The foot bone’s connected to the leg bone. The leg bone’s connected to the knee bone. The big toe’s connected to the… brain?
Whomever authored the well-known children’s “skeleton song” may have omitted that last bit, but reflexology – an alternative treatment also known as “zone therapy” – holds that the toes and brain are connected. In fact, the entire foot, reflexologists insist, is connected to your central nervous system and various organs. And by pressing on your feet, therapists say they can help alleviate stress and improve your overall health. Moreover, they say the benefits are backed by scientific research, more than 300 studies of which are listed on the American Academy of Reflexology website.
The therapy is more popular in the Valley than ever – but, as with most every naturopathic health practice, there’s substantial disagreement on how to license and practice it.
“There are 7,200 nerve endings in each foot,” says Cheryl Speen, a reflexology instructor at the Southwest Institute of Healing Arts (SWIHA) in Tempe. By working the foot’s reflexes, she says, “[we] open up communication to the whole body.” But don’t expect to receive such bodily enlightenment at your corner strip mall joint – you know, the kind with the sandwich board out front offering an hour’s worth of reflexology using (allegedly) ancient Asian techniques for $40. What you get at these places, Speen says, is “a glorified foot massage,” not reflexology.
Developed by American physicians in the 1920s, reflexology was popularized by physical therapist Eunice Ingham in the late 1930s. Her nephew, Dwight Byers, followed in his aunt’s footsteps and started the International Institute of Reflexology in Florida. “It’s unbelievable – there’s more imitation than ever,” Byers, now 88, says of all the foot massage parlors that “thump your feet” and call it reflexology. “Lots of people don’t even know that there’s a difference, unfortunately.”
Ralph Richey, a nationally certified clinical reflexologist in North Scottsdale, says lack of regulation is partially to blame. “It’s a double-edged sword,” he says, referring to the 2004 Arizona Massage Therapy Law that requires therapists to obtain special licensing when touching parts of the body other than the hands, feet and head. On one hand, the exemption has made reflexology more accessible; on the other, “anyone who did a weekend course – or no course – can claim reflexology.” Richey says he’s working on crafting legislation that would require reflexologists to be licensed and certified through an accredited school.
Today, the onus is on individual therapists to obtain – and pay for – certification. After 300 hours of course credits in reflexology techniques, anatomy and physiology from an accredited school like SWIHA (classes are $15 per credit hour), reflexologists can obtain the “gold standard” of certifications from the American Reflexology Certification Board. The ARCB certification process includes a $295, 300-question test plus a practical exam, and documentation of 90 client sessions. They can also register with national and local organizations, such as the Arizona Reflexology Association, which has about 20 members currently.
“If you don’t study anatomy and you don’t know where the reflexes are, and you don’t know why you’re touching them, then you’re just giving a foot rub,” Richey says of the so-called Asian foot spas around town. And don’t call it a derivative of “Eastern” or “ancient Asian” reflexology either, says Holly Tse, creator of ChineseFootReflexology.com. “Chinese reflexology is applied with knowledge and understanding of traditional Chinese medicine, and an intention to… bring the body back into balance,” she says. “From what I know about the foot spas, this is not what is practiced there.”
That doesn’t seem to matter too much to Phoenix resident Stacey Champion, who goes every two weeks to a foot spa in her Central Phoenix neighborhood. “They definitely work your pressure points… they seem intuitive there of working those spots” she says, but admits that, for her, “it’s mostly just for relaxing.” In addition to foot work, Champion says they also massage her back, legs, arms and neck.
This is where things get dicey. Richey says some Asian spas get around obtaining a massage license because they claim they practice “head-to-toe” reflexology, “but there’s no such thing,” since certified reflexologists will only touch your feet to the ankle, and sometimes your hands and ears. Feet and neck rubs can be nice, Richey says of these spas, but “call yourself something else.”
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