What Exactly is Reflexology?

Reflexology is a method for activating the healing powers of the body.  It is both old and new.  From ancient texts, illustrations, and artifacts, we know that the early Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Russians, and Egyptians worked on the feet to promote good health.  Today many of these same techniques have been developed into a modern scientific method called reflexology.  What joins the ancients with the moderns is the long-established principle that there are energy zones that run throughout the body and reflex areas in the feet that correspond to all the major organs, glands, and body parts.

In the early years of the twentieth century, Dr. William Fitzgerald developed the modern zone theory of the human body, arguing that parts of the body correspond to other parts and offering as proof that fact that applying pressure to one area anesthetized a corresponding area.  Dr. Edwin Bower’s, Fitzgerald’s colleague, used a dramatic demonstration to convince others of the theory’s validity.  He showed that he could stick a pin into a volunteer’s face without causing pain if he first applied pressure to the point in the person’s hand which corresponded to that area of the face.

In the 1930s, Eunice Ingham, a physiotherapist for Dr. Joseph Shelby Riley, who was also a student and advocate of the theory, used zone therapy in her work with patients.  She concluded that since the zones ran throughout the body and could be accessed anywhere, some areas might be more accessible and effective than others.  She was right.  The feet were the most responsive areas for working the zones because they were extremely sensitive.  Eventually, she mapped the entire body onto the feet and discovered that an alternating pressure on the various points had therapeutic effects far beyond the limited use to which zone therapy had been previously employed, namely, reduction of pain.  And so reflexology was born.

Modern reflexology is both a science and an art.  As a science, it requires careful study, faithful practice, a sound knowledge of the techniques, and skill.  And yet as one of the healing arts, reflexology yields the best results when the reflexologist works with dedication, patience, focused intention, and above all, loving care.

Before we look at how and why reflexology works, let’s consider its many benefits.

Reflexology reduces stress and induces deep relaxation.

Stress cannot be avoided.  We live with it and in it everyday.  In itself, stress is neither good nor bad.  Playing tennis or giving a dinner party is stressful and yet exhilarating and fun.  Stress becomes a problem, however, when we fail to manage it well, especially the stress that results from problems, frustrations, overwork, and worry. When we don’t handle stress well, the body’s defenses break down and we become more susceptible to illness and disease.  It’s been estimated that over seventy-five percent of all illness is stress-related.  Reflexology reduces stress by generating deep, tranquil relaxation.  Many of my clients routinely fall asleep during reflexology session and testify on waking that the thirty or forty minutes of sleep were more beneficial and restorative than a full night of restless sleep.  We all know how good it feels to lie down in the middle of a busy day.  But lying down is just the first step.  Beyond that lie the deep realms of relaxation and peace that help the body balance itself and allow healing energy to flow smoothly and gently throughout.

Every part of the body is operated by messages carried back and forth along neural pathways.  Stimulation of sensory nerve endings sends information to the spinal cord and brain.  The brain and spinal cord send instructions to the organs and muscles.  The neural pathways are both living tissue and electrical channels, and can be impinged upon or polluted by man factors.  When neural pathways are impaired, nerve function is impeded-messages are delivered slowly and unreliably, or not at all, and body processes operate at less than optimum levels.  The reflexologist stimulates more than 7,000 nerves when touching the feet, and encourages the opening and clearing of neural pathways.

Reflexology improves circulation.

We all know how important it is for blood to flow freely throughout the body, carrying oxygen and nutrients to all the cells that make up the tissues of the body and removing waste products of metabolism, and other toxins.  What many of us aren’t aware o fix that the blood vessels contract and relax in the process and that their resiliency is most important for proper functioning.  Stress and tension tighten up the cardiovascular system and restrict blood flow.  Circulation becomes sluggish.  By reducing stress and tension, reflexology allows the miles of cardiovascular vessels to conduct the flow of blood naturally and easily.

Reflexology cleanses the body of toxins and impurities.

The body has built-in mechanisms for cleansing itself, mainly the lymphatic, excretory, and integumentary systems (i.e. the lymph nodes, the kidneys, and colon, and the skin).  If these become blocked or function improperly, toxins and waste matter build up.  A healthy body is like a healthy home: You have to take the garbage out regularly.  By deepening relaxation, reflexology causes all the systems of the body to function more efficient, including those that eliminate waste products.

Reflexology balances the whole system.

The technical term of homeostasis and it means being in a dynamic state of balance.  To me it means togetherness and centeredness.  The thousands of parts of areas of the body, each functioning according to its own laws and purposes, together make up only one body.  For the body to be healthy, everything must work together.  If one part is out of whack, other parts suffer.  To keep the body running harmoniously, a tune-up is often needed. As after a motor tune-up, the end result is a machine that runs smoothly, with all its parts contributing synergistically.

Reflexology revitalizes energy.

Energy is very personal.  We all experience it in our own ways.  You know when your “juices are flowing” and when they’re not.  Sometimes energy is exciting and invigorating; at other times is is calm and restful.  We each experience our energy levels in personal and subtle ways.  But one thing is certain: Energy flows.  It circulates consciously and unconsciously throughout the body on a physical, emotional, and mental level.  There is also an energy of the spirit that is just as crucial to overall well-being as physical or mental energy.  Like the old metaphysical issue of the One and the Many, there may be only one source of Energy in the universe, and each type we experience is an expression of it.  Be that as it may, energy needs to be revitalized periodically.  According to polarity theory, it must also flow unimpeded between the negative and positive poles that every atom and cell contains.  Or in Oriental thought, the yin and yang energy, currents must complement each other.  In whatever terms make sense to you, feeling good and alive requires sufficient energy.  By relaxing and opening up energy pathways, reflexology revitalizes the body and supplies it with energy on all levels.

