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Awesomeness Afoot

One doesn’t want to brag, but according to the bottom of my foot, I have excellent sinuses.

My feet would also be the first to tell you that my hips are limber and that I do not currently suffer from chest congestion. It’s nothing I’d mention in a Christmas letter, but to the reflexology practitioner at Natural Therapy Wellness Center, this is all wonderful news.

I suppose it is, though what seems more remarkable to me is the practitioner’s ability to deduce the stiffness of my iliotibial band, or the amount of tension in my shoulders, solely from information collected off the bottom of my feet. But that is the essence of reflexology, a form of bodywork which has been practiced for thousands of years.

The promise of reflexology is that, at a minimum, I may experience a general sense of deep relaxation following one or more treatments. In the best scenario, I will leave with a noticeable sense of energetic balance and restoration, with any lingering, chronic ailments remediated. And though I’m cautioned that it might be aiming a little high to expect the latter scenario, I am assured that I will leave the appointment feeling better than when I arrived.

Perhaps this is why reflexology has become a popular form of bodywork here in the West. The strongest proponents tend to report significant health benefits, including increased energy, decreased anxiety, and even cured illnesses — claims yet to be supported by hard evidence, unless a few millennia of application and successful outcomes counts as evidence. I haven’t personally gone through all the data, but that’s kind of why I’m here, receiving treatment on a chilly day in late November: to satisfy my curiosity. That, and the heated bed.

Even without knowing what to expect from the appointment, I am surprised to meet Carroll, the middle-aged reflexologist, patently Midwestern in both looks and temperament. Because reflexology is an ancient Eastern healing art, naturally I’d imagined the practitioner to be ancient as well. And Eastern. I’d pictured a weathered, old man of Chinese descent, all wrinkled and frail, with a long, tangly beard and a wise and mysterious air about him. I don’t know if that makes me a racist or what; perhaps Carroll will find the answer written on my arches.

It is a sixty-minute session that begins with a brief consultation: what do I do for a living, any health concerns, that sort of thing. I tell Carroll that I am a writer, an inspirational speaker, and a marketing manager for a tech firm. She adjusts her glasses and nods, studying the top of my head. I mention, too, that I enjoy mountain biking, though this doesn’t seem to phase her. She is more interested in my professions.

“So, you spend all your time thinking, imagining, analyzing, producing things,” she said. “Do you grind your teeth a lot at night?”

I admit that, yes, I do tend to grind my teeth at night, and once again she adjusts her glasses. “During the day, too,” I add.

“Oh, no. Do you commute to work?”

“Yes,” I say. “It’s about two hours each way.”foot reflexology

Carroll appears deeply concerned about this, saying only, “Oh, dear. Okay.”

With our consultation out of the way, Carroll explains a little about the discipline.

The underlying principle of reflexology is that most regions and some biological functions within our bodies correspond to certain loci within our feet, hands, and ears. It is theorized that deliberate, targeted manipulation of the tissue surrounding these loci effects a physiological response in those corresponding regions and functions. For example, applying the appropriate amount of pressure to a specific point on my sole may relieve some internal wonkiness in my intestines, thereby improving digestion.

I ask Carroll if it would be possible to make my wife wet the bed by pressing the bladder locus on her foot while she’s sleeping, and she says plainly, “No, that’s not how it works.” Rats, I think.

Precisely how and why reflexology does work, however, remains anyone’s guess. It may have to do with the distribution of energy throughout the nervous system, it could have to do with the flow of energy from the practitioner into the client, or it could simply be a placebo effect. Alternatively, those who tend believe in things like Western medicine and science may chalk it all up to a specific neuropeptide known as Substance P, which is released from the terminals of nerve fibers and is believed to play a critical role in both inflammation and the perception of pain. (Carroll assures me that Substance P has nothing to do with my previous question.)

According to some reflexologists, one’s various ongoing physical complaints may be the result of an accumulation of Substance P in and around those nerves of the feet, hands, and ears corresponding to reflection points. That is to say, if you regularly suffer from earaches, the problem may be originating in your toes, not your ears. It has been suggested that micro-manipulation of the reflection points in the feet, hands, and ears serves to break down local concentrations of Substance P, effectively alleviating pain or inflammation in the corresponding area of the body. It makes sense to me: if the engine isn’t getting enough gas, a clogged fuel filter may be just as culpable as an empty tank, if far less likely. In the end, the reason reflexology works is still up for grabs, and maybe that accounts for its increasing popularity: with so many explanations, there’s something everyone can love about it.

According to Carroll, the left and right halves of my body can be mapped, from the top down, upon the bottom of my feet, with the tips of my toes corresponding to my head, my soles roughly corresponding to my chest and torso, and my heels apparently corresponding to digestive and excretory functions. The theoretical top-to-bottom map applies to my hands as well, but our ears reflect in a much different pattern. It is suggested that our earlobes generally refer to systems in our face (mouth, jaw, eyes, et cetera), with the outer ear reflecting our limbs and large joints, the inner ear reflecting the throat, and all the messy bits of human physiology distributed throughout the middle and front of the ear. How our species has managed to determine all of this is beyond me, but I suppose there’s something to it if we’ve had thousands of years to sort it out.

