Updated 11 February 2009

What is therapeutic reflexology?

Reflexology is the massage of the feet. The massage of the nerve endings situated at the bottom of the feet triggers off a response in the body.


Reflexology is the massage of the feet. The feet are divided into zones that represent the whole body. The massage of the nerve endings situated at the bottom of the feet triggers off a response in the body. Thorough stimulation of all reflex areas of the feet reduces stress and tension and creates a space in the recipient’s body for healing to take place.

Therapeutic reflexology is a very popular therapy all over the world and in South Africa in the major cities, but not as well known in the rural areas. A few companies are now employing therapeutic reflexologists on a full time basis.

The feet are a microcosm of the body

A micro system is one part of the body that contains a reflection of the whole body. It is believed that there are several micro systems in the human body such as the hands, ears, tongue, and head. In reflexology the body parts are reflected in miniature detail on the feet, with the front of the body on the soles and the back of the body on the top of the feet.

How the feet are divided up into zones:

  • The toes reflect the head
  • The balls of the foot reflect the ribcage
  • The fleshy instep reflects the soft abdomen
  • The firm heel reflects the pelvic bone
  • The anklebone reflects the hipbone
  • The bony ridge on the inside of the foot reflects the spine

The reflexology practitioner massages these reflexes using various techniques.

A brief history of reflexology

Throughout the history of humankind the feet have played an important part of healing practices. Reflexology goes back to 2500BC and evidence was found in Egypt in the tombs of Ankhmahor (highest official after the Pharaoh) at Saqqara, which is also known as the Physician's Tomb. Traces of the practice dating back to 690 AD were also found in the Physicians Temple in Nara, Japan. As information is gathered it seems that variations of the modern practice of reflexology existed in all of the ancient healing cultures.

Modern history and the scientific basis of reflexology are rooted in research about the reflex in Europe and Russia 125 years ago. It was Dr William Fitzgerald who advanced and developed the initial practice of reflexology in our Western society in 1895. He found that pressure applied to certain parts relieved pain and improved the function of certain organs in the body he also developed the zones.

In the 1890s knighted research scientist and medical doctor, Sir Henry Head demonstrated the neurological relationship that exists between the skin and the internal organs. Nobel prize-winner, Sir Charles Sherrington proved that the whole nervous system and body adjusts to a stimulus when it is applied to any part of the body.

The grandmother of modern reflexology

Dr Fitzgerald shared his findings with Dr Joe Riley, who researched further into the matter and developed Zone Therapy. Dr Riley wrote many books on the subject and introduced hook work. Dr Riley taught his method of Zone Therapy to Eunice Ingham, a physical therapist who initially worked with Dr Fitzgerald.

Eunice Ingham (1889 – 1974) is generally recognised as the Grandmother of Modern Reflexology. Ingham developed Fitzgerald and Riley's knowledge into a usable therapy. She discovered that reflexes were to be found on the feet. She invented the Ingham compression method of reflexology and used massage to stimulate the reflexes that she found on the feet and took it to the public in the late 1930s through the early 70s. Most authors of books and teachers of foot reflexology have acquired their basic knowledge directly or indirectly from Eunice Ingham's teaching.

In 1960s reflexology started in Canada and in the 1970 was brought to South Africa.

(This article was written by Pat Bosman, a therapeutic reflexologist registered with the Allied Health Professional Council.)


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