Therapy stresses feet over matter

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Therapy stresses feet over matter

I had been warned that reflexology might be painful. But the benefits of foot massage, I was told, were up there with facials.

"You'll have glowing skin, a clear complexion and more," a colleague told me. "You should see the ladies at my foot-massage parlor. A huge chunk of their money goes to foot massages."

According to reflexology theory, the foot is a microcosm of the entire body. Treat the whole foot and you treat your whole body, from your glands to your organs. Some practitioners do the massage with their bare hands; others use wooden tools.

I thought, "Why not? It's not like I'm taking a pill or being operated on." So there I was, lying on my stomach on a heated cot, my left foot held by the masseuse, Yang Deok-youn. My cell phone rang and I picked it up. Mr. Yang had just started kneading my big toe with a knobby wooden stick. It was soothing and pleasant.

I hung up the phone. Mr. Yang moved across the balls to the outer edge of my foot by my pinkie toe. I was just beginning to enjoy the warmth of the bed, the soft classical music playing on the speakers, the late afternoon sun shining in through the large windows, when Mr. Yang gently pushed.

Pain shot through my foot. I broke out in a sweat. My face flushed as the temperature inside my head rose. Oh. My. God. It. Hurts.

The experience had started pleasantly. I had seen a huge, human-size likeness of a foot by a building in Itaewon east of the Hamilton Hotel.

Itaewon has several reflexologists. I suppose shopping and foot massages go hand in hand. Foot Health (Bal Geongang), this sign said.

So I called up the foot doctor, asked about times (noon to midnight), prices (70,000 won or $60), duration (90 minutes) and made an appointment for 2 p.m. the next day.

Compared to the building's worn facade, the interior of Foot Health was clean and modern. Light streamed in through a wall-to-wall window.

A receptionist greeted me and asked what type of treatment I was seeking. She called over a man wearing judo pants and a tank top, Mr. Yang.

Mr. Yang has been practicing reflexology for six years. "We must get you into a robe," he said, and led me to the changing room.

I put on cotton shorts and a cotton robe, and stowed my coat, purse and killer heels in a locker. The receptionist took me to the Imperial Spa Chair, the likes of which can be found at pedicurists. She dipped my foot in bath salts and left.

Mr. Yang returned to exfoliate and wash my feet. His movements were economical and deliberate. He washed my left foot and calf thoroughly, saying only, "Tsk, tsk," at my calluses. Methodically, after drying my foot, he flicked his fingers twice to dry them, then started working on the other foot.

In slippers, I walked on the carpeted floor into the next room and lay face down on the cot. A large chart of the foot hung on the wall. Mr. Yang rubbed my foot with lotion and shaved my calluses. "In reflexology, we believe that the foot represents your body," he said. "Calluses can be due to something wrong with your lungs. They can also be due to your shoes." Thinking about the killer heels sitting in the locker, I said it was probably the shoes.

After prepping my feet, Mr. Yang left and returned with a small doctor's bag. Rummaging through, he took out several wooden sticks, then selected a knobby little rod. He held my big toe, by which he lifted my entire foot. "The big toe represents the heart, which is where I start," Mr. Yang said.

So there I was, breathing deeply to absorb the pain. "Some people fall asleep as soon as I touch their feet," Mr. Yang said. "They even snore."

He worked my foot from the outer edge to the arch, and back outside and down to the heel. He would push, then release and pause while I caught my breath. He was trying to work out the blockages of gi, or energy force. The pain would dissipate shortly.

The entire time, Mr. Yang was listening for a sound -- like grains of sand rubbing against each other -- which indicates a problem area. When you feel pain in a certain area, Mr. Yang works the spot over instead of avoiding it.

It became a game for me to lie as still as possible. I figured the less he thought it hurt, the less he'd work over that area. But without realizing it, I was slowly inching away from him. Mr. Yang pulled me back, and started working my right foot, which did not hurt as much. After the soles of the foot, he massaged my calves. He sprayed on an invigorating, minty lotion. I felt relaxed and hungry, like I could go dancing for hours on ends.

"You're pretty healthy," he said, making me wonder about the pain thresholds of other customers. I slipped back into my killer heels and stalked out. Would I return? When I'm brave enough again to face the pain.

by Joe Yong-hee
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