Squelching through mud and wading through water. Kick your shoes off for a sensory stroll along Britain’s first reflexology trail
I am standing on the threshold of Britain’s first – and only – barefoot park. It’s a sort of playground for feet, an unorthodox nature trail covered with a variety of surfaces; and, amazingly, it’s meant to boost our health and vitality. The trail, one kilometre long, is in a partly wooded area in the Italian gardens of the Trentham Estate, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire.
“On a sunny day, it’s hugely popular with children and families,” says Simon Johnson, the operations manager. It’s too bad, then, that on the day I visit the rain is bucketing down and it’s deserted, apart from two girls in cagoules sporting muddy limbs and wide grins, with their equally sodden but stoic grandparents. Inspired by their cheeriness, I roll up my trousers, remove my shoes – there are lockers here, as well as foot showers – and gingerly wiggle toes that are unaccustomed to, and a little anxious about, getting touchy-feely with nature.
The textures on the trail, to my mind (or should that be feet?) fall into two broad categories: those that feel good, and those that are high on the “yuck” and “ouch” factor. Into the former fall logs that massage my arches (bliss), a sloshy trough of water, timber slices laid out like Smarties, soft sand, hay, and a warm burbling stream. But the pine cones are too damp, I hate the way the mud oozes through my toes, and the pebbles and gravel are sheer purgatory – like hopping on daggers, lots of them.
It has taken me half an hour to walk the loop and when I’ve finished, my hitherto humid, trainer-clad hooves feel airy and refreshed, a bit like the rest of me. I could put the effects down to exercise and fresh air, but there’s more to it than a shoeless tramp in the great outdoors. Officially the trail is called a Barfuss Park. “Barfuss” is German for “barefoot”, and the parks are popular in Germany and Austria. Sebastian Kneipp, a Bavarian monk, developed the concept in the 19th century. He is the founder of a natural health system called Kneippen (pronounced knipen), a kind of waterborne reflexology. Kneipp believed that wading barefoot on wet grass or in shallow water stimulated the internal organs, strengthened the immune system and helped the body to heal itself.
“The Barfuss Park in Bad Sobernheim was the first to open in Germany, in 1992,” says Thomas Reitz, a German co-investor in the Trentham Estate, who along with his brother Willi is the inspiration behind the sensory stroll. So keen were they on getting it right that the team of park workers who designed and built it were sent off to inspect the German parks.
“I see the trail as an inexpensive form of reflexology, fun and a way to get back to nature,” says Reitz. He isn’t the only one: since Trentham’s Barfuss Park opened in 2006, more than 75,000 people have visited it.
Reflexologists, who say that rubbing the feet (believed to correspond to different parts of the body) can improve a host of medical conditions, are supportive of the idea. “Experiencing the sensation of different textures, and wading through streams in your bare feet can only make you feel invigorated, especially as each foot has more than 7,000 nerve endings and 26 bones, making it a very sensitive part of the body,” says Jane Long, a reflexologist.
“A general boost to wellbeing”
Hugh Rooney, a reflexology lecturer at Napier University, Edinburgh, gives the idea a more cautious thumbs-up: “The barefoot trails are a good thing, providing they don’t risk injury to the foot. They can help to relieve tiredness and provide a general boost to wellbeing, but people who suffer from degenerative bone conditions, joint instability and diabetes [which can lead to sensory loss, and, in turn, make sufferers more prone to foot injuries] need to exercise caution,” he says.
Elizabeth Marazita, a US-based reflexologist and the designer of America’s first barefoot park in Washington state, is another enthusiast. She cites a study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in 2005, which suggested that walking reflexology paths three times a week, for 30 minutes a session over 16 weeks, can reduce blood pressure and improve balance.
Vitality-boosting the trails may be, but could the stimulus of a foot “gymnasium” be a substitute for reflexology? Rooney believes it’s unlikely. “Only the sole of the foot is in contact with these trails,” she says. “A skilled reflexologist will work the whole foot and pay attention to specific organ reflexes. They will also vary the pressure to the reflex areas depending on the client’s tolerance and the desired clinical outcome.”
