Resources – relaxation exercise

Relax – and Enjoy It! – Dr Robert Sharpe

This is a relaxation programme which was first recommended to me nearly 20 years ago, and is one I still occasionally use myself and have suggested to several friends and clients that they try.  It works through biofeedback, taking you through tensing and releasing all the major muscle groups in the body so that you can feel the difference between tension and relaxation and learn to relax properly.  This enables the body to cope with stress and anxiety, promotes proper, restorative sleep and can really change your mood for the better.  It’s similar to some of the mindfulness techniques such as body scanning that are advised today, but I find it easier to use because you are actually doing something physical at the same time.

The benefits of doing this exercise are cumulative and, if you can devote 25 minutes every day to it, they can be immense.  If you are anxious, stressed, not sleeping well, tired all the time, depressed or simply not feeling at your best it is worth giving it a go.

Please note, I have no connection with the authors of this programme and derive no financial gain from it – I really think it is one of the most useful tools for coping with stress that I have come across.

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Resources – further reading if you’re interested

There are an awful lot of books available on the topics of holistic therapies, chakras, subtle energy and the like and it’s really difficult to find out which are any good without developing a very expensive book habit like mine.  So I thought it worth sharing the ones I think are worth looking at – and all of them are available through Cheshire libraries.

Reflexology texts are usually written from the point of view of learning how to do reflexology and there are many which are good.  I particularly like Chris Stormer’s books as she is a very experienced and intuitive reflexologist.  She has written the Teach Yourself guide “Get started in reflexology” which is excellent.

There are many, many books about reiki, some great and some not so great in my opinion.  Reiki is an extremely subjective experience so perhaps that explains some of the variety.  The basic one I like best is “Principles of Reiki” by Kajsa Krishni Boräng.  It’s a very personal account which speaks to me clearly and her knowledge and explanations are, I think, sound.  Also widely available are books by Penelope Quest which are excellent too and her “Reiki Manual” is the one recommended by my reiki master for those wishing to become reiki practitioners themselves.

For introductory aromatherapy texts I think Valerie Ann Worwood is excellent, her “Fragrant Pharmacy” is the first one to try and is packed with practical advice.  She has also written “The Fragrant Mind” and “The Fragrant Heavens” which cover aromatherapy for mood and the spiritual dimension respectively.  Anything by Julia Lawless, Patricia Davis, Shirley and Len Price, Robert Tisserand or Jennifer Peace Rhind is also recommended.

For a beginner’s guide to subtle energy, the chakras, dowsing and the use of crystals and so on my favourite is “Subtle Aromatherapy” by Patricia Davis.  Although it’s an aromatherapy text it covers all these in a very well written book by a respected author.  As a therapist I am also a great fan of John Cross‘s work, having been to two of his workshops.  His books are absolutely packed with original thinking about subtle energy therapies and will keep you on your toes.  They are not available from the library, unfortunately.

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The origins of aromatherapy

Since aromatherapy is a relatively modern term, its history must be seen as linked with the use of aromatic and medicinal plants throughout time.  Plants and people have evolved together on the planet and since prehistory people have been utilising the herbs local to them by trial and error for food, for medicine and for ritual and spiritual uses.  Depending on the plant, people have used the whole plant or parts of it; the leaves, stems, roots, flowers and seeds often having differing properties.  When we think of essential oils, we think of what makes a particular plant itself – how the plant has evolved to protect itself and better survive – and those characteristics are contained within the compound of  substances that each plant uniquely makes and which we extract from them into essential oils.

Ancient civilisations are documented to have used plants in these ways and some of these uses still persist today.  The Vedic tradition in India goes back to more than 2000 BCE with the use of many plants in cooking and medicinally to improve health.  Many of these plants are aromatic and some we use today as essential oils, for example ginger, cinnamon, clove.  Other aromatics not used so much for therapies were used in sacred rituals to connect with the divine, make offerings to gods and as aids to prayer and meditation.  This use of aromatics to enhance or change perception and/or state of mind is something that continues into modern aromatherapy.

In China the use of aromatic herbs also goes back to more than 2000 BCE with traditional Chinese medicine often utilising several herbs together for prescriptions for all sorts of ailments, a practice still carried out today.  Plants were also used for health in cooking – garlic, ginger, chilli – and as religious offerings.

