A former boyfriend used to rub my feet on those days when nothing went right. After just a few minutes of having my weary
dogs held and caressed, freed from the confines of shoes, the world was a better place.
He was onto something. "Getting the body to relax is the first step in getting the body in balance to heal itself," says
Christine Issel, author of Reflexology: Art, Science and History (New Frontier, 1996). The feet, as it turns out, hold
tremendous potential in the ongoing search for stress reduction. Reflexology practitioners take this theory a step further,
saying that the relaxation benefits their system provides can also improve overall health.
Studies conducted mostly in Europe and Asia have credited reflexology with relieving headaches, chronic pain, and the
undesirable symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, among other ills. As Issel explains, reflexology is based on the premise that
most illness stems from tension held in the body. Only when the body is relaxed can its self-healing mechanisms be able to
correct whatever imbalance exists.
Reflexologists strive to relax their clients by accessing the nervous system via reflex points on the feet or, less commonly,
on the hands or outer ears. This also triggers a release of endorphins, the body's natural pain relievers, according to
Barbara and Kevin Kunz, authors of Reflexology: Health at Your Fingertips (DK Publishing, 2003). Thus, the combination
of stress and tension reduction and pain relief helps facilitate healing.
The promise of relaxation alone was enough to send me to my first reflexology session. I hadn't been sleeping well, and a
knot had taken up residence between my shoulder blades. As I lay clothed on a massage table, a lightweight blanket covering
me from ankles to chin, Ani Stocks, a reflexologist in Santa Cruz, California, held my bare feet in her warm hands. "Do you
hold tension in your left side?" she asked after a few minutes. I do. She noted that my left leg and foot were tenser and
pulled up shorter than my right. Observation, I learned, is a key component of reflexology. Practitioners observe their
clients' feet for tension patterns, irregularities, and even skin texture—all are clues to the deeper workings of the body.
They also utilize the reflexology "map," which visualizes (roughly) the human form on the feet: the toe end of the foot
corresponds to the head; the heel, to the lower back; the arch, to the internal organs; and the top of the foot, to the back
of the body. Putting pressure on these areas releases tension and restores equilibrium in the corresponding body part.
When Stocks carefully twisted my right foot and "released" my spine, my body sank into the table. Hitting a sore spot on the
top of the same foot near the toes, she said, "That's where most people hold tension—in the muscles coming down from the
neck." When she pressed into the arch of my left foot, she paused. "It's a little tender right here in the stomach area for
you," she said. "There's tension here."
If I had any control over my muscles, I would have nodded. Every worry, from looming deadlines to the future of the planet,
seems to get lodged in my gut. But by then, Stocks had reduced me to a rag-doll state.
"Make sure you drink plenty of water today," she said an hour later, when I groggily climbed down from the table. "Your body
will be washing out toxins." I don't know about that, but that night, I slept better than I had in weeks. My toes tingled.
And for days, my shoulders hung down where they belong instead of hovering around my ears. I'll never look at my feet the
same way again.
For more info or to find a certified reflexologist, visit the Reflexology Association of America's Web site at www.reflexology-usa.org.