “foot-pressure.” “Shi” means finger and “atsu” again means pressure, so “finger-pressure” relates to Shiatsu. But even though Shiatsu is commonly known and a very popular form of massage, the layers of Shiatsu go far beyond just finger pressure, just as Ashiatsu encompasses much more than just compression with the foot. If the term Ashiatsu is used in today’s massage and spa industry, it typically means there is a set of parallel bars above the massage table and the therapist is using his or her body weight to help assist the foot during the session.
modern day chavuttiThe art and science of using the feet for massage while using an overhead support system went public around 1992, when Ashiatsu exploded onto the scene. It was one of the most sought-after massage techniques to learn here in the United States and the growing popularity of this barefoot bonanza now has spas and resorts from around the world sending their staff to be trained in this unique modality. With the aid of sophisticated educational e-learning platforms, now access to training in barefoot massage and gravity assisted massage has never been more user friendly. But, before looking any further at the present barefoot Ashiatsu, it is important to gain enlightenment from centuries ago regarding barefoot massage. Massage done with the feet dates back thousands of years, with roots in Asia and India. Records show various cultures using the foot for healing in all types of rituals and healing art forms. It should be noted that, in its ancient forms, ashiatsu was rarely performed with the professional holding their arms above their head grasping a solid structure of any kind for balance.

ASHIATSU AROUND THE WORLD
Records show that the first culture to use any kind up support above their head while giving massage can be traced back to Kerala, India 2,000 years ago by practitioners of martial arts. It was used as part of their training to increase flexibility and to increase recovery time from injuries. The barefoot technique utilized is known as Chavutti Thirumal, which translates into “foot pressure” in the Malayalam language. This form of barefoot massage is performed on a floor mat or organic woven mat, while the practitioner holds onto two ropes with knots for balance and support. The practitioner glides vigorously over the client’s body with a generous amount of medicinal herb-infused oil.
Another culture using the foot for massage is barefoot Shiatsu. Most everyone has heard of the single term Shiatsu, a form of therapeutic bodywork from Japan. Shiatsu translates as “finger pressure,” as mentioned above, but it also uses variations like kneading, pressing, soothing, tapping, and stretching techniques and is performed without oils through light, comfortable clothing with the hands. There are different styles of Shiatsu, all of which have roots in one of three systems that developed in Japan in the early 19th century. Barefoot Shiatsu, however, is a form of massage performed on the floor in which sometimes the practitioner holds onto a bamboo stick or a chair for support and balance. Practitioners work through the client’s clothing and focus on the pressure points relating to the balance and circulation of chi (energy).
Thai Ashi ThaiFijian massage is done through clothing either sitting on the floor or standing. In remote areas of the Fijian Islands, this ancient form of barefoot bodywork was developed to release tension. Fijian villagers would lie on the ground or on a Fijian woven mat and the practitioner would press with their foot into different points on the body (now known as trigger point therapy), pulling and pressing into muscles. They believed that the foot was often more therapeutic than utilizing the hands. No over head bars, ropes, or lubrication is used in a traditional Fijian massage and the recipient is clothed.
In Thailand, therapists have used their feet for hundreds of years to stretch and compress muscle tissue.
In Hawaii, Kua Lua back walking stems from an ancient martial art. Both forms of barefoot massage are a spiritual practice for native Hawaiians. Therapists utilize a bamboo stick for support and balance, while employing pressure along the back and spine.
Thai massage, or Thai yoga massage, is a traditional healing system delivered through clothing by hand combining acupressure, Indian Ayurvedic principles, and assisted yoga postures. Ashi-Thai is a new generational technique infusing traditional Thai principals of the old world, but replacing palms and hands with feet utilizing the bar. The therapist’s feet and legs maneuver and manipulate clients into position for the stretch and the foot is used for compressions and rocking rhythms to control the depth of stretch – of course, all the while, utilizing the support of the overhead bars.
Ashiatsu today has grown in popularity due to the ease of use in which the therapist delivers deep, broad, consistent pressure utilizing their feet and body weight while holding on to parallel bars overhead. The bars are there for balance, support, and client safety. Cream or oil is applied to the client’s body, making this deep therapeutic massage fluid and relaxing
With Ashiatsu, the bodyworker uses gravity and body weight to assist in the massage. This alleviates much of the effort a professional’s arms, thumbs, hands, and shoulders normally exert during a session, especially if it is a deep tissue massage, which is what 90 percent of consumers request. With most of the power stemming from the legs and core, it allows the therapist to stand up straight and deliver pressure with their whole body, not just the upper body weight one would experience leaning over a table. In a typical session, the client lies on a massage table unclothed but professionally draped. The therapist delivers everything from effleurage, trigger point work, and static compression with myofascial stretching to more gliding, Swedish-type strokes. It really is a combined fusion of all these various movements addressing each concern the client may have, but it is all done with the feet and with no assistance from the hands.