The most ancient civilisation to be documented using aromatic plants is perhaps Egypt.  Again, as well as using them for medicine, cooking and in sacred rituals, the Egyptians relied heavily on certain plant essences as part of the embalming process for wealthy citizens and royalty.  Traces of these essences can still be detected in mummified remains thousands of years later which attests to the efficacy of the plant extracts in preservation.  The Egyptians were also probably one of the very first peoples to extract essential oils similar to what we know today by enfleurage and probably by distillation too.

These ancient peoples relied on the plants that were native to their areas – and many of the aromatic species that are used as aromatherapy oils today come from Asia, India and northern Africa.  They were also traded extensively because of their high value, for example by the Phoenicians, which resulted in their use becoming more widespread and coming to the Mediterranean and beyond.

Knowledge of the value of aromatics moved westwards via the inhabitants of classical Greece and Rome.  From around 500 BCE the Greeks used aromatic plant extracts for medicinal purposes as well as more traditionally in sacred ritual and Hippocrates, born around 460 BCE, prescribed these extracts to be taken both orally and topically with massage in what is often seen as the birth of medicine as we know it in the West.  The empire of Alexander the Great which included Persia and parts of India brought back more spices and knowledge to the Greeks who had already learned from the Egyptians.  The Romans too learned these uses as well as the value of aromatics for personal perfume – as indeed the Egyptians had done.

Much of classical learning was lost with the decline of the Greek state and the Roman empire as Europe fell into the dark ages from about the 6th to 13th centuries CE.  At this time the use of plant extracts was carried on by the Arab empires in the near and middle east in conjunction with the development of alchemy which reached Europe in the middle ages following contact via the Crusades and beyond.  In the middle ages in Europe local aromatic plants were still recognised for their value in preventing and helping cure certain diseases as well as being used in cooking.  These included the plants we think of today in Europe as “herbs” – sage, rosemary, lavender etc.

With the renaissance in Europe came the development of alchemy and the beginning of chemical knowledge as well as medical science.  Distillation was possible for plant extracts so that they could be tested and used, and, with the invention of printing in the 15th century, herbals began to be composed and circulated so that knowledge grew and was more readily available.  Nicholas Culpeper’s herbal is one of the most widely known and is still published today.  New essences were available from plants traded around the world and these were used in the development of perfume manufacture as well as for medicinal use.  This continued on into more modern times with apothecaries being skilled in the use of herbs and their extracts for health benefits and the Christian church continuing to use aromatic herbs for incense in religious ceremony.

However, with industrialisation and the birth of the modern age and modern medicine, use of plant extracts became more divorced from the use of the whole plant or essence as chemical means could be used to extract single chemicals or to synthesise them – for example the extraction of salicylic acid from willow to be used as aspirin.  The refining of some plant extracts could lead to the production of substances which needed (and still need) to be used with great care – for example the refinement of opium to produce morphine and then heroin making available stronger and stronger drugs.  The misuse of heroin and the subsequent development of addiction is now well known.

It was around 1928 when a French chemist and parfumier called Gattefossé coined the term “aromatherapy” to describe the use of plant essential oils for their therapeutic properties.  He published Aromathérapie – Les Huiles essentielles – hormones végétales in 1937.  Aromatherapy recognised that essential oils can give up their beneficial effects to the human body by ingestion through smell, by mouth or by massage into the skin and subsequent absorption through that route.  Each of these modes of administration has its advantages and disadvantages, for example by inhaling an aroma the effect passes through the blood/brain barrier via the limbic system which can have a direct effect on the emotions and psyche.

The search for more knowledge of the effects of essential oils and the tradition of aromatherapy as we know it today continues to develop as skilled practitioners and researchers publish their findings and knowledge in the modern manner.  In some ways, aromatherapy can be seen as one of the most acceptable faces of holistic therapy because it involves the use of substances which are, after all, chemical compounds and these are something that science and medicine understands.  However, the subtle energies and connotations of using essential oils in a true holistic manner – one that requires understanding not only of plant chemistry but also of the spirit nature of plants, people and, indeed, the universe, take the skills of aromatherapy beyond that of mere chemistry and back into the realm of the holistic therapist.

