OFF THE WALL: Releasing the inner Qi

Aug. 11, 2008, 11:38 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Traditional Chinese culture says the body contains an invisible life force called the Qi, and one of the pathways to keep it from getting blocked are the feet.

Spots on the feet correspond to organs in the body and releasing pressure from those points helps in healing, say, the liver or the gall bladder.

If that's the case, my kidneys are killing me.

You see, a foot massage in China isn't a dab of lotion and a little light rubbing. This is tiny knuckles burrowing deep into your feet, kneading, stabbing, burrowing in an I'm-going-to-make-you-cry fury, almost as if they're trying to reach through your leg all the way up to the correlating organ.

And it's worth every second.

No matter how much it hurts, no matter how many ways you want to maim the masseuse while she tortures your tootsies, the result is foot utopia. Picture floating on air as feathers gently brush across your feet, a tingling sensation running from your toes up to your knee.

The concept, which goes back thousands of years, is known today as reflexology.

Reflexologists believe the body's life force circulates along pathways to roughly 800 points on the body, which is divided into 10 equal zones mirrored in the hands and feet.

The feet have about a gazillion nerve endings - OK, it's not that many, but it's into the thousands - which is said to have an extensive connection to the central nervous system. These nerve endings are part of our sensory system that detects pain and pressure, hot and cold, and reflexology supposedly fine-tunes the neural pathways of this apparatus.

OK, whatever. I just wanted to get my feet rubbed on company time.

Not wanting to be another smelly footed American, I gave my feet extra attention in the shower, making sure to get plenty of soap between the toes, then wore a pair of slip-on shoes instead of the sweaty running shoes I had been wearing to the gym every morning.

That plan quickly went up in a puff of funk when I decided to walk to the massage parlor, couldn't find it, and spent about 45 minutes traipsing around in the hot, humid Beijing sun.

I felt sorry for the masseuse and I hadn't even gotten there. Of course, a person who gives foot massages all day is probably used to smelly feet, same way a shoe salesman is. Still, I didn't want to be THAT guy.

The parlor was tucked behind some restaurants next to a wire fence and the front looked like some cheesy hair supply place. Inside, though, it was clean and modern like an upscale spa with Chinese art on the walls and tables, goldfish on the counter.

We - multimedia reporter Brandon Garcia went with me - were escorted into a small room with a pair of lounge chairs, then dipped our feet into wooden buckets filled with what looked like dirty water. Concerned we were sharing the bucket with the 500 customers before us, we let out a sigh after realizing the cloudiness was herbal tea.

Then the warmup started: deep digging and chopping into the shoulders and neck, kneading into the back and jiggling of the arms.


Our feet nice and clean, the rest of our bodies loose, we sat back and let the girls go to town on our dogs. It was easy at first, a little toe manipulation, some rubbing that was almost ticklish.

Then things got ugly.

As she dug like a jackhammer in the center of my foot, I wondered if my masseuse had screwdrivers for fingers. The pain seemed to rise with each stab, sort of like the scene in "Shanghai Knights" when Owen Wilson was getting his ear nibbled on: ow, ow! OW!

She giggled a little, asked if it was too hard, then kept trying to poke her finger through to the other side.

After a brief interlude of gentle massaging - in relative terms - on the balls of my feet, the masseuse attacked my heel like an angry Chihuahua, nearly bringing me to tears.

She closed with some rapid-fire twisting of my foot that seemed to defy the laws of physics - or at least tendons.

Whew! It was over.

One problem: that was only the left foot. The right had to go through the same harrowing routine. By the time she was done, I wanted to cut off her fingers and save someone else from this torture.

But as she massaged my quads - a warm down, I guess? - the pain seemed to float off, replaced by a mild tingling, almost as if my feet had melted off.

My feet soft as baby's blanket, it seemed like a waste to stick them back into my stinky shoes, a canvas prison for the sole. Even with the shoes, though, there was an airy lightness to my feet, like they'd been replaced by pillows.

Not sure how my Qi's doing, but my feet sure feel great.