By Shirley Vanderbilt
Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Autumn/Winter 2004.
You walk on them all day, but did you know your feet do more than carry you from one place to the next? They also have a unique connection to balanced health and well-being. In a form of bodywork known as reflexology, the feet are said to contain reflex areas that mirror and connect to all parts of the body — and pressure on these points can actually influence your state of health.
The roots of reflexology draw, in part, from the ancient healing art of foot massage, practiced the world over, from Asian and Egyptian civilizations to tribal communities of the Americas. Early archaeological digs have revealed statues of Buddha in China and Japan, and Vishnu (a Hindu god) in India, depicting markings of specific areas on the feet. But it has only been within the last century that this work has established a foothold, so to speak, in Western practice.
As we know it today, reflexology is viewed primarily as a stress reduction or relaxation technique. Using the thumb, finger, and hand, gentle pressure is applied to reflex areas of the feet in order to decrease stress and bring the body into equilibrium. While some reflexologists also apply treatment to the hands and ears, the foot — with its greater quantity of sensitive nerve endings — is considered the most amenable to this approach.
Although simplistic in application, the effects of the treatment can be profound. Through activation of nerve receptors in the hands and feet, new messages flood into the body system, changing its tempo and tone. In essence, the foot or hand becomes a conduit for sharing information throughout the body. Function in the connecting area is improved and, at the same time, the body experiences overall relaxation and benefits to the circulation and elimination systems. When the body’s systems are at optimal functioning, self-healing is enhanced.
In this sense, reflexology is not a medical treatment for specific symptoms or diseases, but rather a way to facilitate the body’s inherent healing power. Therefore, it stands to reason that paying attention to your feet can also be a great preventive measure and one easily incorporated into the daily routine. Reflexology lends itself to various levels of expertise, from rejuvenating home foot rubs to professional services offered in massage centers, spas, and salons. The techniques can be applied in almost any environment, and as for equipment, you just need a pair of hands — yours or someone else’s.
How and why reflexology works the way it does is still up for debate. Some say it involves communication through the nervous system; other theories point to opening blockages of chi, or vital energy, in the body. Regardless, scientific studies have documented its benefit for a variety of ailments, ranging from acute disorders to chronic diseases. The majority of reflexology research has come from China where the technique is commonly used in hospitals and homes for both health maintenance and as adjunct to medical care. Kevin and Barbara Kunz, authors of eight reflexology books and codirectors of the Reflexology Research Project, maintain an up-to-date website documenting the latest studies in the field (see Resources sidebar). Some of the positive findings include reduction of pain, improvement in circulation, release of tension, and improved effectiveness of medication, as well as benefits for diabetes and headaches.
Kevin Kunz emphasizes the importance of making reflexology a part of your life. Consistency is key if you expect results, and foot homework is a low-cost, efficient way to extend the benefits of weekly sessions with your reflexologist. With the availability of self-help books and foot stimulation devices, doing footwork at home, between professional treatments, can be easy and fun. The techniques can be practiced even while you’re busy doing something else. You can purchase devices such as foot rollers for use under the desk, but even inexpensive homemade devices will do, Kunz says. “You can put a golf ball in a sock, tie it up, and you have a roller. Anything to cause stimulation has a beneficial effect.”
Reflexology is also a safe and effective technique for infants and children, soothing their emotions and promoting sleep. Naturally available and noninvasive, this approach can enhance communication between parent and child and aid in developing the child’s physical awareness. The Kunzes’ book, The Parent’s Guide to Reflexology: Helping Your Child Overcome Illness and Injury Through Touch, provides step-by-step instruction for foot and hand reflexology, along with charts and structured routines. Whether it’s a case of sniffles, a fussy toddler refusing a nap, or an upsetting emotional crisis, you can have first aid at hand.
Feedback and Stimulation
According to Kunz, lack of stimulation for the feet is a major problem in our society. We box our feet in shoes and forbid them to traipse the natural environment. Some American feet never even see sunlight, much less travel naked on a forest floor. “The feet carry the body, in more ways than one,” Kunz says. “Constant feedback from the feet is needed in order for the body to make the proper responses.” There is no challenge for the foot in walking on flat surfaces. Feet crave stimulation, and they were built for a variety of surfaces.
The Japanese, as well as Europeans, have addressed this basic need by creating health pathways to stimulate every part of the foot. “This comes from taki fumi,” Kunz says, “to step upon bamboo. Here we call them stroll pathways. The idea is that you stroll along, and as you do you are strengthening the system. It’s great exercise and gives you more endurance.” In Asia, pathways frequently feature cobblestones for stimulation, but a sandy beach or rocky hiking trail can provide variation underfoot.
For those who don’t have access to a pathway, a specially designed cobblestone mat will do the trick. Developed in China, these mats simulate walking on uneven cobblestones, giving the bare feet a stimulating workout. The technique was tested at the Oregon Research Institute in Eugene and found to have a significant effect on the mental and physical health of elderly participants, including decreased blood pressure and pain.
Whatever path you choose, get off the pavement, free your feet, and let them do their thing. “Over thousands of years,” Kunz says, “every culture has discovered it in some shape or form. The foot is it.”
Shirley Vanderbilt is a staff writer for Body Sense magazine.