Battaglia, S., 2003. The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy. 2nd ed Brisbane: The International Centre of Holistic Aromatherapy.
Lawless, J., 2014. The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils. Revised edition London: Harper Thorsons.  (accessed through free Kindle sample from Amazon)

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The benefits of massage

Massage is sometimes called “therapeutic touch” and stems from the most natural instinctive impulse to touch or stroke ourselves or another to reassure, calm, signal attention and caring and seek to relieve pain or suffering. Touch between people is a basic human need and lack of touch can lead to alienation, distress, lowering of life signs and a decrease in health.

The most fundamental benefit of massage is that it relieves tension – particularly muscle tension – which enables the body to rest and relax and enter a healing state rather than a “fight or flight” state. Studies show that massage enables reduction of pain in labour and reduction of lower back pain even without the use of essential oils; the addition of analgesic essential oils helps further. In babies & children massage has been shown to relieve pain of teething, constipation, colic and aid sleep and it also seems to help babies born prematurely to achieve good growth.

There are different massage techniques which have different therapeutic benefits.

Stroking is the most natural gentle touch using little or no pressure (a form of effleurage). This is the instinctive way we touch each other to reassure and signal presence and care. Stroking can be very valuable when clients are frail or very ill and cannot tolerate more pressure – or when people are psychologically vulnerable and might be unable to tolerate deeper techniques.

Effleurage is deep or superficial light or firm stroking with the whole or part of the hands. Deep effleurage should be towards the heart and only superficial stroking away from the heart in order to assist circulation particularly in the veins.

Frictions are a type of kneading (compression) with the whole or part of the hand and can be fixed where the hand remains stationary on the skin but moves the skin and other top layers against deeper layers or gliding frictions with small movements over the skin and other tissues along a designated path. They are useful for targeting knotted muscles or otherwise helping to ease tissue congestion.

Percussion is tapping with the fingers or other part of the hands and can stimulate areas of the body.

Lymphatic drainage specialised techniques help to move lymph fluid from one area to another in cases of fluid buildup.

Use of pressure points such as acupoints or shiatsu points is a way to effect change in a holistic manner along the relevant body meridian. Points are usually touched lightly or with more pressure using the finger tips.

In general massage has been found to be beneficial to patients in hospitals and hospices with the following effects:

  • increased energy levels
  • reduced side effects from drugs
  • can help relieve symptoms not directly addressed by hospital treatment (a more holistic therapy)
  • can help ease emotional problems
  • beneficial effects lasts beyond the duration of the massage

The physiological benefits of massage are:

  • promotion of good blood and lymph circulation, reducing inflammation and pain and helping elimination of toxins from the body
  • induces deep relaxation – lowers pulse rate, lowers blood pressure
  • reduces muscle tension e.g. chronic neck & shoulder tension
  • helps tone weak muscles
  • relieves arthritic, rheumatic and neuralgic conditions
  • helps sprains, fractures, breaks and dislocations heal more readily
  • relieves cramp
  • promotes correct posture and improves mobility
  • directly or indirectly improves function of every internal organ including:
    • digestion, uptake of nutrients and elimination of waste products
    • kidney function
  • helps relieve many types of headache including migraine, tension headache, PMS and emotionally related headaches
  • is a form of passive exercise
  • the use of oil can be nourishing and beneficial to the skin

Psychological benefits of massage (holistic healing effect):

  • lets the receiver know s/he is being cared for in very basic way
  • relaxes the mind
  • uplifts depression/despair
  • relieves panic/anger
  • stimulates body & mind without side effects and can help release suppressed feelings

Subtle energy benefits of massage:

  • the use of pressure points such as acupoints or shiatsu points can influence the meridians and flow of chi in the body
  • light effleurage or stroking along the meridians can also benefit the flow of chi
  • massage off the body but within the physical part of the aura can influence the subtle energies of the body in the same way and is particularly useful when even a light touch cannot be tolerated. The receiver may even feel the massage as a touch even though there is no skin contact
  • whether on or off body the therapist can perform aura energy cleansing moves
  • the intention of the therapist performing the massage can be used to promote healing


Price, S. and Price, L., 2012. Aromatherapy for Heath Professionals. 4th ed Edinburgh: Elsevier Ltd.
Battaglia, S., 2003. The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy. 2nd ed Brisbane: The International Centre of Holistic Aromatherapy.
Davis, P., 1991. Subtle aromatherapy. London: Random House.

