Interview by Ulrike Schmidt

Ulrike: You started learning Shiatsu in 1973. What was your motivation?

Bill: My fist teacher, Minoru Kanetsuka was actually my Aikido teacher and he used to do Shiatsu with us when we injured ourselves. I really liked the quality of his touch, which felt powerful but neutral. He wasn’t trying to heal, or to do something to heal me, but just focused my awareness to be kind to myself so that my body could heal better by itself. I have always distrusted the idea of ‘healer’ and ‘sensei’ because, in our society we are always looking up for someone to follow, rather than taking responsibility for ourselves. The herd-instinct leads to many of the troubles in the world. I liked Kanetsuka’s attitude and his touch because it challenged me to work on myself rather than follow him.

Ulrike: What made you continue?

Bill:I feel that the fundamental qualities of Shiatsu touch – which is non-manipulative but profound – expresses a model of respectful contact between human beings which is really missing in our modern world. So I see Shiatsu not as a therapeutic technique but as an attitude towards making contact. Kanetsuka used to say, both about Shiatsu and Aikido “Don’t try to control the other person’s energy, the more you simply open yourself to them the less conflict there is”. So I see Shiatsu as the physical aspect of a philosophy of relationship that leads to inner peace.

Ulrike: You have written a number of very interesting articles. Many of them were published in our Shiatsu journal. I’m especially touched by your inner attitude towards your clients. You seem to have a deep understanding and a great compassion for the worries, difficulties and woes of others. This goes beyond practicing mindful Shiatsu.

One of your main ideas is letting go of any desire for change. This makes a lot of sense to me. As Shiatsu practitioners, how can we convey this idea to our clients with our hands?

Bill: Clients typically come for therapy because they are suffering and they don’t know how to relieve it. Namikoshi famously stated that Shiatsu is like the mother’s touch – the child hurts and goes to his mother whose touch can relieve the pain. I think this is valid up to a point, warm contact can relieve much suffering. But I also think that we have allowed ourselves to be conditioned to feel powerless.

We suffer and immediately we look outwards towards an expert who can cure us, a drug that can relieve us. Our education system doesn’t teach us to explore ourselves, be aware of our patterns and how to look after ourselves.

I don’t actually believe we can let go of any desire for change. It is not that I let go of the desire FOR change but that I let go of the desire TO change, or cure, the client. (I hope that comes across in German!)

 This is particularly relevant for long term chronic conditions. If the client feels a victim to the condition they will always look for rescue rather than exploring how to experiment with their patterns. If the therapist is in the mode of ‘trying to cure’ then the client’s victim-attitude won’t change.

 Therefore a lot of my work is gently helping a client to be aware of their stuck patterns from the inside, not through what I tell them. Once they are aware, they can start to loosen the patterns, to experiment with them and this loosening process allows the body to adjust itself.

 This can be done both with Hands and with Words, and this is the theme of the workshop we are teaching in September. How do you touch in order to bring inner awareness to the client? How do you communicate in a way that helps a cllent stop being a victim needing rescue and that helps them to explore themselves? How do you perform Shiatsu in a such a way that the client really understands what you are doing from the inside so that they can be actively involved?

 As a very small and simple example: imagine you are rotating the shoulder joint and you notice a resistance because a muscle is tense. Instead of continuing the rotation, imagine you stop and ask the client if they can feel the resistance to the movement. This pause brings awareness. Mostly, people don’t know how to release a chronically tense muscle, but they do know how to contract it (they are doing that already). So instead of asking them to relax, I ask them to consciously tighten the muscle further. This brings the act of contraction into consciousness instead of being unconscious. The client feels they can contact the muscle, they are no longer a victim to it, and very often they realise how to let it go. Even if it becomes tense again, the pattern has not such a strong hold because the client can consciously experiment with it.

 Therefore, my form of work is not only ‘mindful Shiatsu’ – that refers to the mindfulness of the practitioner – but also teaches the client to be aware of themselves in a practical way.

Ulrike: Do you work more with verbal interaction as part of the treatment? (How much emphasis do you actually put on verbal interaction?)

I do not really distinguish between verbal contact and physical contact. The important thing is HOW both are performed. Does your verbal communication help the client to be aware of their body or does it take them away from the present? Does your physical touch bring awareness or does it put someone into a passive trance? For instance, if a client starts the session by saying “I feel really stressed today”. if you ask “What has made you stressed?”, this immediately takes them away from the present and into the past. It may be good for your understanding but not for their body-awareness. On the other hand, if you ask “Where are you feeling that stress in your body?” then that question brings them into their body and they can start to experiment, for instance by moving that part, how to relieve the stressed feeling themselves.

On the other hand if you say “OK, lie down and I’ll diagnose what’s going on” and then you perform a treatment. it may be very successful, and they may feel wonderful, but they don’t know how they have got there. They are still powerless to deal with things themselves.

