By Cliff Andrews FwSS, Edited by Dinah John FwSS
The Shiatsu Centre Norwich has been a dedicated Shiatsu clinic since 1983, now located right in the historic ‘Lanes’ at the heart of this Cathedral city in the east of England. Its small office and 2 treatment rooms support 5 practitioners and provide the working base for New Energy Work - an international online training project for Shiatsu - and for the Shiatsu College Norwich - our regional school branch of the Shiatsu College UK.
It was one day before the first national lockdown in March 2020. I looked at the dry, chapped skin of my hands as I washed them, yet again, between clients - following government advice. Blood actually started to leak from the lesions - just the tiniest glimpse of the pain and suffering we would witness in the coming months. What we could never have dreamed of though, was how much kindness, support, dedication, love and gratitude we would experience alongside that pain!
The next day we were closed - no clients, no school - nothing… Our Centre team convened an emergency meeting. We looked at the Centre’s finances and we cancelled every possible expenditure, from cleaning to dustbin collection… We resolved to form a collective - to work together - for each other, for our clients and for our students. We decided to work on an equal footing, putting our trust in our community to support us and our work.
We looked at our strengths: we had 20 years of experience of delivering online learning to the worldwide Shiatsu community and we had personal connections throughout that community; we had a large, long-term and loyal client base; we had all our local students and graduates and a network of connections to the other Shiatsu College branches and teachers.
And we had each other! We are a group of 5 - with the kind of bond and implicit trust that can only be formed by sharing the very special qualities of Shiatsu with each other. We had been working, practising, teaching and creating online training together over many years. It was time to bring all that we could offer for the benefit of our community in this extraordinary worldwide crisis. We set up twice weekly group meetings on Zoom to plan ahead and organise our work.
To our group I brought my many connections, from decades of international teaching, and my extensive experience and expertise in delivering online training. Added to this I brought a certain drive (some might say overdrive!) and vision. Then there was Dinah, who has worked alongside me for 30 years and runs the Shiatsu College Norwich. Although Dinah is something of a technophobe, she is also an experienced international teacher and great at communicating and organising. She contributed her calm energy, her clarity, attention to detail and her superb editing skills - a perfect balance to my tendency to push ahead regardless!
Shakura, our Centre manager, efficient administrator and experienced project manager, also brought her unruffled calm and kindness. One of her first tasks was to call all our clients personally - to connect and to reassure them - and to manage our online diary expertly as she scheduled our move over to working 100% online. Basti, living out in rural north Norfolk with a somewhat unreliable internet, contributed generously wherever he could. His thoughtful and considered approach was always welcome at our meetings - and he proved to be as popular at teaching online as he was in hands-on classes. Cat - our newest team member - is also a pleasure to work with. As well as her care and great organisational skills, she brought her irrepressible drive, wicked sense of humour and fearless approach to any task, irrespective of her previous experience. These qualities were just what we needed to help keep us going as the inevitable fatigue and burnout loomed.
We knew we could deliver online training effectively - so the next step was to develop ways to support our clients online. We immediately launched a weekly online ‘Client Support’ class, using all our webinar expertise and equipment. The class was open to all our clients - to support them until they could get back in for hands-on sessions. We showed them how to tune into their own energy - using the Three Burners of Chinese medicine - and then lots of simple ways to benefit their own health, strengthen their immunity and manage stress ‘the Shiatsu way’. We showed them breathing exercises, meridian stretches, Qigong forms, acupressure points they could use on themselves and lots of easy ‘tapping’ Do-in to activate the channels. The classes have been wonderfully popular and word of them soon spread - bringing friends and family and other practitioners and students from around the world to join us. We have had lots of great feedback over the months, e.g. 'these classes are an absolute life-saver’!
We also developed ways to deliver online the Shiatsu treatment experience, as far as that is ever possible… As well as the weekly class, we offered our clients individual online Shiatsu Self-Support sessions. We devised ways of diagnosing via video link and working with our clients using Self-Shiatsu, exercise balls and a range of energy-work exercises to help them cope without their regular hands-on treatments. These sessions could be exhausting. It’s very hard to have a client crying in pain on a video link, and it takes every ounce of personal practice to keep centred and positive when you yearn magically to pass through the screen and use your Shiatsu touch in a way that you know will ease their suffering. We also offered ‘Distant healing with Shiatsu’ sessions which really suited some of our clients and proved amazingly powerful and effective.
