Passions and Obsessions

Finding my balance and energy with ‘foot sticks’ and cups

Len's use of foot sticks has the light, rhythmic touches of one accustomed to playing percussion

Relaxation is the endgame in drumming the legs and feet with foot sticks. (Photo from Liana Garcellano)

Foot reflexology, which is part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), is a self-care tool that I got into by accident many years ago when I was living in Singapore. I was at Tiong Bahru Mall and feeling out of sorts when, as if fated, I found myself outside a TCM foot reflexology outlet. Stepping in, I was straightaway ushered onto a chair facing Uncle Soo, an elderly man. He sprinkled ginger powder into a tub of warm water while he expounded on the importance of a foot soak.

It prepares the body for the massage, “warming” the blood and increasing circulation, he said.

Like a warmup before a workout, I thought to myself.

After the session, he told me not to drink anything cold for a few hours. “So the ‘cold’ won’t fight with the ‘heat,'” he said.

Tight schedules and whatnot eventually meant giving up foot reflexology in the ensuing years. But after I returned to the Philippines, it was pure serendipity to find Foot Zone—and Uncle Soo’s versions—during one weekend jaunt to UP Town Center in Quezon City.

“Can I come in?” asks Len in Filipino after knocking lightly on the door, her voice drifting into the dimly lit room.

She slides the door open and enters holding a plastic-lined wooden bucket. She puts it in front of the reclining sofa where I’m sitting and motions me to slip my feet in.

I squeal, and she quickly asks if the water is too hot. “Am kidding! Water’s fine,” I quip, grinning.

Balinese massage had remained my favorite up until I discovered foot reflexology, because the long strokes unknotted my tense muscles. Yet I still felt sluggish. With TCM foot reflexology, aside from my relaxed muscles, my unblocked Qi, or vital energy, makes me brim with a positive vibe. I sleep well through the night and wake up less achy and anxious.

Both wellness techniques are noninvasive and non-pharmacological, and they rebalance one’s well-being. But their similarities end there. Wellness in standard massages is achieved by relaxing the muscles through kneading and stroking; with the released endorphins, sleep is improved. Comparatively, the pressure of reflexology applied by hand or gadget on the feet and hands produces distinct responses in body parts that conventional massages can’t reach (see Zia Sherrell in The responses typically include reduced anxiety, lowered blood pressure, and eased fatigue.

Reflexology is anchored on the theory of the feet and hands corresponding to the body’s organs, tissues and systems

Reflexology is anchored on the theory of the feet and hands corresponding to the body’s organs, tissues and systems—a theory that dates back to 2330 BC, when Egyptians included early forms of reflexology in their daily life activities and medical practices (see Laura Norman in

Effective reflexology includes a skilled therapist, a clean room with comfortable sofa, fresh towels, and relaxing music. (Photo from UP Town Center Facebook)

The irony, according to Sherrell, is that science can’t fully explain the process of reflexology. But some small-scale studies have provided evidence of its efficacy in reducing fatigue severity in cancer patients (2019), lessening chemotherapy-induced nausea, vomiting, and fatigue in breast cancer patients (2017), and decreasing the heart rate in patients with stage 2 hypertension (2020).

Simpler medical conditions like acid reflux are also addressed by reflexology because it regulates the digestive system.

That good environment settings improve a reflexology session isn’t lost on Foot Zone. Room VIP 3, which is meant for two, is adequately cool. There are clothing hook rails on the wall and a cell phone charging outlet on the end table. Towels and matching scrub top and shorts are on the foot stool. In this season, the piped-in music has changed to holiday songs from the customary instrumentals.

Len is my reflexologist for my fifth session at Foot Zone. Positioning herself at the back of the sofa, she begins by massaging my head, pressing the third eye and bamboo points, and stroking my forehead. Through the sleep haze, I remember her gently pulling and rubbing my earlobes and kneading my tight trapezius muscles, then pressing points in my shoulders and forearms, sliding her thumb up and down my palms, and pulling my fingers one by one. She finishes with bending and rotating my wrists.

After the herb-infused foot soak, she dries and wraps my feet in towels. She excuses herself to get heated towels. My foot reflexology finally begins after she makes sure all is well with the towels behind my lower back and shoulders.

Xiamen-style foot reflexology, I surmise, is partly characterized by the monthlong training Len and colleagues had with a Chinese master in using the hands, “foot sticks” (a cross between gavels and xylophone sticks), and cups. This is felt in the uniformity and consistency of the long strokes, pinpoint pressure, and thumb-sliding techniques, and rhythmic drumming with the foot sticks. The name, I deduce, is homage to the trainer who, the receptionist later confirms, hails from Xiamen.

It’s a different case when reflexologists deal with a frozen shoulder

Len’s strong pinpoint pressure makes me wince—a sign of organ or system trouble, I read—but she follows it up with long strokes and thumb-sliding to dissipate the pain. Breathing deeply, I “ride” the wave of pain. The alternating motions assuage the regular discomfort in the middle of my foot—stomach issues—and other new ones within minutes.

However, it’s a different case when reflexologists deal with a frozen shoulder. I’ve heard my sister’s past therapists tell her that she needs frequent sessions for her to regain full, smooth shoulder movement—”para madurog ang namuong lamig.” In Western medicalspeak, ‘”namuong lamig” appears to point to what describes as the thickened and tightened capsule of connective tissues around the shoulder joint that restrict movement.

The other distinguishing trait of Xiamen-style reflexology is the use of flash cupping and foot sticks. Unique as it may seem, cupping the feet is sensible because the therapy’s principle is the same: getting the stagnant blood and Qi flowing. The sucking sensation I feel on my soles when Len repeatedly runs and releases the cups on them jolts me out of my sleep haze, but I quickly settle back into relaxation.

Admittedly, I was put off Thai foot massages after my first try in Bangkok because of the foot sticks. The reflexologist seemed to want to bore holes in my feet with them! In contrast, Len’s use of the foot sticks has the light, rhythmic touches of one accustomed to playing percussion.

“The beating on the legs and feet is for relaxation,” she explains.

My foot reflexology package comes with a back massage. The reflexology addresses my headaches, fluctuating energy level, and inconsistent sleep patterns, while the massage relieves my lower back pain, eases my anxiety, and calms my high-strung nature.

A reflexologist of my sister once told her that a wet massage would be more effective for her frozen shoulder. I thought it’d be better for my back, so I changed my usual dry back massage to a wet one. Truthfully, I found the Swedish massage techniques petrissage (deeper, kneading movement and rolling) and effleurage (gentle circular and gliding strokes) preferable to acupressure.

Len taps me on my shoulder after wiping down my back to say my 80-minute session is done.

“Water or ginger tea, Ma’am?”

“Ginger tea, please. Thank you,” I reply, raising my head from the “face hole” of the reclined sofa.

Minutes later, she puts a Japanese-style tea cup on the end table. I savor my tea before changing back into my clothes and heading to the reception area.

Reflexology is an indispensable part of my stress management tool kit that already includes calisthenics, dumbbells and kettle bells, and yoga. Its supplemental role is critical for me in tolerating my karaoke-loving, tone-deaf neighbors, and dealing with inflation, natural calamities, personal issues, and political turmoil.

Balanced and energized, I’m ready for the spanners that, experience has taught me, the universe often throws my way. #

For reflexology packages, check @footzoneuptc.

About author


She has clocked years of overseas work and living. On the second year of the pandemic she returned and settled back in the Philippines after 20 years.

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