Young Healers

What parent hasn’t looked at their child while he or she is in a constant state of motion, and wondered, “How could we focus that energy in a more positive direction?” My experience teaching small groups of children how to give shiatsu massage in a 6-week course in a Roxbury elementary school provided plenty of new insights for me, the teachers, the students and their parents.

A shiatsu massage is given fully clothed, either lying down on a futon mat on the floor or seated in a chair. No lotions or oils are used. Students learn how to massage the back and shoulders, legs and feet, arms and hands, head and neck. Emphasis is on how to touch another person safely and positively.

To set up, I had the kids, aged 9-14, sit on exercise mats instead of desks. It was a welcome change for all! For some, however, the change inspired thoughts that this was a combination of a wrestling arena and a break dance stage, so discipline was initially an issue. Here was solid evidence of that unbridled energy that needed to be focused, and shiatsu was just the tool.

Although I had been teaching adults Intro to Shiatsu for five years, I wondered how children would receive this information. The theory of multiple intelligences holds that people learn in a variety of different ways: through seeing, feeling, hearing and experiencing sensations in order to absorb their significance. I sensed I would need to use all these modalities in a classroom full of young learners.

I taught the kids using visual and sensual metaphors. I would ask them to rub the back of their partner’s neck until it was as “soft as a puppy’s neck.” To the delight of the more kinesthetic learners, they could walk up their partner’s back with “big cat’s paws.” Afterwards, they could shake off excess energy from their hands to clear their chi, or vital energy, as it is called in Chinese theory. I explained how the shiatsu energetic pathways, or meridians, are like roads on a map all over their body. I brought in rolls of brown paper and colored markers and the kids traced each others’ body outlines, drawing the meridian “highways” in colored markers, which they got to bring home.

This was a morning class, and as the kids always seemed to be on a breakfast sugar buzz, I decided to begin classes with a “sedating” style of treatment, which is to work slowly with open palms on the back and legs. This calms the blood flow and relaxes the body, putting some kids to sleep. When the class became too relaxed, we used “stimulation,” which involves thumb and finger pressure, applied quickly to the arms and legs, bringing new life into the classroom. Inadvertently, I had learned to harness the power of “Shiatsu Crowd Control!”

The kids got a quiz, which was actually open-ended statements like:

  • Before I decided to take shiatsu, I thought massage was…
  • When I gave someone else a massage for the first time, it felt like…
  • I took this class because…
  • By the end of this course, I hope to…

For homework during the 6-week class, students were encouraged to give massages to their family and friends. At the end of each class, adult teachers would come in to receive massage from the kids, and were very impressed with their skills. You could see the dramatic increase in their self-confidence at this point. Some said they’d like to choose this as a career.

After several years teaching shiatsu massage to children, I observed a number of positive and surprising results. First, kids can actually be better at giving massage than adults, as they are a purer form of energy and are not as plagued by doubt and cynicism, as many adults can be. When I tell kids we’re going to learn magic, they believe me.

Second, because learning to give a massage is more hands-on than most academic classes, kids with learning handicaps (dyslexia, ADHD) respond very well to this multi-stimulus approach. Each child gives and receives a treatment each class.

And finally, even though many of the children were pre-teens, I emphasized that they must never use the gift of touch in anger. Now that they have helped people with their hands, they must honor their gift and not do anything to cause another person harm.

Since 1995, Thom Donovan has taught approximately 150 children and teens to give shiatsu massage through various agencies and programs, as well as countless adults at the Acupressure Therapy Institute in Quincy, MA. For information on classes for kids and adults call the Acupressure Therapy Institute 617-697-1477 or visit