What makes kiatsu a 'kinder' massage

THAILAND - If Thai massage is too painful, sample this gentler rub from Japan known as kiatsu.

Not to be confused with its younger but better-known variant shiatsu, kiatsu was developed on the battlefields of World War II, so it ought to do well in overcoming the rigours of daily life in Bangkok.

The name simply means "pressure with the fingers", but be reassured that far less pressure is applied than in traditional Thai massage.

I found kiatsu quite soothing, as administered with thumbs, fingers and palms by visiting Japanese expert Kaoru Kawarabuki. She explained that kiatsu is more moderate than shiatsu in the way pressure is applied to particular points on the body.

Changed into the pyjamas supplied, I answered a few questions about any possible joint problems and then stretched out face down on a futon.

Kawarabuki placed a curved device against my side that she said would help hold my spine in a position to make the treatment easier. It grips you around the middle, not unlike those used on normal oil-massage beds. "It's specially made for kiatsu in America," she said.

I rolled onto my back to begin the nearly two-hour session. She worked on my feet and toes, then lifted my legs, holding my ankles in her strong hands, and shook them for several minutes.

My guess is that she was relaxing the muscles and waking up the rest of my body to let it know something big was up.

With soft yet firm pressure, Kawarabuki moved along various points of the body.

She confirmed that most people do indeed fall asleep during the treatment, especially when they're lying face down, as I was again soon.

Just the same, what I particularly like about kiatsu is that you have to put in some effort of your own.

When pressure is applied to certain areas, you have to inhale and exhale deeply according to her directions.

While you're face up, she works on the hands, legs and tummy. Then you roll over and the spinal clamp is moved and refit for comfort. Once Kawarabuki was finished working on my back, I rolled on one side for more, and I did so with trepidation.

I have a chronically stiff neck, shoulders and back, and I've never been able to bear Thai traditional masseurs working on those areas.

I'm usually in agony the next day. With kiatsu, there was still pain, but quite bearable, and no discomfort at all the following day.

When Kawarabuki finished I told her it hurt a bit when she squeezed my shoulders. She was worried that she'd been too rough on me, but I assured her it was just my normal stiffness.

She told me to expect a reaction to the treatment as my frame regained its balance.

"You may feel uneasy in your stomach, but that's normal," she said. "Please don't eat too much, just some light food like a salad, and drink a lot of room-temperature water.

"Get a good rest tonight, and when you go back to the office, don't work too hard, because your body knows it's had a good workout and you'll be fatigued."

Mentally I was checking everything on her list and vowing to obey - except for the part about work. An obstacle course of office deadlines loomed. The usual effort and stress were inevitable.

But I'd learned that, if you can't avoid rigorous work, you should try and arrange a kiatsu treatment at 7pm, just as you're heading home.

That's assuming you make it home. Kiatsu is so relaxing that it's easy to see why people doze off. In fact I have no idea whether I fell asleep myself!

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