Ulrike: You said yourself that you don’t use diagnosis and it’s not used in Movement Shiatsu which you developed. With all our knowledge of TCM, the causes of symptoms and our ability to feel during treatments, how can we avoid using diagnosis as a tool?

Bill: It’s not that I never have a diagnosis. But I don’t START from there. A process of diagnosis such as Hara diagnosis is quite mysterious to the client so it doesn’t help them to understand WHY you do the bodywork that you do. It doesn’t help them to help themselves. So I always start from the issue that the client brings, help them to feel that issue in their body, help them to explore, to experiment to become active. Soon we both come to an awareness of a part that they can’t access. For instance, they may be exploring how to breath and they find a part of the body that doesn’t join in with the breathing.

 So now they understand about Kyo. There is a part which their consciousness is not reaching.

At that point I and the client often have a realisation of the energetic issue that they are expressing. Along with that realisation come ideas from my experience and knowledge of how to work with this pattern in collaboration with the client. I call this EMERGENT DIAGNOSIS and it often occurs towards the end of the session rather than at the beginning – it can lead to ‘homework’ that the client can do to continue the work of the session within their normal lives.

Ulrike: What could we do instead..?

 Bill: Working in this way requires creativity and improvisation; there is no routine and each treatment is totally different. So it is not for everybody. Some clients just want to switch off and be treated, some practitioners just want to follow familiar paths.

 I think that is totally fine, I have no judgement about how Shiatsu SHOULD be done. But in my experience, when someone is stuck in a chronic condition or is suffering from some long term disability, then there comes a time when they realise they can’t be rescued and then the way I work becomes useful.

In the mean time, you can add to your set of tools particular techniques for helping the client to be aware of inner sensation and able to experiment with their energetic patterns. You can start with diagnosis but when you notice a muscular pattern such as chronic tension you can help the client to explore it and to experiment with it.

 Movement Shiatsu is very inclusive, it is an attitude rather than a technique, you can do Zen Shiatsu and incorporate the attitude of Movement Shiatsu to help a client become aware and self-empowered.

Ulrike: Could it be that we need to be reminded of the harmony within ourselves (as described in your article “Muscles have feelings too”)?

You have worked with severely handicapped children for over 30 years. I was shocked to hear from you that these children were traumatized by conventional treatment. Instead of supporting them at the stage they were at, they were forced to pursue often unattainable goals. This caused the children to feel inadequate and flawed (can you elaborate on that?).

Bill: Most clients and therapists play the game of ‘There’s something wrong with me, can you make it better’. For a generally healthy adult, having an injured knee won’t impact on their basic self-esteem. But for a disabled child, if you only focus on the problems then the child can feel that there is something wrong with them at a deep soul level. This is what I meant by saying that the children were traumatized by the therapy.

So I started working in a way that explored what the child could do well. Even if it was a strange movement. For instance, a six year old I have been working with recently can only control her eye movements. So I started by playing games in which she moved her eyes to the extremes. So she started by feeling SUCCESS! Then by touching her neck I suggested that she could turn her head to go further in the eye game.

We first found that she could tilt her head up and down more easily than turning it from left to right, so we played with up and down until she felt real control of those movements and then started to explore the more difficult turning movements. At each stage she was feeling good about previous success. My touch was not trying to force her to move, but giving sensation to the muscles that she could use to do the movement, so that she could find her own way into them.

I feel that this attitude, “Work from ABILITY rather than DISABILITY’ is a mantra that is useful for everyone. People focus on their problems and lose their spirit because of that focus. If you focus on your Abilities and then start to explore from there, your whole attitude to life changes.

Ulrike: You will be teaching the course “Words and hands” with your wife Teresa Hadland at our school in September. What are some of the things participants might take away from the course?

Bill: I think that I have already explained the theme of the workshop but basically the things I hope the participants will take away are:

  • How to use language to help a client become aware of their body
  • How to make Shiatsu interactive, where the client is active and learning about themselves and is helping to guide the treatment.
  • Understanding how the quality of one’s touch directly affects different meridian energies, even if you are not directly touching a meridian.How to work from Ability rather than focusing on Problems.
    How movement and posture patterns are related to child development and thus to meridian patterns.

Ulrike: You have a lot of experience teaching in Europe, the United States and Australia. What kind of feedback do you often get from the students who attended your courses?

Bill: The main feedback I get is that participants:

1) Feel they understand in a deep way how body and Qi are related

2) Feel relief that they don’t have to make all the decisions, because Shiatsu becomes a body-conversation between client and practitioner

3) Feel joy because they feel how Shiatsu can be playful and explorative rather than an over-serious procedure!

4) Understand how Qigong and Shiatsu can be integrated 

5) Realise that they can let go of trying to fit their clients into their knowledge and learn to wait for their knowledge to fit their clients.