In one radical, sweeping gesture we decided to give up charging fees for any of our work for the foreseeable future. We would put all the paid content of the newenergywork.com project (all our online courses and webinars) out free to the worldwide Shiatsu community - asking for donations only. All previous financial hierarchies in the team (such as different treatment rates) were put aside - all the online client sessions were also ‘payment by donation only’. As a collective then, we would record our hours worked each month and divide the ‘donations pot’ out between us at the same hourly rate - after paying for all of the essential overheads to keep the Centre and the online platforms going. We simply had to trust that it would work out!
The month that followed was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. We logged over 500 working hours as a team, with no real thought as to whether any of it might be paid. We created 26 live webinars in 6 different languages in an incredible whirlwind of activity - and we were able to help hundreds of teachers and thousands of practitioners worldwide to take their Shiatsu teaching and treatments online. Through the spring months we worked in partnership with the Shiatsu College UK to deliver online the whole of the third academic term - 4 weekends plus the 3 day Residential - to all branches of the school. This had surprise extra benefits, like creating nationwide connections between the students of each branch - all in one vibrant Ki field together! It also enabled us to invite 2 of my original co-founders of the College, Nicola Ley and Carola Beresford Cooke, to contribute to the undergraduate programme for the first time in decades.
As the lockdown eased over the summer, we were able to see clients in the Centre clinic again. For many of them this was the first time they had been touched by anyone for months. Our session capacity was inevitably reduced, to give time for cleaning between clients and to prevent the crossover of people in the waiting area or coming in and out of the treatment rooms. Every session became a challenge. For some of our more acute clients - either physically or emotionally challenged - their symptoms were now off the scale. Having a whole day of treatments, working behind a face mask and visor and with the constant awareness of the background risk of transmission of the virus, is quite exhausting. Many of us started to experience creeping emotional and physical fatigue. The general levels of stress, fatigue, pain and loss amongst our clients was rising too. Clients we would normally see for basic monthly ‘health maintenance’ sessions before the pandemic were now presenting with symptoms equivalent to those of our most acute clients.
And then came the second lockdown. This time we had been reclassified by government guidelines, from ‘close contact services’ - in the same category as beauty salons and nail bars - to ‘…other medical and health care services, including mental health’
Working closely within the guidelines, and with invaluable support from the Shiatsu Society UK, we were able to continue seeing clients. This was a lockdown in name only. With the schools still open and the Centre taking clients we did not see much change. Meanwhile however, UK infection rates and hospital admissions climbed inexorably…
And now we are in the third lockdown. With over 100,000 dead and our front line health workers in the NHS completely overrun and facing burnout every day, we are living with the most shameful record of pandemic mismanagement of any European country. The increased transmissibility of the new variants makes hands-on treatments even more stressful, and we are required to carefully ‘risk assess’ every client before booking. This means that in effect every treatment is acute. The risk of transmission has to be carefully balanced against its benefit to the suffering client. For some of us in the team who are shielding vulnerable partners, the risk of face-to-face sessions is just too high to justify.
But we are still here. We are still working. The donations have come in and continue to do so - with people showing extraordinary generosity and huge appreciation for all our work. The many messages we have received along with those donations are heart-warming in their gratitude - we’ve been moved to tears by some - and we are equally grateful to them!
We have been able to keep paying the rent, covering all our overheads and have just about managed to keep supporting ourselves (with some welcome help from the government grants). Of course we have had our ups and downs as a team - inevitably fatigue, frustrations, stresses and insecurity can’t help but creep into our lives from time to time. But we’ve continued to encourage and support each other, to share our feelings and to really enjoy working and even sharing laughs together!
For me personally it’s been a time to reset. I have taken up a daily practice of yoga and meditation again. This has been an essential resource to help me face the challenges of each day. I have rediscovered dreams and values long forgotten, about how it might be possible to work more co operatively. Being able to share the risks and management of projects - rather than working so much on my own - has brought me a level of solace of which I had never dreamed. To be able to deliver free treatments and training to clients and colleagues in extreme financial , physical and emotional distress - funded solely by the donations of all those who can afford to help - has truly inspired me and reinforced my faith in the essential kindness of people.
We in the Shiatsu community have such very special and particular qualities, as well as skills and abilities, allowing us to provide a unique level of support - for each other, for our colleagues and for our community - in this life-defining moment of history. I see evidence every day that we are stepping up to this challenge. It is our time.