The power of touch has been used for centuries to restore energy flow and equilibrium in the body and for maintenance of good health. From as early as 2500 BC, there is evidence that various cultures have used the foot as a means of affecting change in the body. The ancient tomb of Ankhm’ahor in Egypt housed friezes depicting the manipulation of both the feet and hands. In India paintings and carvings depicting the feet with points similar to present day reflex points date back approximately 5,000 years. Traveling Buddhist monks later carried this knowledge on to China where ancient pressure therapies (early acupressure) included finger and thumb techniques and “there were many early books written on massage or ‘examining foot method” as it was then called”(Crane 1997, pg. 4). Still later, the Japanese adapted their own interpretations of pressure point work for medicinal use.
The traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) energy model utilizes twelve meridians or energy paths that ascend and descend throughout the body. Half connect to the feet and the other half connect to the hands and it is believed that these pathways interact with all of the body’s internal organs when stimulated. “Acupoints at the extremities (hands and feet) are thought to be the most powerful to use” (Crane 1997, pg. 6) and because these points are close to the skin’s surface, they are easy to access and palpate providing a therapist significant access to the organ systems of the body. Although many of the reflex points from the Reflexology energy model are located on key TCM meridian points there is no historical evidence linking the two energy models. Not until the latter half of 20th century have individual practitioners, such as Father Josef Eugster (*), and reflexology schools united the two models into a complementary reflexology system and/or technique.
21st century Western reflexology owes much to the work of American physician, Dr. William FitzGerald and to two later advocates of his work: Dr. Joseph Riley and Eunice Ingham. FitzGerald’s original objective was to develop a method for pain relief and, most likely influenced by then-current studies of the reflexes in parts of Europe, he developed a pressure/reflex therapy based on 10 longitudinal zones in the body (later named Zone Therapy by physician and medical writer, Dr. Edwin F. Bowers). “Zone Therapy demonstrates the correlation and interdependence of all parts of the body” (Crane 1997, pg. 16) and formed the basis for the Ingham Method which in turn lies at the basis of most -if not all- current systems of foot reflexology.
Dr. Riley and his wife Elizabeth operated the Shelby-Riley Chiropractic School in Washington D.C. where they educated students in Zone Therapy. Dr. Riley also published twelve books elaborating on Dr. FitzGerald’s work with the first being written in 1919. Ingham, a physiotherapist and author, was introduced to Zone Therapy as a student at the Riley’s’ school. She is sometimes referred to as the mother of modern reflexology and is recognized for “developing and keeping alive the ideas of zone therapy and reflexology in the United States” (Kunz 1993, pg. 10). In her lifetime (1889 – 1974), Ingham has taught many notable practitioners in the reflexology field such as Doreen E. Bayley, who is credited for introducing contemporary reflexology to the UK in the mid 1960’s (Crane 1997, pg. 25) and Hanna Marquardt who some believe added the transverse zones to the reflexology map.
Ingham stated that “zone therapy has the ability to stimulate the body’s own natural healing process and allow it to balance its own natural energies” (Crane 1997, pg. 25). As we move further into the 21st century, Ingham’s work will continue to inform and inspire the varied approaches and techniques observed by differing cultures and individual practitioners which make up today’s evolving field of reflexology (**).
* Father Josef Eugster is a Taiwan-based reflexologist who developed his own unique method of reflexology in the latter half of the 1970’s, sometimes also called the Rwo Shur method. Among other principles, “his method incorporates the use of wooden stick and also the Eastern concepts of yin yang, and the 5 Element theory.” (NYSRA Newsletter, Willoughby Summer 2007, pg. 5)
**Please see additional links for more in depth information on the history of reflexology.