Shiatsu Trainer Thinks Integratively About Medicine

Holistic approach that combines conventional treatments with alternative therapies

Editor’s note: Seventh in a seven-part series about creating a sustainable health-care system for Rhode Island.

By KARINA LUTZ/ecoRI News contributor

Karlo Berger stands tall and lean, talking animatedly. Ideas snap with precision, passion and deep reflection as he converses about how to create a sustainable health-care system based on holistic principles. The ideas parallel his efforts to integrate his work as a shiatsu (acupressure) practitioner and trainer and as an activist helping people understand our need for and capability to transform our culture toward sustainability.

To learn shiatsu — “a kind of cross between acupuncture and massage” — his Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) students are in for a paradigm shift right off the bat, unless they’re already steeped in the concepts of traditional Chinese medicine. Five element theory, yin and yang, chi and other ancient Chinese concepts were woven into shiatsu when it was developed at the start of the 20th century. Berger teaches them to the therapeutic massage students in his Newport campus classes.

Berger also is stirring people to look at health from an even more holistic paradigm. He is beginning to integrate “deep ecology” ideas and practices into his shiatsu teaching and treatments.

“A goal of holistic practices in general is to help people live more sustainably, to reconnect with nature, to become happier, to be more present in the moment and connected to the people and environment around us,” Berger said.

Integrating deep ecology into treatments acknowledges that an individual’s health doesn’t arise in a vacuum. “The less sustainably we live, the sicker we get,” he said, noting that the stress from living as if we don’t belong to the earth exacerbates both our body’s sickness and the world’s. “Health care these days is mostly treating the symptoms of stress, but stress is the message. What in our lifestyle is generating that stress?”

Deep ecology work helps his students see how they are connected to the web of life, and that pollutants, overconsumption and destruction of habitats and species affects us all — our illnesses, emotional imbalances and stress responses are feedback from the system that change is needed. “This civilization needs to learn how to be happy,” he said. “Most people, even Americans, will say what makes them happy, gives them meaning, is not overconsumption.”

Shiatsu is perhaps the lowest tech of what Berger calls the “green” health-care modalities — those with the lowest carbon footprints. The treatment is received fully clothed. Shiatsu can be done on a mat or anywhere. It doesn’t even require a massage table. It also doesn’t need to be expensive.

He champions “community shiatsu” modeled after community acupuncture as a way to reduce costs. For some of the most common complaints, such as back pain from sitting, anyone with a little training can help, he said. So he teaches couples, family members, birth partners and other pairs how to press on the pressure points for each other’s specific conditions. They can take the skills home and avoid multiple trips for the same treatment.

“Everybody is a healer, like everybody is a cook,” Berger said. “Most of the techniques I use, I use a lot. It’s not rocket science or gene therapy. It’s easy to imagine people with the whole gradation of skills working in the general community. With the more difficult cases, a professional would be called in. But garden-variety pain and stress anyone can work with safely. A sustainable health-care system would be a web of care.”

Berger also offers community shiatsu to pairs of patients and their caregivers. The patients then can learn something to do to help relieve stress or pain. The empowerment of being a giver, the balance of reciprocity, become part of the patient’s healing. It balances the role of giver and receiver, “to rectify a cultural habit of imbalance tied to patterns of overactivity and overconsumption” — two of the greatest causes of disease in the modern world, according to Berger.

Such a vision is possible in Rhode Island, as one of the few states in the country with a law specifically allowing non-licensed holistic modalities to be practiced freely. These include shiatsu, Feldenkrais, homeopathy, herbalism, and many kinds of bodywork — although not massage therapy, which requires a license.

Berger is interested in collaborating with others to further envision post-carbon health care. On his website be puts out a call to “explore what web of conventional and holistic health and wellness practices could best deliver high-quality, low-cost healthcare to communities in a post-carbon society. This project would involve interdisciplinary analysis of the carbon footprints of a range of healthcare modalities, an emphasis on 'green' preventive care, and modeling 'smart' interaction among conventional caregivers, holistic caregivers, and lay-caregivers. A key goal would be to launch a pilot healthcare initiative derived from these findings.”

Berger is a local leader of those exploring how to integrate holistic health and Western medicine, often called integrative or complementary medicine. He co-founded integrative medicine at Brown University with Dr. John McGonigle and Dr. Julien Ginsberg-Peltz in 2009, convening practitioners from both sides to collaborate and collaborate across disciplines.