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Ha ha ha hee hee hee

On Saturday I finally got to do something I’ve been wanting to try for a while – Laughter Yoga.  Called yoga by its founder, Dr Madan Kataria, because it utilises breathing exercises similar to those used in mainstream yoga, and because it includes some of the yogic tools of exercise and meditation to boost health and wellbeing, it is nonetheless unlike any other form of yoga you might have encountered.  It begins with the simple premiss that laughter is good for you – both physically and emotionally – and utilises the fact that the body cannot distinguish between “real” and “pretend” laughter in order to benefit from it.

Practically this means that the yoga session began with games to bring out our sense of childish playfulness and start us all laughing as an exercise.  These games were all quite physical and appealed hugely to my sense of fun.  Yes, I’m a child at heart!  We all laughed together, individually, never at each other and made a lot of silly noise.

The session culminated in the meditative phase – although again like no meditation you might have done before.  We lay down like spokes of a a wheel as you would in savasana, or corpse pose, with our heads near each other and our eyes shut or looking at the ceiling and just laughed.  For no reason, for 15 minutes.

Afterwards we had tea and chocolate biscuits and a bit of a chat before getting on separately with the rest of our weekends.  It was all a huge amount of fun and I met some very interesting new people, not least Havina, the laughter yoga leader and organiser, who did a really excellent job of getting us all to work together.  And, don’t mistake it, exercise it was, afterwards I felt pretty tired and went to bed early knowing my body had had a good workout.  My mind, however, felt very light and I look forward to the next session.

If you feel inspired to join Havina’s classes, contact her on Twitter @LaughterChester and she’ll keep you in the loop for future dates.  See you there perhaps, ha ha ha ho ho ho!

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Raising funds for a sensory play scheme in Chester

On Saturday evening a group of Chester ladies enjoyed a pamper evening hosted by Karen White, chair of the new Hoole Alexander Rotary Club.  The aim of the evening was to have fun, enjoy some health and beauty treatments and to raise money for a new scheme in Chester – Space Chester, a sensory play scheme for children with additional needs and their families.

I was there to give mini reflexology treatments and it was a lovely evening, meeting lots of new faces.  I understand that the aim is to make this a regular event to raise more funds for Space and if you want to take part I’m sure Jemma will be happy to hear from you – Space is on Twitter @spacesensory or there are contact details on their website.

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Prana – energy therapy through yoga

On my website you may have come across the use of the word “energy” in a few places. Reflexologists often talk about “balancing the energy” of the body, “energy flow”, “low energy” or “blocked energy”. Often what is meant by this is a form of subtle energy that is akin to what in yoga is referred to as prana and in traditional chinese medicine as qi or chi.

These disciplines and traditions believe that this subtle energy flows through the body along channels and is a necessary part of life itself. It’s a difficult concept for those of us raised in the western world, with its reliance on allopathic medicine, because we have no complete scientific theory of what this energy is and how it flows. It’s possible that it is a form of bio-electrical-magnetic force, perhaps passed on at a cellular level that our western instruments can’t yet monitor or reproduce. However, in my experience – as in that of many fellow therapists – it is real and it does exist and as we experience it we become sensitised to it and able to feel and respond to it.

In a reflexology treatment I often tune in to this energy within my client by assessing the balance between certain reflexes and encouraging any imbalances to correct themselves. This is a targeted treatment of the energy system and can be very useful for specific conditions. In addition I always address the energy flow of the whole person by other techniques such as grounding in which the connection between the client and the earth is established and nourished.

As well as reflexology there are numerous other ways to work with your energy to encourage correct balance and flow. Reiki is extremely powerful because it channels the infinite universal energy that is all around us to fortify our own energy flow. And recently I have been taking yin yoga classes at my Pilates studio and found that, for me, these sessions are extremely helpful in encouraging the flow of my energy (prana) and in helping blockages to be removed. Yin yoga uses long held passive poses to release the connective tissue within the body while focusing on breath and is a form of physical meditation. Connective tissue is present everywhere in the body and probably forms an important part of the physical aspect of the energy channels. So in yin yoga the energy channels are addressed both from the physical and the mental points of view which is why it is so effective in promoting the energy flow.

