Devotees say helps alleviate stress and enhances well-being

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Something wonderful is a foot. But first, this crash course in reflexology, a practice devotees say helps alleviate stress and enhances well- being.

First used around 2300 B.C. in Egypt, its practitioners describe it as a method for activating the body`s healing powers through the feet. The principle is simple: The feet are mirrors of the body, with specific

``reflex`` areas of the foot corresponding to all of the body`s major parts and organs. For instance, the toes correspond to the body`s head and neck; the balls of the feet to the chest. By applying varying degrees of pressure to these areas on the foot, proponents say you can induce deep relaxation, improve circulation, hasten healing in the corresponding body areas, and help prevent illness.

The practice was rediscovered in the United States in the 1930s by physiotherapist Eunice Ingham. Her nephew, Dwight Byers, now is president of the 25,000-member International Institute of Reflexology, based in St. Petersburg, Fla., which trains and offers optional certification for practitioners. There are no state licensing programs for reflexologists.

Why reflexology works remains a mystery even to those like Byers, who`s been practicing it for 50 years, and Laura Norman, a reflexologist trained by Byers, who has been practicing for 21 years.

``There are more than 7,200 nerve endings in the feet,`` says Byers. ``So we know these are very sensitive parts of the body. But there isn`t a nerve ending that runs from the liver to the foot.``

Many health professionals view reflexology with skepticism; its benefits have not been scientifically proven. And even reflexology practitioners are quick to characterize the practice as a relaxation and wellness catalyst, and not a medical treatment.

Still, proponents say the applications of reflexology are many. For instance, in her book, ``Feet First: A Guide to Foot Reflexology`` (Simon & Schuster, $12.95), Norman contends that reflexology can not only assuage stress, but also can help curb overeating, ease menstrual cramps and even enhance athletic performance and creativity.

Sessions with professional reflexologists run about 30 to 40 minutes, at an average cost of about $25; more in large cities. In the next few weeks, the six Chicago-area locations of the Mario Tricoci Salons will begin offering $60-an-hour reflexology sessions to clients.

Now for that something wonderful promised earlier.

Norman, who also trains reflexologists at her New York training school, offers this mini, self-session: Sit in a comfortable chair in a quiet room and play some soft music. Using a moisturizing lotion, massage your feet until the lotion is gone. Hold the ankle, heel or toes of one foot firmly. With your free hand, grip the foot so that the outside of your bent thumb rests on the sole of the foot.

Applying constant pressure, bend and straighten the thumb at its first joint. You should feel the thumb taking little ``bites`` of your foot and the bending motion moves the thumb forward in a caterpillar-like motion. This is called thumb-walking. Do this on an imaginary line from your heel to your little toe, then from your heel to each toe, covering the entire sole.

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