Ashiatsu TodayBENEFITS FOR THE PRACTITIONER
Ashiatsu therapists are able to provide an effective therapeutic massage without causing pain or discomfort to themselves or the receiving client. Because the therapist wants to lengthen their career, enjoy what they do each day, and save their hands, there has been a huge increase in massage therapists seeking out training in this particular modality – not to mention a movement in consumers wanting to receive this type of massage because the Ashiatsu massage goes much deeper than the common Swedish massage. A very common massage complaint from consumers is that they do not like the feeling of a sharp elbow or thumb when they ask for more pressure. Sadly, if the therapist is only trained to go in harder with their fingers, fists, or forearms, this is what the client usually feels on the table. There are many benefits for the client receiving this type of barefoot work.

Deep Tissue Without Discomfort
If a client is in need of deep tissue work, but does not enjoy the discomfort that comes with pointy elbows and thumbs, then Ashiatsu could be a great treatment for them. Gravity enables Ashiatsu therapists to deliver up to three times deeper pressure than with traditional hands-on treatments. Utilizing bodyweight and the foot as a massage tool provides broad, consistent pressure that creates structural change throughout the body. As a result, clients will enjoy the same extra range of movement and decrease in chronic tension relief without having to endure painful strokes.

Frees Up Bundled Nerves
Movements along the para-spinals and the lumbar region can relieve muscle spasms and open the intervertebral foramen where spinal nerves pass through. This gives the nerves more space and increases circulation by bringing more freshly oxygenated blood to the area being treated. Ashiatsu strokes can also help to elongate the spine and muscles while detoxifying. These movements dramatically stretch shortened muscles, which help in relieving pain and discomfort. These long fluid strokes also help flush the body’s lymphatic system, which releases metabolic waste at a very high rate. It is recommended that clients drink plenty of water before and after a treatment to help with the detoxification process.

Improves Posture and Decreases Pain
After only a few treatments, Ashiatsu barefoot massage has been known to improve posture and range of motion. It significantly reduces or eliminates chronic muscle pain and improves bodily functions, which will create a higher sense of balance and well-being within the body. Typically, one treatment a week for upwards of six weeks will produce these kinds of results.

Use anywhereASHIATSU CONTRAINDICTATIONS
Ashiatsu is not suitable for everyone due to the compressive nature of Ashiatsu massage. Therapists must take extra precaution with certain client conditions. These are just a hand full of conditions that would be contraindicated for receiving an Ashiatsu treatment. However, a certified therapist will have full knowledge of all contraindications for Ashiatsu and how to best address their client needs.

  • pregnant or trying to conceive
  • high blood pressure
  • recent injuries or surgeries
  • contagious skin disorders
  • compromised immune system
  • acute liver or kidney disorders
  • certain medications
  • acute auto-immune disorders
  • recent surgical implants
  • advanced diabetes

TRAINING
Anyone giving Ashiatsu massage should be a licensed massage professional with insurance, certification in Ashiatsu, and a full range of specific barefoot knowledge, in order to best address their clients’ needs.

Equipment
To perform this style of massage, a professional will need to install a set of parallel bars. During training, the massage equipment, various designs, and different room bar schematics are explained in detail. And, while there are specific measurements with safety guidelines that go along with using the bars and installing the bars, treatment rooms and therapists come in all different shapes and sizes, therefore, it is impossible to list one exact formula for all. There are many essentials that should always be considered when creating a perfect Ashiatsu treatment. Methods to sanitize and warm the feet quickly, warm room temperature, aromatherapy to help with sinus drainage after posterior compressions, table warmer, cozy and warm draping for clients both supine and prone, proper bolstering for female and male clients, specific lubrication for Ashiatsu protocols, soft lighting, and music are always a plus. But, at the end of the day, equipment for performing Ashiatsu is the same in most scenarios: one set of overhead bars, one adjustable massage table (32 to 35 inch wide, electric lift table preferred), and one stationary stool at appropriate height, without wheels, for sitting and standing at the head of the table.

For those who might feel stuck in a massage practice that they love, but the thought of using their hands for one more hour makes them cringe, Ashiatsu training may be an ideal option. Some may need continuing education hours soon and want to explore something different and unique. Ashiatsu training and certification could be perfect. When looking for training seminars, be sure to study with a well-respected Ashiatsu educator with longevity. Professionals should be able to receive detailed instruction in barefoot massage protocols and not just crash course vignettes. The company should be able to offer both live, hands-on workshops and well-structured e-learning platforms. Make sure the educational company chosen has high standards set forth in education for safe and professional Ashiatsu practices with an established reputation. They should offer continual support long after the seminar is over and provide a positive setting during training where professionals can flourish and become dynamic Ashiatsu practitioners.

Ruthie HardeeRuthie Piper Hardee is the founder of the Ashiatsu Barefoot Bar Technique and developer of the Deepfeet Bar Therapy Educational Seminars. She created the first nationally-approved course-study for a western barefoot massage technique using bars on the ceiling. This modality has enhanced the careers of thousands of therapists, especially those who suffer from lumbar, wrist, and hand pain from doing traditional deep tissue massage by hand. Hardee pioneered the gravity assisted barefoot-bar massage treatments used in today’s spa and massage industry. She is a 2006 Massage Hall of Fame inductee. She invented the Hardee-Ashiatsu Portable Bar apparatus, the first ever mobile device for barefoot bar massage currently used worldwide. Hardee and her team of authorized instructors have successfully taught over 6,000 massage therapists the barefoot basics curriculum. deepfeet.com or 503-715-7929

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