I am invited to lie face-down on the table, wearing as much clothing as I care to wear beneath the warm blankets. Carroll then hands me a pair of large headphones playing the sound of waves roaring in and receding; I am supposed to focus on the waves and my breath. Once I’m settled in, she begins.

Reflexology is distinctly different from the type of work we normally associate with foot massages. A foot massage typically involves longer, broader strokes across large areas of the feet. By contrast, reflexology involves subtle modulations of applied pressure to a number of discrete locations around the foot. To the practitioner, the degree of tissue pliability or crunchiness provides clues as to the whereabouts of problematic areas throughout the body; some areas get worked more intensively than others. I notice that the work done to the insides of my arches feels relaxing, but pressure on other areas, such as the spot beneath the pads of my toes, elicits a pain response. It’s not the sort of rage-inducing pain you feel when stepping on a Lego, but rather a sharp sensation reminding me that therapy is being applied. I am by no means a masochist, but on the vast spectrum of pain, reflexology seems to offer only the good kind.

After working her way around both of my feet for several minutes, Carroll flips me over onto my back and continues her exploration, stopping only when she reaches my big toe. For some reason, my big toes are not shaped like human toes — they are ridiculous, saucer-shaped, and narrow at the base, like ping-pong paddles — and so I assume she is feeling stunned and horrified, unsure how to proceed. Then, she begins to work the pad of the toe with sincere conviction, as though she’s discovered a diamond beneath my skin and is now trying to maneuver it out. This continues for twenty minutes, ten on each paddle-toe, while I focus on waves crashing and the rhythm of my breath: the water swells, I draw a breath, then slowly I exhale as the wave collapses and retreats to the surf.

Many people fall fast asleep during reflexology work — that’s how relaxing it can be. I’ve been waiting the entire hour to see if I might doze off, but alas, I am still wide awake and fully alert when Carroll informs me that our time is up. She leaves the room, and I take a moment to wiggle my toes — they feel nice.

Walking to the waiting area, it seems as though I’m floating on a pair of newly-installed feet. They feel refreshed and alive, which is an odd sensation given how hard they work at a thankless job. As for my corresponding organs? Everything feels about the same, which comes as a bit of a relief. Generally speaking, if I can’t feel my kidneys or my duodenum, I can only assume that’s a good thing.

As I settle up the bill with Carroll, I am greeted by Jon, the owner, and two other therapists. They all beam at me with excitement — almost jealousy — and ask me how I’m feeling. I almost feel guilty when I answer them: “My feet feel amazing. But the rest of me kind of feels…” They lean in. “…the same,” I say, shrugging.

Carroll smiles, assuring me that this is perfectly normal. “You may start to really notice the effects tomorrow and the next day,” she says. Apparently, because of the areas she addressed and the amount of pressure she used, I can expect to feel a gradual increase in my overall energy over the next twenty-four to thirty-six hours.

“Also,” she continues, “I spent a great deal of time on your toes. While I am happy to report your sinuses are clear, I noticed quite a bit of blockage around the top of your head, which I’ve only begun to address. I’ve probably stirred some things up, so tonight you might have vivid dreams or you might feel some anxiety that you haven’t felt in a while.” She adjusts her glasses and hands me a receipt. “Also perfectly normal, don’t panic — you’re not going crazy, we just freed up some emotional stuff you’ve been holding onto.”

I nod my head, which seems to be filled not with freed emotions but increasing skepticism.

“Oh,” she adds as she pulls on her winter coat. “I spent some time with your digestive system, and it responded really well. So, don’t be surprised if you notice your belly is gurgling, or if you find yourself needing to — how shall I say — use the toilet more often than normal this evening.”

With that, Carroll bids me good day and heads out through the front door. Suddenly I feel delighted. Nobody wants to let emotions out of the box, but as a man, it is absolutely my privilege — my birthright, almost — to enjoy spending time on the toilet.

It’s Sunday morning and my mood is soaring. Friday night, after my appointment, I was jolted awake countless times by vivid and disturbing dreams, just as Carroll had predicted. Saturday, too, was an unusually emotional day, a carnival ride through the spectrum of human feeling. One minute I was convincing myself I had diabetes, and the next I was riding high on a manic appreciation for paper towels. As for the increased activity in my bowel? CHECK.

By Saturday evening I had begun to notice a sense of elevated energy and renewed peace of mind, and I’d finally released the skepticism I’d been harboring since my appointment ended. I don’t know what Monday will bring, so I will enjoy my Sunday and the promised boost in energy and spirit, be it from a release of Substance P, or an energetic alignment, or just because someone convinced me it would work.

And, yes, tonight I am absolutely going to locate Kristen’s bladder point, just to see what happens.

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