If you practise yoga you may already be aware of these benefits, and if not I recommend that you try it. Helen at Bodywork-Pilates can point you in the right direction if you are in Chester or you can find a local teacher through the British Wheel of Yoga.

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A Talk at Sychdyn WI

The ladies of Sychdyn WI near Chester kindly invited me to give a talk about reflexology last week.  It’s always a bit nerve-wracking standing in front of quite a lot of people and trying to engage them – even when it’s a subject that you’re as passionate about as I am about reflexology.  I vividly remember the first talk I ever gave at an international conference on drug misuse. The room was packed when I stood up as the speaker before me was very well known and his talk was really excellent.  Then, as I began to talk about statistics, data sharing and capture-recapture analysis the room rapidly started to empty!

The WI ladies were a much kinder audience, joining in with the hand reflexology and coming up with some excellent questions.  I think I learned as much about speaking as they did about reflexology so hopefully everyone came away with something.  Here I am giving my famous explanation of why the hand reflex chart is orientated as it is.


The WI will be celebrating its centenary next year, a hundred years of promoting women’s education, involving and revitalising rural communities and campaigning on worthwhile issues.  You can find out more about what they do and where your nearest branches are on the National Federation website.

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Teaching Hand Reflexology in School

I recently spent a day teaching hand reflexology to classes of years 7 to 9 at a school in Chester, as part of a group of local Gaia School trained reflexologists delivering part of a health and wellbeing program.  As I was lucky enough to be working with Andrea Porritt, from InHarmony Reflexology, who is not only a talented reflexologist but also a fully qualified teacher, the day went extremely well and both of us enjoyed it and I think the pupils did too.

Clients who are used to receiving the more conventional form of foot reflexology may not be aware that this therapy can be practised using reflexes on other parts of the body.  Reflexes are present on the face, the ears, the arms and legs and the hands as well as the feet, and all can be used to trigger the body into tackling its own issues and moving towards a state of homeostasis.  While foot reflexology is more often used because it is very deeply relaxing – which aids and enables the healing process – hand reflexology has its advantages too.  For example, it can be used if there are infectious problems with the feet, such as athlete’s foot, or if the feet are injured or missing, and it can be used in situations where access to the feet is not easy such as in the classroom.  Instead of having to provide couches for everyone, with foot cleaning facilities and being aware of the added risks of having many people barefoot in a room at the same time, hands are accessible, easy to clean and easy to see.  Partners can practise on each other and both see what is going on as the reflexes are mapped out for them.

The other major benefit of hand reflexology is that it can be practised on yourself which is not the case with foot reflexology (unless you are an advanced yoga practitioner or similarly flexible person!).  As a self help tool it is very valuable and can be used, for example, to calm yourself down in stressful situations, to clear sinuses and tackle hay fever symptoms or for any number of other uses.

Perhaps you would like us to visit your school to teach a similar topic to some of your classes?  Or maybe you are part of a group that would enjoy learning some hand reflexology techniques?

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How does reflexology work?

There are several different schools of thought as to why reflexology works. Frustratingly, it is not easy to design experiments or studies which test these theories and so understanding proceeds slowly. It is perhaps helpful to look at the treatment that we know as reflexology in two ways.

Aspects not necessarily unique to reflexology:

Firstly, reflexology is a touch therapy. It involves physical contact between the therapist and the client in a manner which is intended to bring about a therapeutic or beneficial effect.   It is known that physical touch can help reduce stress levels, for example pet animals can help to lower blood pressure and other stress indicators and babies are known to fail to thrive without regular physical contact. Many people find the experience of foot massage and manipulation to be deeply relaxing and, as with other kinds of body massage it can assist in reducing muscle tension, stimulating the release of endorphins and decreasing the levels of body stress hormones. Stress is both a physical and a psychological response to everyday life which becomes problematic if continued for too long or too acutely and is now recognised to play a large part in our susceptibility to illness and hinder our ability to heal and become well. Therefore any touch therapy which has the benefits mentioned above will assist the mind and body in becoming and remaining healthy.

