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Organizing the Profession of Asian Bodywork Therapy in the 1980s: a Personal Reflection

Monday, March 2, 2020   (1 Comments)
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by Cindy Banker, M.A., AOBTA®-CI, Dipl. ABT (NCCAOM), AOBTA® Director of Education, AOBTA® Peer Review Committee Chair


In this year of reflection, we’re reaching out to those that were engaged in the formation of the AOBTA®, asking them to share personal recollections of the time. Nothing formal, simply what was happening at the time, from the view of the particular individual. This is the second sharing by Cindy Banker!

We were no longer in an initiation phase by the 1980s. Instead, we were in the initial phase of maturity and we wanted to “professionalize” and “standardize” the things we had to offer. We were able to look around and discover other practices and people who were qualified and serious about other new forms of alternative healing, most of it also having been germinated in the 1970s. By the 1980s many of us were interested in creating a profession.

None of us had any interest or training in Western massage. In those days we felt like we were part of a revolution in health care. Books were being written about self-healing (indeed, one was titled Healing Ourselves), and that pretty much summed up the feeling.

However, doing Shiatsu was not something that seemed practical in terms of earning a living back in the late 1970s. So, although fully trained, I waited years before ever charging anyone for a treatment. Instead, I shifted my administrative skills from working in a hospital to working for Erewhon. Then, in 1981, the Erewhon empire went bankrupt. My job as assistant to the president had morphed over a couple of years and at the time of the formal bankruptcy Michio personally stepped in. No one else was left, as other presidents had quit and the last Chief Financial Officer actually went to prison (for white collar crime at a former job.) It was a very exciting time in a lot of negative ways and the company’s undoing left a lot of collateral damage in its wake.

One of the long term benefits for me was that after a year of unemployment I was able to transition from my full time work in administration to becoming fully employed in practicing and teaching Shiatsu. This was with great support, which I was easily able to find. There were many self-development educational opportunities in Boston, and I was able to thrive along with them.
A friend had invited me to an EST workshop and then insisted I check out the work of Robert Fritz. These endeavors all struck me as programs designed to help one create and mold their destiny. In DMA,  I studied and learned to use a whole curriculum. I became a Certified Instructor in their Technologies for Creating and fulfilled my vision of having a full time Shiatsu practice. So after one extremely difficult year for me personally, I was, by 1984, a Shiatsu teacher at the Kushi Institute and enjoyed getting many referrals from the system. Michio had invited me to teach and he also personally asked me to organize the Shiatsu department. That turned out to be an impossible task! Macrobiotics seemed to have a lot of positive attributes, but organization of personnel was not one of them. Perhaps this was not so different than many other places in the 1980s, but maybe a little more extreme due to the influence of Japanese culture. Women could be highly regarded as experts in Shiatsu, but trying to force an organized approach to  “curriculum” was a foreign and uncomfortable prospect for the men who formed the basis of power at critical administrative levels there. 

I gave it my best and then moved on, deciding to create my own school with the two partners I had discovered that were equally zealous about Shiatsu and who were looking for much of the same things that I wanted. Barbara and Kiku and I wanted to create a great Shiatsu school in Boston, and together we did! The New England School of Shiatsu started in 1984, along with the beginning of our first professional association, the American Shiatsu Association (ASA).

We handled both things simultaneously and they seemed to support one another. We enjoyed large class sizes right from the beginning and we discovered lots of other teachers and practitioners, first in New England and then all across the country. Initially, Kiku’s friends in New York were very interested in what we were doing and because of that we were able to grow a fairly substantial membership. Toshiko Phipps found us, and we were thrilled to include her and yet one more kind of Shiatsu. Toshiko may have been the most qualified teacher in terms of credentials. Her studies in Japan pre-dated everyone else’s, and she had studied directly with the most important original teachers! Pauline Sasaki was already such a highly regarded teacher we were quick to recognize that she was able to give us absolute credibility in the burgeoning Zen Shiatsu community. Pauline carefully considered and wrote our original standards for Zen Shiatsu and she was a connection that led the way for the large number of practitioners that were being constantly generated by Waturo Ohashi down in New York. Ohashi himself declined to participate directly, but over the years we maintained a mutually respectful relationship that was very beneficial for us.

We were able to create a Standards Committee comprised of credible experts for what eventually turned out to become five different kinds of Shiatsu. In addition, we created a standardized process to qualify teachers.  I did my own Certified Instructor Interview at our first convention, with Shizuko Yamamoto being the arbiter of whether or not I was qualified. Teachers like Robbee Fian and Reginal Ceaser came and did their own Certified Instructor interviews. The three of us all used the term Five Element Shiatsu in order to stipulate that we used a lot of Traditional Chinese Medicine theory in our work. We had each studied and developed this on our own after our initial Shiatsu training. 

The ASA was very diverse, we were very democratic, and we were able to organize. We seemed to easily recognize and respect each other’s strengths. Barbara Blanchard served as Treasurer and kept meticulous records of everything. Kiku agreed to become editor for our first newsletters. I guess I seemed good at planning and talking, so I became President. I remember there was some initial grumbling over the title. A few people wondered if I should just serve as a “Chairperson.” With so much experience working in “administrative” jobs, I immediately said it was too much work for such a simple title and that was the end of that.

Susan Krieger helped us write the original standards for Macrobiotic Shiatsu, and she generally helped Shizuko with anything like that in the early days. We continued to attract more and more highly qualified and motivated people - it was like watching a snowball that never stopped growing. Many of us were just great teachers - people who had really invested in learning from the best and now committed to teaching the work. Even more of us were practicing and becoming professionals, able to make a living and educate the public on what we could offer. In the ASA we learned to mobilize our members and help them market themselves. Our collective experience made us each so much more than what we had been as individuals.

By 1989 we were done! We had taken the organization to a place where it was clear that we needed more than just “Shiatsu” to describe the work that we were doing. We had discovered and included Amma, Anma and Tuina, because they all used the same principles. We welcomed the senior teachers of these practices into the ASA Standards Committee, and we all shared the same values. At the final convention for the ASA I recommended that we create a new organization, primarily because we needed to use a different name to better reflect the expansion. Using the agreed-upon common educational requirements, we would create a name that could serve as an umbrella term for all of us. Thus was born the American Oriental Bodywork Therapy Association.

To be continued in the next issue of Pulse. Please share your stories! Send them to Brian Skow, AOBTA® Communications Consultant (, and Wayne Mylin, AOBTA® Managing Director (


Adriana Martins says...
Posted Monday, May 4, 2020
Thank you Cindy for this inspiring reflection! I feel that I know you better now, and I feel more connected with our practice too. The Shiatsu practice which seems to be in my soul for long time! All the best, Adriana

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