An Introduction to Reflexology

What do the feet, hands, and ears have in common? They all contain reflexology points that can help us feel better throughout our entire bodies.

What is reflexology and what does it do?

Reflexology is a method of applying pressure to these points using fingers, thumbs, and, sometimes, specialized tools. Reflexology encourages the body to seek homeostasis, which in simplest terms can be understood as optimal functioning for the whole person. There is also an emotional balancing component to reflexology; just as a stressful day at the office or hours stuck in traffic can lead to free-floating angst, reflexology can calm the so-called “monkey mind” and lead to the Relaxation Response

How does reflexology work?

A single mechanism for reflexology’s efficacy has not been precisely identified, but because thousands of nerve endings exist in the soles of the feet, for example, and the central nervous system conveys information from the feet to the brain, it’s evident that the effects of localized reflexology can be far-reaching.

While reflexologists may incorporate massage-like techniques during a reflexology session, reflexology itself is distinct from massage therapy in that it makes use of energy pathways to help encourage the harmonious functioning of all bodily systems and organs. Most U.S. states recognize this distinction and carve out various exemptions to massage laws for practicing reflexologists.

A Thought Experiment on How Reflexology Works

The following thought experiment can help us understand how reflexology works in practical terms. Imagine wearing extremely uncomfortable shoes for an hour while playing basketball or tennis or performing some other activity that requires continued physical motion. At first, only the feet would feel the unpleasant effects of these ill-fitting shoes, but as the minutes dragged on, other aches and pains in the knees, hips, and back would likely emerge. Mental and psychological distress from enduring this unpleasant hour may also become apparent. 

Now consider the opposite scenario. Imagine wearing the perfect shoe for a given task, or walking barefoot on the beach, or just sitting with your feet up while relaxing. Foot reflexology expands on this principle in a focused way, bringing pleasant sensations to the feet to help us settle into a place of stillness and relaxation. Rather than the body aching and your mind racing at the end of an hour, changes in biochemistry and neural activity resulting from a reflexology session promote calmness, focus, and restoration.

Reflexology, Energy Pathways, and Qi

In Eastern traditions, the concept of qi—or life force moving through energy channels within the body—may help explain how the entire body can benefit from localized pressure on the feet, hands, and ears. Rather than agitating a person’s qi as in the first example with the poorly fitting shoes, reflexology nourishes qi and promotes homeostasis on all levels.

What is a reflexology chart?

Reflexology charts depict points and zones on the feet—or hands and ears—as relating to specific parts or systems of the body. Some points and referral areas on a given chart may not precisely match reflexology points and zones on other charts. But given that reflexology-like practices originated spontaneously in cultures ranging from ancient Egypt to pre-Columbian North America to various parts of Asia, it makes perfect sense that reflexology charts have some minor deviations.

As Christine Issel, professional reflexologist and author of Reflexology: Art, Science & History, writes: “The practice of foot work appears in a variety of cultures throughout history in different ages, and in sites far removed from each other.”

How does a reflexologist use a chart?

On most reflexology charts, the base of the big toe corresponds to the base of the neck, and the area on the pad of the foot below the small toe on a given foot corresponds to the shoulder on that side of the body. But these points are not “magic buttons” or directly wired to a given area in a conventional anatomical sense; instead, they offer reflexologists starting points to address recipient concerns within a larger, interdependent context. 

The more experienced a reflexologist becomes, the greater the ability to effectively use observation, experience, and intuition to tailor unique treatments to the specific needs of recipients while still using the chart as a guide in determining sequence, pressure, and duration.

Does reflexology hurt?

There may be moments of discomfort as the reflexologist works on certain points, but for the most part, reflexology helps the body trend toward relaxation. In turn, this helps the recipient let go of not only physical tension, but also emotional issues that may be affecting one’s overall state of well-being. There may be a few “ouch” moments in reflexology—just as there can be during massage therapy—but the cumulative result is almost always a more relaxed, less stressed person.

What can be treated with reflexology?

Reflexology is performed in certain medical settings, but generally speaking, reflexology is used more as an expansive therapy that promotes a healthy, holistic synergy rather than a targeted therapy aimed at treating or curing specific conditions. In fact, many reflexologists explicitly state they do not purport to treat or cure specific illnesses. Paradoxically, it is this broad-based, generalized approach that allows people from all walks of life to benefit from reflexology.

Reasons people seek out reflexology include:

  • Pain relief
  • Greater physical mobility
  • Improved sleep
  • Stress management
  • Emotional balancing
  • Generalized self-care

Dr. Brent A. Bauer, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Integrative Medicine and Health Research Program, says that several studies indicate reflexology may be capable of reducing both physical pain and stress-related psychological symptoms.

Can I do reflexology on myself?

Not only is self-reflexology doable, many reflexologists teach clients techniques they can apply to themselves between sessions.

Who should not receive reflexology?

Reflexology is generally safe for most individuals, but it may be contraindicated for things like recently broken bones, open wounds, and certain dermatological conditions. If you have questions about whether reflexology is right for you, ask your healthcare provider.

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