As well as the benefits of physical contact, reflexology (in common with most other complementary therapies) also involves the client spending a quite considerable amount of time in the therapeutic setting with the undivided attention of the therapist. During the consultation part of the session the client is encouraged to talk about things that matter to them which may be physical health concerns, anxieties, other stressful problems or more general matters to do with their situation and lifestyle such as family matters or diet. This very necessary discussion can act as a basic talking therapy, enabling the client to face things that may be worrying them and receive advice and help for these problems as far as the therapist is able to give. The very act of providing time and sharing problems gives a space for the client to confront them and begin healing if they are able to do so.

Aspects that are unique to reflexology.

Reflexology involves the therapist applying pressure and manipulating points or zones, generally on the feet or hands, which are thought to relate to other organs or areas of the body. It is thought that this manipulation can somehow feed back to the related organ or area of the body and encourage a healing process if there is imbalance or abnormal functioning of that part. Many reflexologists and clients who have benefited from reflexology believe this to be a powerful intervention and there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence as to its efficacy although, as mentioned before, investigations which fulfil more conventionally accepted scientific criteria are difficult to design and have not been carried out to a great extent.

The crux of “how reflexology works” might therefore be seen as the question of exactly how specific areas – reflex points – on the feet or hands do somehow feed back to other areas or organs of the body.

The nervous system seems to answer the role very well. It transfers information by electro-chemical means around the body and connects all parts of the body and organs. It connects with the other major signaling system of the body, the endocrine system, via the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. The fact that we do not yet know exactly how the nervous system might transfer information from, e.g. the liver reflex point to the liver, does not necessarily mean that it does not do so. Internal organs do not, for example, transmit pain in the same way that skin pain receptors do and sometimes malfunction in an organ is felt as pain somewhere else in the body, called referred pain, as in the case of a heart attack causing pain in the left jaw and arm. It could well be that by manipulating a reflex point on the foot, nerve impulses are sent back to a discrete area of the body which conveys a signal to that organ to change its function. For example; manipulating the foot’s reflex point for the uterus might send a nerve signal to the uterus to relax if its muscles are abnormally contracted and causing intense period pains.

Other theories that try to explain reflexology include the lactic acid/U-bend theory which compares the body to a plumbing system where debris in the form of lactic acid crystals ends up in the feet and hands as the most distal parts of the body.   Indeed sensations of “grittiness” and “sharpness” can often be felt both by reflexologist and client in certain areas and the dispersion of these by manipulation is thought to bring relief to the organ or body area associated with the reflex point where the crystal is identified.  However, research including biopsies undertaken by Dr José Manzanares suggests that these gritty “deposits” are actually made up largely by nerve fibers which points back to the nervous system model again.

Another theory with its roots in traditional Chinese medicine is that energy or “Qi” (chi) flows along pathways through the body and can be disrupted by imbalance or disease. Many of these pathways, or meridians, end in the feet and hands and it is thought that by manipulating the points which relate to the ends of the pathways the energy flow is restored and the body can heal the imbalance which caused the disruption.  Reflexologists who have developed techniques utilising this model include John Cross with his Light Touch Reflextherapy and Jan Williamson’s Precision reflexology.  Both of these methods use very little pressure if any – indeed Cross suggests that working just off the body is at least as effective if not even more so.

These theories, whether or not they explain the action of reflexology, provide useful models for looking more deeply at the question. What is the body’s “plumbing”? Is there “energy” which flows along preordained pathways? In Western medicine we are used to considering only physical systems of the body that might answer these roles: the nervous system; the lymph system; the circulatory system and the many and varied roles of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which transfers energy at molecular level between cells.

While we do not know what forms the exact mechanism of reflexology, all of these theories and disciplines help to give us models to which we can work and with which to structure our use and understanding of the practice of reflexology.


Hull, R., 2011. The complete guide to reflexology. Cambridge: The Write Idea Ltd.
Tiran, D., 2011. The physiological basis of reflexology. In D Tiran and P Mackereth, eds. 2011 Clinical reflexology: a guide for integrated practice. 2nd edition. Edinburgh: Elsevier. Ch.1.
Manzanares, J., 2012. Reflexology (Dr Manzanares reflexologic method). Barcelona: Manzanares.
Cross, J., 2012. Light touch reflextherapy; a new way forward for reflexologists. Bloomington IN:
Williamson, J., 2010. Precision reflexology. 2nd edition. London: Quay books.


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