When Laura Norman’s grandmother was suffering from cancer in her eighties, she was usually weak and had very little energy to perform the normal daily activities of a woman her age.  I gave her regular reflexology sessions and she always responded with renewed strength and energy.  Doctors who treated her were amazed at what she could do when reflexology was an ongoing part of her health care.  Although the cancer did not go into remission, her energy levels and natural vitality improved considerably.

Reflexology is preventive health care.

Preventive health care is becoming more important as we realize the health-threatening dangers of our environment: stress, fatigue, chemical additives in food, polluted water supplies, radioactivity, and poor air quality, to name only a few.  The added strain on everyone’s immune system today should warn us to find time to unwind and relax, because the immune system functions at its peak only when a person successfully manages the stressful situations of daily life.  The immune system also responds synergistically, relying on other bodily processes to maintain its own lines of defense.  Only when the body is well balanced is a person in good shape to ward off illness.

My clients who are teachers and parents tell me that they are less susceptible to catching colds during the flu seasons even though their kids sneeze and cough around them all the time.  Adults don’t have immunity to the bugs that children carry around.  But reflexology seems to help in bolstering immunological defenses, and so they catch fewer colds.  Children get fewer colds too when they receive reflexology.

Reflexology stimulates creativity and productivity.

Very few of us can perform at our best if we are sluggish and tired.  Like exercise, reflexology restores mental alertness and improves the attention span.  By reducing tensions and calming the mind, we are free to think our best thoughts, come up with our best ideas, and work longer and with greater clarity at difficult tasks.  Each session provides the quiet time so necessary to let new ideas gestate.  As a pick-me-up in the middle of the day or in the late afternoon, reflexology can send you back to work or into the evening with the mental energy you need to be creative and productive.

Reflexology nurtures relationships.

Reflexology can unite two people in a special, intimate relationship and strengthen that relationship every time you do it.  Eventually the wonderful chemistry between the two of you spread to others.  When you feel good, others respond.  My clients go back to their offices more patient and tolerant of co-workers, and pretty soon their presence changes the whole work environment.  Feeling good is contagious!

Reflexology rewards the practitioner.

All body workers and healers will tell you that their work is rewarding,not just because they help others to feel good and enjoy better health but because when they act as a channel for healing energy, the circuit completes itself by bringing health and well-being to them too.  They feel grounded and centered; their attention is focused and concentrated even as the recipient relaxes and becomes centered.  In fact, just looking forward to giving a reflexology session has a calming effect on me.  I know that for the next hour I’ll be centered and grounded and can forget about the rest of the world for a while.  Afterward, the reflexologist feels a great sense of satisfaction, and receives “strokes” of another kind in the gratitude and thank-your lavished by the client.


Since ancient times, healers have employed various methodologies to strengthen and balance the energy flow.  Many of these systems, including acupuncture, shiatsu, and reflexology, agree that this energy flows in zones or meridians throughout the body.  Reflexologists specify that there are ten energy zones that run the length of the body from head to toe-five on each side of the body ending in each foot and running down the arms into the tips of the fingers.  Not only do these zones run lengthwise, but they pass through the body, so that a zone located on a front of the body can also be reached from behind.  All the organs and parts of the body lie along one or more of these zones.

10 zones

Each zone can be considered a channel for the intangible life energy, call chi or qi in oriental medicine and martial arts.  Stimulating or “working” any zone in the foot be applying pressure with the thumbs and fingers affects the entire zone throughout the body.  For example, working a zone on the foot along which the kidneys lie will release vital energy that may be blocked somewhere else in that zone, such as in the eyes.  Working the kidney reflex area on the foot will therefore revitalize and balance the entire zone and improve functioning of the organ.

The actual physical mechanism that controls the ten zones in the body and feet is not fully understood.  That is works is proven every day, but exactly how it works is still a mystery.  There are sound, reputable theories, however, suggesting that good health depends on balance, equilibrium the natural functioning of all the body systems – that we call homeostasis.  Excessive stress disrupts this balance.  In fact, the stress reaction is a very primitive response to a situation perceived as dangerous or threatening.  It has been called the “fight or flight response” because our spontaneous reaction is to gear up the body and emotions either to fight off the attacker or run for our lives.  The problem for contemporary people living in our modern civilization is that is isn’t considered civilized to fight and there’s no place to run!  Unfortunately our adrenal glands don’t know this, so the heartbeat becomes more rapid, the digestive systems shuts down, and a chain of other physical reactions occur to prepare us for the looming “catastrophe.”  But often we do nothing except bottle it up and repress it.  Eventually, the stress buildup “explodes” internally by knocking some part of our system out of balance.

Reflexology alleviates the effects of stress by inducing deep relaxation, placing us in a “safe space,” and allowing the nervous system to calm down and function more normally. Circulation proceeds smoothly, blood flow is improved, and oxygen reaches all the cells.  We are no longer activated for fight or flight.  The body seeks homeostasis, and healing can take place.  The person experiences a sense of well-being at all levels.

As in acupuncture or shiatsu, energy pathways are opened up, and the subtle energy that accompanies neurological and circulatory functioning can do its work.  Order and harmony are restored.  The body is normalized as the seven energy centers, known in Eastern medicine as the chakras, are unblocked.  The body returns to its natural rhythms.  Energy flows.  The body, mind, and spirit are brought back into balance.

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