Q: I am confused if I should see an ayurvedic practitioner. Specifically I am also wondering about reflexology--can you help me understand what reflexology is?
A: This is a common issue that many people want to understand as it involves the very important aspect of our health and comfort. And there is lot of confusion that can bring some frustration. Ayurvedic medicine is one system of medicine within a larger and broader category of medicine known simply as alternative medicine. These different approaches to medicine are considered “alternative” in contrast to traditional medicine which is based on the scientific method. Some confusion arises as well in that some of these alternative medical approaches claim to be scientific. They are scientific in the sense of being a systematic approach based on a philosophical system. But they are not scientific in the classic sense of the scientific method, which is the basis of modern scientific medicine.
Let me offer an answer by first giving a basic overview of the ayurvedic system. Then I will offer a brief discussion of reflexology. Finally I will give an explanation of the scientific approach of traditional medicine. These three things should help you understand and make a good decision for your personal medical choices.
In order to understand medical practices and whether you want to walk through the door of a particular building and a particular practitioner or doctor, you need to understand the philosophy behind the medical practice. Alternative medicine is based upon a worldview that assumes some form of energy in the universe and in the human body and being. To put it most simply, these assumptions are assumed. Based on the assumptions of the system, the medical treatments are given. What this means is that the assumptions are not a part of a testing process in validating treatments or procedures. Ayurvedic medicine assumes and believes there are three major forces in the universe and within people, what are called the tridoshas. These are combinations of the basic elements of the universe: space, air, water, fire, and earth. These three doshas are the vata dosha, the pitta dosha, and the kapha dosha. Each of these doshas corresponds to a particular element or mixture of elements: vata-air, pitta-fire, kapha-water. The goal of good health is a balance between the three doshas. Treatments involve either a reduction of excesses of these doshas or an increase of a lack of a dosha. All the methods of ayurvedic medicine are aimed at achieving one of these goals. These methods include: herbal treatments, enemas, sun bathing, various types of massages, blood letting, wind exposure, surgery, aphrodisiacs, fasting, toxic elimination (pancha karma), mud and sand treatment, and others.
So what is reflexology? Reflexology is a practice that does have some connection to ancient Asian practices. However, is not actually a formal part of ayurvedic medicine, but more broadly one of the many types of alternative medicine that have arisen in more modern times. The form of reflexology practiced today is more recently developed from the early 1900’s, first by William Fiztgerald and then by Eunice Ingham. It’s basic premise is that the foot (and sometimes the hand) has a correspondence of energy with the rest of the body and that by treating certain areas of the foot you can solve problems or unlock the energy issues of a corresponding part of the body. Treatment involves direct massage and manipulation of the foot or hand with the practitioner claiming sensory-energy feedback from the patient which allows him or her to bring healing. Now no one will dispute the benefits of a nice massage—it does help relax a person and it is a fine experience. But reflexology claims to be much more than this. It is based upon the claim that the massage of the foot unblocks the energy problems of other parts of the body. It suffers from the usual problems with alternative medicine: it is unverifiable. The “proofs” are actually nothing more than people who tell of its benefits.
Scientific medicine is based upon certain premises: 1) there is an objective scientific truth that can be found 2) there is a cause and effect relationship which can be found, described and demonstrated 3) there is an observable and verifiable order and basis to the creation 4) the existence of truth is not relative to individual interpretation—but can be objectively proven and found true for all people in all places. This has produced what is called the basic scientific method. This is a process of investigation of reality and truth that begins with an observation. Then a hypothesis is formed which would explain the observation. The hypothesis is then tested through carefully controlled experiments (such as a placebo test or double-blind study). The results of the test are analyzed to see if they support or deny the hypothesis. If they do not support the hypothesis, it is rejected or changed. This process continues until the data and testing process matches and validates the hypothesis. This continues further in that this testing process must be repeatable by other people in other places and circumstances. This is the basis of modern scientific medicine. Here lies the problem with alternative medicine. It is untested and unproven. There are claims to its effectiveness which are never verified scientifically.
A classic example of this issue is in the story of the stork. In England it was noticed that there was a relationship between the number of storks that roosted and the number of human babies born. From this some people concluded that storks bring babies, and this was put forward at least in the form of stories. There is a statistical relationship between the number of nesting storks and human babies born. However, anyone with even a rudimentary understanding would know that a roosting stork on your chimney or housetop would not directly cause a baby to be born in your house. The scientific method would then look for something that would cause both of these things to happen such as changes in weather from year to year, etc.