Of course, there are those who refuse to accept reflexology as a valid concept. “The notion that there are connections between the feet and other areas of the body have no foundation in anatomy or physiology,” says Dr Hilary Macqueen, a senior health lecturer at the Open University. “You can’t underestimate the power of placebo. If you believe something will make you feel better, it will, as the body has huge recuperative powers.”
However, Rooney points to research published in a Swiss journal, Research in Complementary Medicine, in 1999 and 2001, which suggests that applying pressure to the feet can effect a tangible physical change in the body. “In the two studies carried out, intestinal and renal blood flow respectively increased following stimulation of the corresponding kidney and small intestine reflex areas on the foot but not when adjacent reflexes were stimulated.”
Whatever we may think in the West, in parts of Asia, medically therapeutic reflexology paths have been around for thousands of years. “They’re a prominent feature of life in China and Taiwan,” says Rooney. In Japan, the cosmetics company Shiseido has built reflexology paths for its employees, and Pangkor Laut, a luxury resort off the west coast of Malaysia, has even installed one in its spa, for the use of guests and staff.
“Helps to ease aches and pains”
Dr Christine Donnelly, a lecturer in complementary therapies at Napier University, visited a reflexology path on a work trip to the Far East. “In Hong Kong elderly Chinese people walk them regularly. They say it that detoxifies their body, helps to ease aches and pains, and promotes longevity. They may tread the path every day, for up to an hour a day, as a meditation walk. It is baffling to watch the ease with which they tackle the sharper stones.
“One elderly woman told me that she’d been diagnosed with serious kidney problems, but after walking the path three times a day, over a period of time, the problems went away.”
Donnelly claims to have experienced a dramatic healing crisis after walking the reflexology path in Victoria Park, Hong Kong. “None of my colleagues wanted to do it, but I decided to give it a go, just for fun. It was about 20 feet long. It started at one end with smooth stones and as you progressed the stones became increasingly sharp and jagged. At first the going was easy, but as I moved on to the rougher stones, the pain was so bad it took my breath away. I don’t know if the stones had been placed this way for energetic reasons, but so many reflexology points in my feet were stimulated.
“Almost immediately after I fell ill with a serious flu, with sinus and chest problems, and a hacking cough. I was bedridden and it was touch and go as to whether I’d be well enough to fly home. None of my colleagues fell ill, just me. In Hong Kong I went to see a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine and he said that what had happened was directly related to the stimulus on the soles of my feet. It was weeks before I properly recovered, but when I did I felt extraordinarily well.”
Back at the Trentham Estate, no such claims have surfaced, but the barefoot park is proving such a hit that plans are afoot – no pun intended – to open a reflexology centre on the premises. And if you think Stoke-on-Trent is a plod too far, you can order a foot reflexology walking mat online through Elizabeth Marazita’s company Paths of Health (www.pathsofhealth.com). The mat package includes synthetic stones and walking exercises. Inspired? Time to kick off those shoes.
For more details, www.trenthamleisure.co.uk; phone 01782 646646 begin_of_the_skype_highlightinend_of_the_skype_highlighting.
Entry to the Italian Gardens and Barfuss Park is £7 for adults, £6 for children aged 5-15, and £6.50 for seniors, students and the disabled
From The Times, August 30, 2008 (www.thetimes.co.uk)
The Reflexology Path by Barbara and Kevin Kunz
“In nearly every village in Taiwan they have built special paths of pebbles and every morning at 3 or 4 o’clock, people walk barefoot around the pebble path for a half hour before they go to work. Hundreds, even thousands do this. It has become a way of life. I think this is very important. We eat three times a day for our health. For me it is like praying or meditation, I need it for my bodily health and I think everybody needs it.” (Father Josef Eugster, (British) Reflexions, March 1995, pp. 16-17.)
Call it stone stepping or cobblestone-mat walking. Or, call it walking on a Reflexology Path or a Barefoot Path. By any name, it’s the tradition of walking on a surface specifically designed to pursue health. Reports of associated health benefits typically are based on word-of-mouth – until now. The Chinese tradition of “stone stepping” has been undergone controlled testing at the Oregon Research Institute. Scientists found that the older adult participants “experienced significant improvements in mental and physical well-being.” In addition the study found the activity to be an answer to the quest for a “simple, convenient, and readily accessible exercise programs that will reduce health problems and improve quality of life of the aging population.”
