Heart and sole

by Goh Bee Lian, Sep 25, 2002 | Destinations: China

It is another weekend, a welcome break after another week that whirled past in a flurry of activity. Feeling like a depleted battery, I head for the Chinese physician's clinic near my place.

No, I am not ill, but I am ready for a bit of a tune-up. For over four years, I have been visiting this clinic for foot reflexology at least once a month. After the usual cheery exchange of pleasantries with the good doctor, and with his wife if she happens to be there helping him to tidy up the place, I am led to the back of the clinic where a foot bath has been filled with warm water, and half a tablespoon of ground herbs and salt granules added.

I sit on a stool and stick my feet into the soothing foot bath for about 5 minutes, then towel my feet dry and proceed to a comfortable reclining seat. There is a foot rest of the same height as the seat, upon which I place my feet. Then I sit back and enjoy the pleasure and the pain.

Like other aspects of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), foot reflexology is part of the pre-emptive approach to good health. Pretty much like sending a car for regular servicing to keep it in tip top condition rather than waiting for it to collapse from over-use. The Chinese physicians do prefer the professional challenge of treating patients with other ailments, but offering foot reflexology and massage services help supplement their income, and is a complementary service to keeping people in good health.

Since a complete foot reflexology session takes about 40 minutes, the waiting time at a clinic can be long if the sole physician is occupied. Quite often, I have given up my place in the queue to some patient or the other who walks into the clinic grimacing in pain and is in more urgent need of the physician's attention.

Besides TCM clinics, foot reflexology services are offered by larger health centers with teams of therapists who are rostered in an efficient rotation system. The advantage of going for foot reflexology at a large center is that the waiting time is reduced. As they do only foot reflexology or neck and back massage, and have more staff offering the treatment, they are able to accept advance bookings and offer volume discounts. A single 40-minute session of foot reflexology at a center can cost S$28. Pay S$280 up front for 10 sessions and you can get two sessions free. Customers who sign up for a package deal are issued with a card with which they can visit any of the health center's branches for foot reflexology. Each visit is recorded on the card, and before the 12 sessions are completed, the customer is persuaded to sign up for another 12.

Usually located in large shopping malls, the health centers feature multiple rows of synthetic-leather reclining chairs, each with a footstool in front for the customers to rest their feet, in a large, air-conditioned, carpeted room. Instead of the herbal powder for the pre-massage soak, the therapists squirt an anti-bacterial solution into the water. As I sit in with my feet in the water, I read various circulars pasted on the wall at eye level. They include instructions that foot reflexology should not be done within 30 minutes of having a meal. To drink 500 cc of water after the session. And the warning that some customers may experience slight fever or more pronounced varicose veins after the session, which are signs of the improved circulation.

The administrative staff ensure that the work is spread out fairly among all the therapists, and do not entertain requests from customers for specific therapists. The masseurs are paid a basic salary plus a commission for each customer they serve. At some centers, they are also paid a commission on sales of herbal supplements, health teas and other health-promoting devices such as magnetic belts which are supposed to improve circulation, help to dispel toxins from the system, and so on.

While most of the reflexology centers in Singapore are based on traditional Chinese methods, various forms of reflexology were practised thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt, India and the Americas. Reflexology is based on the theory that there are reflex areas on the hand and foot that correspond to every organ and/or gland in the body. I experienced a fascinating demo of this a few years back when I visited my neighborhood Chinese physician with a sore throat. He asked if it hurt when I swallowed. When I replied in the affirmative, he used one single acupuncture needle and stuck it in a spot near the nail of my left forefinger. After a few seconds, he asked me to swallow again, and my throat didn't hurt any more. He told me that the corresponding spot for a man is reversed, and he would have had to stick the needle on the right forefinger if the patient had been a man.

The customers come from all walks of life and different age groups. With increasing appreciation for alternative approaches to wellness improvement, the customers you meet in a foot reflexology center (especially in health centers located in the city) are just as likely to be harried young corporate executives as older taxi drivers and housewives.

Starting with the sole, the reflexologist uses his thumbs and knuckles, with a lubricating cream, to apply pressure to the customer's legs. Customers are usually asked to indicate the amount of pressure they would like. Some centers use wooden sticks to apply the pressure. Some practitioners frown on this method, as they say that the therapist is then unable to judge the right amount of pressure to apply. They say that only by using the hand can the therapist have a good feel of the tight and tender spots, and know when to reduce or increase the pressure.

Working his way around the sole, the therapist is able to tell, from the reaction of the customer to his touch on different spots of the foot, which parts of the body are not well. Returning from an overseas trip with an aching back after a long plane ride, I went for reflexology and the therapist could tell by my yelp of pain that my back was hurting. Other spots along the feet and lower legs offer clues to the condition of other organs and glands. Tired eyes, problems with digestion, chest pains... Reflexologists do not claim to treat any disease, but view their practice as helping people to identify parts of their body which are out of synch. They believe that reflexology helps to harness the body's own vitality and its ability to heal. Most people go for reflexology in order to relax. Since most health problems are linked to nervous tension, the easing of tension, improved circulation and normalization of bodily functions make foot reflexology a popular and affordable treatment.

I usually try to have my reflexology sessions in the evenings. After a session, I just want to surrender to the lethargy and head for home to crash into a deep, restful sleep. Some people cannot wait that long. You just might hear the sound of snoring coming from fellow customers who have fallen asleep, and have to be awoken by the therapist at the end of the session.

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Search the Singapore Yellow Pages for reflexology centers

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