Feet. We stand our ground in them. We travel with them, anywhere from home to the sea, and eventually Mars. We wiggle baby toes, massage our tired “dogs,” have strange obsessions, and they are the foundation of our vertically aligned body. Some alternative medicine practices tell us that our feet have connections to our internal organs.
It all began with ancient medicine and records. Papyrus records and drawings on tombs in ancient Egypt show illustrations of hand and foot treatments from as early as 2300 BC. Later records, from around 1,000 BC, in The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, describe the “Foot Method.” It is said to have been written by the famous and somewhat mythical Chinese emperor, Huangdi, but it could also be a compilation of authors.
In some of these ancient medicinal practices, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), practitioners were able to develop complex diagnostics with no modern medical technology, including reading the pulse (even though they may not have understood exactly how the pulse is related to the heart and heartbeat) and observing markings on the tongue, all while taking into consideration the season, time of day, and sex of the patient. TCM even describes rivers of vital energy running throughout the body, similar in concept to our blood vessels and nerve vessels. Ancient medicine developed almost mysteriously effective techniques using connections they built with this approach. This style of medicine reverberated through time and has even made its way to more modern forms of medicine, specifically, through the feet.
Dr. William Fitzgerald developed a sort of adapted and expanded version of the Foot Method in the early 1900s called Zone Therapy. He observed five zones running vertically along the length of the body, head to toe. Zone one has its pathway along the thumb, through the center of the body to the big toe. Zone two follows suit, running the length of the body, second finger to second toe. Zones 3-5 follow the same pattern, forming connections between the toes and their corresponding fingers.
Dr. Fitzgerald observed that putting pressure within the same zone as an injury could help alleviate the resulting pain. For example, pain from an injury at the inside of the knee could be alleviated by applying specific pressure to the arch of the foot or the inner thigh. This form of whole-body therapy rippled into the development of the horizontal zones of Dr. Shelby Riley’s research and eventually the Reflexology maps we see today.
Eunice Ingham, a physical therapist, studied under Dr. Riley and spent much of her academic career diving into research and experiments regarding zone therapy. This inspired her own research in the 1930s which came full circle back to ancient medicine and a key to the body it provided: the feet.
Ingham’s experiments involved applying pressure within specific areas of the foot. This sparked the development of her foot maps that show specific areas of the foot reflecting specific organs of the body. These findings refined Fitzgerald and Riley’s research, as Ingham observed that specific work in the foot could help alleviate pain related to the corresponding organ, not just anywhere along an entire zone running the length or width of the body.
For example, working along the area of the foot corresponding to the colon could help alleviate pain from irritable bowels. This integrative approach is the major influence for Reflexology in practice today (and may be influencing your pedicure, as there are even a few nail salons in Siouxland that offer some of that deep Reflexology-style foot work. And sometimes wine!).
The foot methods of ancient civilizations in Egypt and China have withstood the test of time even though they lacked modern medical technology. Their introduction of a whole-body approach used an in-depth understanding of the vast and seemingly endless connections throughout our bodies. Also, their complex system of diagnostics still offers perspectives on health and healing practices today, particularly regarding the feet: the foundation of our soul home, our body, and our center of contact with the world.
By Emily Larson, Licensed Massage Therapist, Private Yoga Instructor, Bachelor of Science Kinesiology & Human Performance, Instructor of Anatomy and Pathology for massage therapy students at the Bio Chi Institute, mother to Noah.