Wood, fire, earth, metal, and water are the elements in the five element theory of shiatsu massage

Shiatsu and the Five Elements Theory

The Five Elements Theory is a concept that originated in ancient Chinese philosophy used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for centuries. According to this theory, everything in the universe, including the human body, is composed of five elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water.

Each of the five elements includes categories such as a season, a direction, climate, an internal organ, body tissue, emotion, taste, color, and sound. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine World Foundation, “The categories are seemingly limitless. The Five Elements reflect a deep understanding of natural law, the Universal order underlying all things in our world.”

The Five Elements Theory is used to understand the relationships between different phenomena and to diagnose and treat imbalances in the body, mind and physical environments. The art of shiatsu massage integrates the Five Element Theory, drawing its understanding of the human body and its imbalances from these ancient principles.

What are the five elements?

The First Element – Wood

The Wood element represents growth, creativity, alertness and flexibility. It’s associated with the liver and gallbladder organs, the color green, and the emotions of anger and frustration.

Element Two – Fire

The Fire element represents enthusiasm, warmth, passion and transformation. It’s associated with the heart, small intestine and pericardium, the color red, and the emotions of joy and excitement.

Element Three – Earth

The Earth element represents stability, nourishment and grounding. It’s associated with the spleen and stomach, the color yellow, and the emotions of worry and overthinking.

Element Four – Metal

The Metal element represents clarity, strength, discipline and precision. It’s associated with the lungs and large intestine organs, the color white, and the emotions of grief and sadness.

Element Five – Water

The Water element represents wisdom, fluidity and adaptability. It’s associated with the kidneys and bladder organs, the color black, and the emotions of fear and insecurity.

Each element has a specific relationship with the other four elements

For example, Wood generates Fire, Fire generates Earth, Earth generates Metal, Metal generates Water, and Water generates Wood. This relationship is called the Generating Cycle.

On the other hand, each element also has a specific relationship with the other four components in the opposite direction. For example, Wood controls Earth, Earth controls Water, Water controls Fire, Fire controls Metal, and Metal controls Wood. This relationship is called the Controlling Cycle. Generating processes promote development, while control processes control development. By generating and controlling, systems are harmonized and balanced.

Understanding these cycles is crucial in many fields, including TCM, feng shui, and martial arts, as they help explain the relationships between different elements and how practitioners can balance them to promote harmony and wellness.

The Five Elements Theory is used to understand personality traits, emotions and behavior patterns

Each element has qualities and characteristics that can manifest differently in a person’s life. By understanding which element is dominant in an individual’s personality, emotions and behavior patterns, one can gain insight into a person’s strengths, weaknesses and overall approach to life. For example:

  • A person with a dominant Wood element may be creative, ambitious and assertive, but also prone to anger and frustration. 
  • A person with a dominant Fire element may be passionate, enthusiastic and charismatic but, may also be prone to anxiety and restlessness. 
  • A person with a dominant Earth element may be nurturing, reliable and grounded, but prone to worry and overthinking. 
  • A person with a dominant Metal element may be organized, detail-oriented and disciplined, but also prone to rigidity and perfectionism. 
  • A person with a dominant Water element may be introspective, intuitive and adaptable, but may also be prone to fear and isolation.

Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners use the Five Elements Theory to diagnose imbalances in the body by assessing the relationships between the elements. 

For example, if a person is experiencing digestive problems, a TCM practitioner may diagnose an imbalance in the Earth element, which corresponds to the spleen and stomach organs. The practitioner would then use various techniques, such as acupuncture, herbal medicine, and dietary changes, to restore balance to the Earth element and promote healing.

Similarly, if a person is experiencing respiratory problems, a practitioner may diagnose an imbalance in the Metal element, which corresponds to the large intestine and lungs. The practitioner would then use techniques to restore balance to the Metal element and promote healing.

Feng shui practitioners incorporate the Five Elements Theory to create a harmonious environment

The Five Elements Theory is not only applicable to the human body but also to our environment, including our homes and workplaces. Feng shui practitioners use the theory to balance the energy flow and create a harmonious environment. For example, a room with too much Wood energy may feel chaotic and disorganized, while a room with too much Metal energy may feel cold and rigid. By understanding the balance between the five elements, feng shui practitioners can create a space that promotes health, happiness and prosperity.

The Five Elements Theory is used in martial arts to describe different fighting styles and techniques

Each element is associated with a particular movement and energy, and martial artists can use the theory to understand their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. For example, a martial artist with a Wood fighting style may be fast and agile, while a martial artist with a Metal fighting style may be strong and precise.

Five Elements Theory Role in Shiatsu Massage

The Five Elements Theory adds another layer of complexity and personalization to shiatsu treatment. This creates a unique and intimate relationship between the masseuse and the patient. The theory plays a pivotal role in the following phases:


We know each of the five elements corresponds to specific organs, emotions and physical characteristics. The practitioner may observe the client’s tongue, pulse, posture, and symptoms to identify which element might be deficient, excessive or out of balance. As an example, someone with frequent anger and headaches might show signs of an excess Fire element.


Based on the diagnosis, a shiatsu practitioner selects acupoints and meridian pathways associated with the relevant element(s). Through specific pressure techniques, they aim to:

  • Tonify: Strengthen a deficient element to restore its function. 
  • Sedate: Reduce an excessive element to achieve balance. 
  • Harmonize: Encourage the natural flow and interaction between elements.

Benefits of Incorporating the Five Elements Theory in Massage

By addressing imbalances on both physical and energetic levels, shiatsu can potentially help with the following:

  • Emotional issues like stress, anxiety and anger.
  • Physical complaints like digestive problems, headaches and pain.
  • Overall well-being and harmony within the body and mind.

The Five Elements Theory has been used for centuries to promote balance and harmony in various aspects of life

From adjusting our diet and lifestyle, to supporting a deficient element to choosing colors and environments corresponding to the element we want to enhance, the Five Elements Theory can provide valuable insights into improving our physical health, emotional well-being and spiritual growth.*

*The Five Elements Theory should be part of a holistic approach to health and well-being with an experienced practitioner, not a replacement for seeing a doctor.