To the bare-footed reflexology path users around the world, the proof is in what they’ve been doing for years. The bare-footed exercise is grounded in the traditions of its location. Special paths have been built in parks, spas, condominium complexes and country clubs across Asia. In Germany and Austria, one embarks on a hike through nature with bare feet making contact with specially selected surfaces. Ideas of “acupoints” in Asia and “reflexzonmassage” in Germany tie the walking to the health of the whole body.
In Asia, the history of the reflexology path begins with cobblestone paths. Cobblestone was the common building material for paths and roads. One elderly Japanese remembers villagers volunteering their time to repair the roads near the village. The availability of these surfaces for transportation probably lead informally to the tradition of walking on them for health.
Kunz and Kunz currently speculate that the recent interest and building boom in cobblestone paths in Asia is a further impact of the work of one man, Father Josef Eugster. Thanks to the work of this Swiss Jesuit priest who heads a parish in Taiwan attention was rekindled in ancient Chinese foot working traditions some twenty- five years ago. Since that time foot work has spread throughout Asia. All across Asia, in China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore, the impact has reverberated. Reflexology practitioners have set up shop. Singapore’s Chinatown is known for its reflexology clinics. Singapore malls include reflexology businesses. Japanese tourists travel to Taiwan to experience the work of that country’s reflexology practitioners. A Japanese woman who operates a chain of reflexology parlors in Japan is noted to be one of Japan’s leading taxpayers. Research is conducted by Chinese medical doctors and reflexology is a common therapy in the Chinese medical system.
In Germany and Austria, attention has been paid to the feet throughout history. Both water and pressure applied to the feet are traditionally seen to impact the whole body. One traditional practice, kneippen, popularized by Pastor Sebastian Kneipp in the 1800’s, consists of “wading” on wet grass or in shallow water to stimulate the internal organs, strengthen the immune system, and help the body to heal itself. “Reflezonmassage” began in the early 1900’s simultaneously with the development of zone therapy in the US. The practices were both further refined to the application of pressure techniques to the feet to impact specific parts of the body. Today, some call the Barefoot Path ” do-it-yourself” reflexology. In the tradition of Kneipp, walkers on the Barefoot Path might have access to “kneippen,” a walk through water with rocks.
American reflexologists first became aware of Asian interest in walking on varied surfaces for health purposes following presentations at the Rwo Shr Health ’90 Worldwide Conference Tokyo in July 1990. (The organization is named for Father Josef. Rwo Shr is Mandarin Chinese for Josef.) Participants Barbara and Kevin Kunz became interested and, over the years, have written about the ideas surrounding the presentations. The 1990 presentations were: “Healthy Stroll Path” at a Shiseido factory in Japan, a scientific study of walking on a beaded mat, and a moving personal account of the benefits of walking on a varied surface by the 80 year-old Mr. Keichi.
Differences and Similarities
The similarities between Asian and European traditions and paths are striking: (1) Traditions of doing something actively to impact one’s health; (2) Traditions of doing something to one part of the body to impact the whole body; (3) Traditions of doing something to specific parts of the feet to impact specific parts of the body; (4) Doing something natural to improve one’s health; (5) Use of materials found commonly in one’s surroundings to construct paths; (6) Building paths in public areas; and (7) Use of the paths as an inducement to entice potential visitors or customers.
The differences are striking as well: (1) The size of the path system – compact in Asia and sprawling in Europe. Think 75 m. in Asia and 3500 m. in Europe; (2) The surface underfoot – cobblestone in Asia and mud, logs, stone, moss and more in Europe; (3) Stone placement – embedded in concrete in Asia and loose on the ground in Europe; (4) The sensory experience – varied surface in Asia with the addition of balance opportunities in Europe. (Interestingly, Asian traditions also include takefumi, stepping on bamboo as well as tai chi with its practice of balance.)
Reflexions: The Journal of Reflexology Research Project
Barbara and Kevin Kunz, editors Volume 25, Number 2, January 2004
©Kunz and Kunz 2004