“Most people who come in for reflexology have just [recently] heard about it,” said Colin Costa, a reflexologist at Chicago’s award-winning Allyu Spa. “They’re curious, and they want to try it out.” Though reflexology may be new to many, its practitioners often point to ancient Egypt as evidence of its early use. Wall paintings in the Physician’s Tomb at Saqqara depicted several medical treatments, including people having their hands and feet worked on. Today, the technique follows age-old traditions, with practitioners navigating a map of pressure points in the feet and hands to stimulate organs and systems throughout the body. According to the Mayo Clinic, studies by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health suggest it can reduce pain, anxiety, depression, stress, and insomnia. Sweet. But how does it work exactly? We talked to Colin about the principles of reflexology and why people might want to try it. (Attention high-heel wearers: this may be for you.) What’s the basic idea behind reflexology? “Back before we started wearing shoes everywhere, we developed natural stimulus points from the ground [making direct contact] with our feet,” Colin said. “By walking and getting that stimuli, we would relieve stress. We don’t get that anymore. So the idea of reflexology is going back and mimicking that stimuli to specific points and feeling where that stress sits.” Gotcha. Dang shoes. OK, so how do reflexology maps work? “All throughout our feet we’ve got different reflex points that correlate with the organs, with the body, with pretty much everything,” Colin said. “There’s a map of the entire body between your feet and your hands. … It’s always neat when you’re giving a [body] massage and you start with someone’s feet and you’re like, ‘Ah, so what’s going on with your back, right below the shoulders?’ People are like, ‘How did you even feel that?’” This illustration shows just a fraction of the dozens of reflexology points in the feet. Are there reflex points that everyone seems to respond to? Colin referred to the solar plexus reflex point (illustrated above) as the “universal stress point.” “If you start working that [on people who are] feeling anxious or stressful, everyone kinda likes that. It’s tender for a lot of people.” He’s also noticed a lot of response to points that correspond to different glands, like the adrenals and the pituitary (also illustrated above). “Anytime you’re working with the glands it tends to be a little more sensitive. People aren’t used to those things being worked on.” Let’s be honest—not everyone’s concerned with their adrenal glands. What if my dogs are just barkin’? “Reflexology can be like a deep-tissue massage,” Colin said. “You can hit all those reflex points and still make the treatment feel relaxing.” In fact, he highly recommended the treatment for anyone who wears high heels a lot. “Wearing heels compresses the calf. So as that gets tight, that muscle gets used to being in that position. So even if you’re not trying to do traditional reflexology, we can warm up all that tissue and take the pressure off your heel, foot, and calf,” he said. So is it cool if I just conk out on the table then? “The only times I run into issues with people not liking their treatment is when they just plop down on the table and go to sleep,” Colin said. “With any type of massage, [it’s important to] be honest with your therapist, let them know what your goals and expectations are, and have that conversation.” Plus, if you fall asleep, it eliminates the practitioner’s ability to gauge your response to different reflex points. Is there anyone who shouldn’t get reflexology? It’s a big no for pregnant women. “There are reflex points that can stimulate uterine contractions. You also don’t want to do anything if the foot’s already injured or unhappy,” Colin said, citing recent foot surgery or plantar fasciitis flares as contraindications. He’d also be hesitant to work on anyone who isn’t a candidate for traditional massage, such as those with blood-pressure issues. But it’s all good for everyone else? Basically, yeah. “Psychology tells us human touch releases oxytocin, releases all these chemicals that make you feel better,” Colin said. “The idea of bodywork is to relieve stress, to bring the body down to a relaxed state. We don’t get that very often in life.” Illustrations by Kelly MacDowell, Groupon
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