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Inside Job: reflexologist

Frank Hersey learns how to diagnose health issues via foot massage

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'.


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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.


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'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 with alcohol.


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.


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‘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.


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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.

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