Step one for a successful
session of traditional
reflexology is, of course,
checking to see whether one’s client
needs to put his or her phone on to
charge. Preferably in the USB socket
built into the massage chair so that
they can continue chatting during
their nervous system assessment.
Oh, and even livestream it.
Clearly I’m keen to learn about
a practice that has records dating
back several hundred years BC,
but I’m happy to admit my main
motivation is to get my own back
for all those massages I’ve had
narrated with ‘this area’s terrible'.
It isn’t cheating that I’m
massaging the feet of the owner, Yu
Li, rather than a paying customer’s,
the shop’s top practitioner Ming
Qingyu tells me, as staff train by
practising on each other.
After making sure the room
temperature and lighting is suitable,
we prepare the foot soak medicines
and get her feet into water hot
enough to poach eggs.
I’m tasked with getting
Yu to drink three glasses
of water throughout.
It’s 3pm so we’re in
the reasonably quiet
time before the peak
that will last till 10pm. 'But you shouldn’t really
have foot massage
after 9pm, as your body
and nervous system need to be
resting after then,' explains Ming.
He works 11am-11pm daily, though
some staff start earlier to deal with
insomniacs who need help before
going to work.
As my client’s feet soak, we start
the neck and shoulder massage.
Ming shows me where Yu’s nerves,
muscles and pressure points are.
I mainly get her hair caught in her
necklace while the owner herself
takes selfies with the three of us.
'Relax!' Ming tells me, massaging
part of me while I massage Yu, to
demonstrate what I should actually
be doing. 'He learns very fast,' says Yu in my polite defence. Finally
we’re onto her feet, which we spray
We start with the process called 'opening the door' (kaimen, 开门)
which is leg rubbing, friction rubbing
and then actually working on the
soles of Yu’s feet.
Major breakthrough: you don’t
push with the finger knuckle against
the sole, but with the thumb of the
other hand behind the knuckle. The
slow crescendo of pressure and
equally slow release is the most
technically difficult part.
‘You need to match it with
your breathing,’ explains Ming,
now sweating, as he tells me
practitioners have to look after their
own health. And ‘no, of course it’s
not a case of the harder the better!’
Now we begin the diagnosis.
Ming identifies an area on Yu’s left
foot for me to investigate in the
corresponding point on her right. 'What about here? What can
you feel?' asks Ming, pressing her
sole just above the heel. 'There’s a
click?' 'That means she hasn’t been
getting enough sleep.' Yu is busy
sending videos of us massaging her
feet, so we build up more of a case
before reporting back.
Along the inside arch I feel
nodes which, apparently, indicate
problems with her waist, bumps
inside the tips of her big toes provide
further damning proof of lack of
sleep and Ming finds another issue
in Yu’s calves, which I cannot detect.
We diagnose. Yu accepts the lack
of sleep, ignores the waist, but when
Ming explains how her calves are
betraying her clear over-seasoning
of foods, Yu is having none of it. 'I
have everything so plain!' 'No, too
much salt, too much seasoning, too
heavy!' counters Ming.
To finish, Ming takes
me into the corridor
to show me some of
the exercises he does
to keep healthy as a
practitioner and I leave
having learnt plenty,
yet am most pleased to
have given a massage
even more painful,
awkward and diagnostically unclear
than any I have received.