In the testing of alternative medicine, in order for it to be found true in an objective, scientific sense, the observation must be made, it must be rigorously tested and found verifiably true. It must then stand the test of multiple investigators finding the same results to be true as well. In the case of reflexology then, someone may make the observation that something such as headaches are relieved by massaging a certain part of the foot. Then you would have to hypothesize the reason for this connection and give a testable and verifiable hypothesis. Experiments would be designed to both test if this is true and if it is false. These tests should rule out other possible causes. These tests should include a test for the placebo effect. The placebo effect is the beneficial changes that may come due to a person’s belief that something will help, but which may not necessarily be real help. An example of this would be in the testing of a drug where one group receives the drug and another group receives a sugar pill. The responses of the two groups are then measured and compared. I would love to see the results of such a test performed on reflexology. However, I believe you will find that this kind of responsible testing has not been undertaken.
Testimonials are most often the given “proofs” for alternative medicine. There are several problems with this. Testimonials do not report when a person has been harmed by the treatment offered. For example, a relative of mine was given a magnetic necklace to wear to help with her congestion. After wearing the necklace for a week she developed a serious sinus infection that progressed to pneumonia. This will certainly not be reported as a result of this medical treatment. Testimonials will only report people who are happy with the treatment, and will disregard the negative and contradictory reports and results. There is also the problem that some treatments may help a person but not solve their root or medical problem. An example of this might be massage therapy. Most people would benefit from massage—it is relaxing, releases tensions, etc. Though the massage may be beneficial, it cannot be proven to heal arthritis or cancer.
Though all scientists are not Christians, the scientific method was born out of a Christian worldview. It has as its basis of assumption that the world is an ordered place subject to discovery and the understanding of the human mind. It assumes there is a Creator who has given to man the ability to discover these things and to steward the things of this world. It also assumes that as God is the ultimate reality, and is One, that the truth men discover is not merely interpretation, but is objective and unchangeable. In this sense, scientific medicine assumes that its methods and results can all be tested and discovered to be either true and useful or false and useless (or harmful).
The most basic difference in perspective on medicine is our view of the earth and the universe. If the earth is our Mother, then a direct appeal to an energy force of some kind, or to some form of mystery within the world itself, is reasonable. In the Christian worldview, man is the supreme part of the creation of the universe and the earth, given stewardship and responsibility to manage and care for the earth; both are creations of the God. There is an aspect in which man is to investigate and take care of the earth, solve problems as a good caretaker, responsibly manage with his mind and capacities what the God has put here. The appeal to the mystery is secondary; the earth is not a mysterious deity, but a magnificent creation to be unlocked by man.
Let us take an example: cancer. The alternative medical view appeals directly to the mysterious energy or force of the universe and seeks simply to manipulate this energy. This is the basis of assumption of alternative medicine. Herbs that contain mysterious energy forces, treatments that manipulate energy for healing are sought. The careful understanding and unraveling of a problem and its solution is not sought out. In contrast the scientific view would begin doing studies and seek to understand what the problem is and then begin multiple experiments to see how the problem can be resolved. This is the same basis and approach that has brought to the world the understanding and solving of the medical problems of pneumonia, meningitis, gout, bubonic plague, cholera, and hundreds on hundreds of other diseases that are now curable because of the scientific method.
One example is penicillin. Penicillin was discovered coincidentally when a doctor observed that a piece of moldy bread had accidentally fallen into a bacterial culture and had killed the bacteria around it. In 1348 the city of Florence was in the grip of a plague epidemic. The physician Boccaccio wrote that this plague was, “Either because of the influence of the planets or sent from God as just punishment for our sins.” (Lyons and Petrucelli, Medicine, An Illustrated History, Abraham, NY 1978, p. 349) There may still certainly be spiritual reasons for such an event, yet the mystery should not be the answer itself or preclude a search for a tangible solution. Think how many lives have been saved because modern science believed that a tangible, testable cause for the plague could be found.
In conclusion, mankind has often attributed human ills to mysterious and untestable causes such as the alignment of the planets, evil humors, unbalance of the humors of the body, evil spirits, or the displeasure of the gods or of God. This is not to say there are not mysteries and that man can solve all problems. Yet many (but not all) of the mysteries have been unlocked by modern medicine using the scientific method. Practitioners of alternative medicine continue to look primarily for mysteries and imbalances in forces. In some cases where there is no present known cure, alternative medicine can be very attractive. Your decisions about reflexology or alternative medicine will be based partly on your worldview. Is the earth our Mother and should you seek a balancing of energies? Or is the earth our younger sister, a creation of God, whose mysteries can be unlocked, tested and proved, and the results then be applied towards the good of mankind?