Every session, indeed every experience, has a beginning, middle and an end. If we keep in mind the completeness of the traditional five-element cycle used in TCM and incorporate the concept not just to Shiatsu sessions, but to the cycle of how we treat our clients’ total experience, we can see how it affects them from the moment they walk in the door, to the moment they leave.

Let’s go through the session moving in the clockwise direction of the creative cycle of the elements. 1. The creative or generating cycle is easily recalled by remembering that, in the beginning, wood fuels fire. 2. The ashes from fire enrich the earth. 3. Earth becomes metal. 4. Cool water condenses on warm metal. 5. Finally, water feeds wood (plants), which then continues the cycle.


As in the example in the above paragraph, we’ll begin at wood. In TCM, wood relates to the season of spring. It is about birth and newness and life emerging from the ground after a cold, harsh winter. The sense organ for wood is the eye and is related to sight.

What does your client see when he or she approached your office? Is your business name easy to see and the office easy to find? When your client walks into your space, is it clean and inviting? Are you dressed professionally? Does your space visually represent who you are and how you go about the business of massage? First impressions last a long time and set the tone, not only for the first meeting, but sometimes for years afterward.


Next we move to the element of fire. Fire moves from the initial birth contained in earth to growth. It is about flourishing and thriving. In the body it is manifested through the tongue and speech. When your client walks in your office you greet them. How does the tone of your speech represent you? Are you calm and pleasant, or agitated and rushed? Are you joyful or angry? How you greet your clients and converse with them prior to the massage session creates a perception of how the session might flow.


From fire we transition to earth. Earth has to do with nurturing, ripening and maturation. For you it could be represented in the giving of a massage; for the client it might be about receiving it. It could be said that earth is about the balance of give and take, and contains within both the expansion of yang, received from fire, and the contraction of yin, seen in metal.

In TCM earth manifests itself in the muscles, the flesh of the body. In fire we initiated speech and, in transitioning from greeting the clients, we move to touch them in shaking hands or guiding them to the massage table. Even though earth is related to the sense of taste, because of it’s nurturing and embracing qualities, it could be said that it also relates to the sense of touch.

The familiar illustration of the five elements in a circle actually evolved from an earlier representation showing the earth in the center, with wood, fire, metal and water surrounding it. In the center it might appear to influence and be influenced by the other elements. If we use this concept during the massage, we can see how the bodywork session itself (as earth) comprises all the elemental correspondences – sight, sound, smell, taste, touch – a swirling stew of sensory experience.


During the massage, the inclusion of metal can be seen in several ways. Through the nose it manifests in smell, through the use of aromatherapy in scented candles or lubricants infused with therapeutic essential oils. The lungs are governed by metal, which also rules the Corporeal Soul and accounts for the responsiveness of the physical body. In this way, we receive and respond to the environment around us. It is here especially that we see how the elements are not entities unto themselves, but transition from one to another in cycles. In metal we harvest what has been collected from the birth of wood, the growth of fire and the ripening of earth.


In the last phase of this cycle we come to water and, just as the experience of metal cannot be separated from earth, water emerges from metal as our session concludes. Water is not only about endings, but also about the hidden magic of new beginnings – the seed lying motionless beneath the dark earth, imperceptibly stirring with life.

Water governs the ears and hearing. At the end of the session with our clients, they hear us tell them the session is over. Then we hear them as they respond, “Oh, no, not yet… I’m so relaxed.” Groaning is the sound related to water and so may be heard as the client rises from the table. Water is received at its elemental level as we encourage our clients to drink more during the day after a massage, and even offer it to them before they leave our office. The kidneys and bladder are also related to the water element and can be seen by the often and urgent need to eliminate flushed toxins by urinating soon after the massage.

The cycle may seem like it ends, but if we see it as a spiral rather than a circle, we will see that it merely continues in a never-ending sequence, both in singular events like a massage, or throughout one’s daily life.

In the control cycle, another model of five-element theory, represented visually by a five-pointed star, the client can be seen as returning to a grounded sense of self. He or she hears (water) your voice (fire) as you inform him or her the session is over. The client takes a deep breath (metal), beginning the process of stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. He or she sits up and stretches, similar to a seed bursting open (wood) and returning to current time and consciousness, becoming grounded by setting his or her feet on the floor (earth).

This is just one way of seeing the massage session as a complete experience with a continuous flow. Keeping in mind the wholeness of the experience itself, you can apply how it is used in your practice as you wish.

Recommended Study:

Integrating Reflexology and Five-Element Theory
Shiatsu Anma Therapy