Most massage therapy students who learn Shiatsu as part of their overall bodywork curriculum also learn how to do Makko-Ho stretches as a component of the basic course. There are many schools, though, that do not teach this simple practice. Learn about them and use them as a part of your daily routine.
As we become more sedentary, our muscles and joints actually start to deteriorate from under-use. This can lead to overall physical weakness, an accumulation of tension in muscle fibers, body aches and pains, lowered immune function and postural problems.
Inactivity combined with stress is common in Western culture. A lot of people sit behind a desk and a computer all day long. Many are concerned about being able to pay bills, worried about their children or other family members, and anxious about life events in general. For the body to work properly, it must be used. For the mind and body to be relaxed, the tension and stress must somehow be released in a healthy way. Movement and exercise are of the utmost importance in maintaining overall health.
In Western medical practice, stretches are often used prior to exercise routines or sports events to help prepare the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Stretches also help to mobilize joints and muscle tissue so as to avoid injury. Reflexes are also stimulated by stretching, which help improve balance and coordination. By stretching before an athletic event or other activity, the mind is also being prepared psychologically by helping it to begin to focus.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, stretches are used to both sedate and tonify the organs and remove blockages along the energy meridians. They are used to improve the flow of Qi (also spelled Chi or Ki), or vital energy throughout the body. By doing the Makko-Ho stretches every day, you can restore and maintain balance in both body and mind.
Performing the Makko-Ho Stretches
There are six, basic Makko-Ho stretches, one for each of the elements and organ pairs used in Traditional Chinese Five Element Theory. Two are used for the fire element (one primary and one secondary). It should take only five minutes to do them all. The series should be done in order. Perform the stretch until you feel some resistance. Do not stretch to the point of pain. Each stretch should last about four or five deep breaths.
1. Metal/Lung and Large Intestine
Stand up straight with feet shoulders width apart. Your knee joints should not be locked, but soft. Place your arms behind your back with thumbs interlaced. Take a deep breath into your Hara (belly area). As you take in the breath, stretch out your fingers, keeping your thumbs hooked together and begin to bend forward from the waist as far as you can comfortably and exhale. When you have reached your limit, take another deep breath in and as you exhale, let go of the tension in your body and mind. Breathe in again, taking in new energy. Exhale once again, letting go of tension. Inhale once more and, as you exhale, bring your body back up to a standing position.
2. Earth/Stomach and Spleen
This exercise has three stages. Do the stages as to your ability. Only complete all three when you can do so comfortably.
- – Kneel on a mat or other padded surface. If you can, sit between your heels. If not, sit on them in a basic seiza position, or on a pillow placed between your heels. Inhale deeply into your Hara. As you exhale, place your hands, palms down, facing backward (fingertips facing away from your body) on the floor behind you. Lean your torso back, leaning on your arms and hands. Relax your neck and let your head fall back. As you do this, roll your eyes upward. Repeat this for two more breathing cycles. On the forth cycle, return to the upright position. (Or, if able, continue to Stage 2.)
- – Perform the stretch as in Stage 1 but, after, on the forth cycle of breath, lean back further and onto your elbows. You can place your hands on your feet. Stay in this position for two cycles of breathing. On the forth cycle, slowly return to an upright position.
- – For Stage 3, go through the first two stages, continuing after Stage 2 to lay your body flat on the floor and stretch your arms straight out over your head. Keep this position for two cycles of breath. When done, come up slowly, going back through the first two stages.
3. Primary Fire/ Heart and Small Intestine
- Begin this stretch by sitting on the floor with the soles of your feet touching – a kind of modified lotus position. You legs should be relaxed and you spine straight and upright. Inhale deeply and grasp your toes with both hands. As you exhale, relax your body and bend forward, bringing your head toward your toes. Your elbows and forearms can rest on the floor. Keep this position for two more cycles of breath. With each breath, relax more into the position. Come up on the fourth breath.
4. Water/Kidneys and Bladder
- Sit with your legs stretched out in front of you, slightly parted and relaxed. As you inhale deeply, straighten and stretch your spine upward and raise your arms towards the sky, palms facing out. As you exhale, lean forward at the hips, keeping your back straight. Reach as far forward towards your feet, breathing out as you stretch. Take two deep breaths, each time relaxing more into the stretch. On the fourth breath, raise your body slowly, uncurling your spine, vertebra by vertebra.
5. Secondary Fire/ Heart Protector and Triple Heater
- Sit on the floor cross-legged. Keep your spine straight and upright. Cross your arms and place each hand on the opposite knee (left hand on right knee, right hand on left knee). Your arms should be crossed the same as your legs (right leg over left and right arm over left). Inhale deeply into your Hara. As you exhale, relax and bend your torso down towards the floor. Keep this position for two more breathing cycles, relaxing your body into the stretch with each cycle. On the fourth cycle, come up slowly. Repeat this stretch with your arms and legs crossed the other way around.
6. Wood/Liver and Gall Bladder
- Sit on the floor with legs outstretched and as far apart as is comfortable. Your spine should be straight and upright. Link you fingers together, palms facing outward and stretch upward toward the sky as you inhale deeply. As you exhale, turn and look at your right foot while leaning your body toward your left foot. Hold this position for two more breathing cycles, relaxing our body a little more each time. Come up slowly on the fourth cycle. Repeat this on the right side, as you look towards the left. End this cycle by stretching and leaning forward, relaxing onto two breathing cycles and back to an upright position on the fourth.
These stretches are good for the practitioner as well as for your clients. Teaching them is relatively easy, simple to do and can make the Shiatsu session more productive.