TORONTO -- I have a history of letting women walk all over me. Just ask any of my friends.
But I had never had a woman literally work me over with her feet until, on a visit to Toronto, I stopped into the Yorkville Avenue studio of Julie Moore, Zen massage therapist.
Moore, 46, a native of Quebec City, is a petite woman who gave up a successful business career in 1998 to become a practitioner of shiatsu - or "finger pressure" - a Japanese form of bodywork based on the holistic system of traditional Chinese medicine. Working with shiatsu master Tetsuro Saito, Moore learned to use finger and palm pressure in an effort to restore balance in the natural flow of energy known as "qi" (pronounced "chee") throughout the body.
Moore also learned that doing the work, particularly on her larger and more muscular clients, took a toll on her body. So, several years ago she began training in Ashiatsu Oriental Bar Therapy, which melds elements of the ancient practice of ashiatsu - or "foot pressure" - massage with Western techniques. The key is the use of a raised table and overhead bars to support the therapist's weight.
"It's much more effective for my clients to use my body weight and my foot, which is much larger than my hand, to apply just the right amount of pressure," said Moore, who weighs 122 pounds. "It's also a lot easier on me."
Ruthie Piper Hardee developed the bar therapy regimen and is credited with bringing this rapidly growing form of massage into the US mainstream. "You could say it's a barefoot bonanza that's really sweeping the country," Hardee, 52, said in a telephone interview from her Denver office. Since the 1990s, Hardee's program has trained nearly 4,000 practitioners in Ashiatsu Oriental Bar Therapy, including Moore, who is certified in advanced levels.
Those therapists use wooden bars bolted into the ceiling or a portable apparatus with overhead bars to maneuver above their clients and to support a portion of their body weight as they vary the amount of pressure they apply with one foot, or sometimes both feet. That combination helps create "the longest stroke ever and the most luxurious massage on the planet," according to Hardee.
I was eager to find out whether Moore could back up that claim. Soon after arriving at her small but comfortable studio for my 90-minute session, I was lying face down under the covers on the massage table, which was slightly wider than normal to accommodate Moore's footwork. On the floor under the face cushion that cradled my head, she mixed some Japanese mint oil with hot water and the resulting fragrant steam brought my sinuses alive.
With her hands, Moore applied a light lubricating oil over my back and legs while quietly explaining some of the concepts of shiatsu, which she has incorporated into the bar therapy program. She reminded me frequently to breathe in deeply and expel tension on the outward breath. Before I got on the table, we had gone over a 1-10 scale for pressure and discomfort levels and how I could signal her to stop if I felt any pain. "A 6 is good," she said.
Moore then sat on a high, rolling stool in front of my head and began using her feet, particularly her heels, on my neck and upper back. Her feet rotated side to side as the heels dug in. The strokes were long and firm and felt remarkably like hands.
She then shifted to a standing position on my back, with a portion of her weight supported by the bars she grasped near the ceiling. There was no discomfort as Moore worked her way along the bars and down my back and onto my thighs. Her strokes became incredibly long as she built them up: At one point, her foot worked its way up from my ankle, along my leg, over my back, and down my arm, all in one fluid motion.
In a follow-up phone interview, I asked Moore how she achieved such exceptional results. "It's really all in the training and concentration," she said. "You are high above the ground with oil on your feet and hands and you have to hold onto a wooden bar over your head at all times. A lot could go wrong. You have to be very focused."
I also wanted to know how she keeps her feet clean and user-friendly. She said she washes them frequently and always wears clean socks to ensure that everything is sanitary. She also keeps nail files and skin scrubbers handy to smooth out any rough spots.
Back on the table, everything was going very smoothly for me. Moore's judiciously applied foot pressure had probed deeply into tight muscles, and her whispered urgings to release and relax were having the desired effect. I was drifting in and out as I surrendered to darkness without fear. Maybe this was balance. Maybe I was falling asleep.
Moore brought me slowly back to reality by first asking me to turn over. She placed a small stone on my forehead and then massaged my head, neck, and shoulders with her hands. My poor feet were suffering more from pangs of inadequacy than any physical ailment, but Moore made them feel better by finding and gently stimulating pressure points on the soles.
Problem areas that Moore had identified during my treatment - my right shoulder and forearm - were addressed with a few drops of straight mint oil, which was cool and refreshing on the skin. After I got dressed, Moore served me peppermint tea and a small piece of chocolate as we talked about the bar therapy and her efforts to balance my qi.
I felt remarkably at ease following my treatment, in both mind and body. Moore's feet had found their marks and her deep tissue work had unraveled most of the knots my muscles had built up with time and stress. If it wasn't the most luxurious massage I've ever had, it probably was the most effective. Moore's inclusion of aspects of her shiatsu training was a complementary bonus.
Traditional ashiatsu has been performed in Asia on a floor mat for thousands of years, and over the centuries it has sometimes strayed into the massage parlors of the Far East. Hardee and the growing number of therapists like Moore trained in Ashiastu Oriental Bar Therapy have brought it into the day spa with outstanding results. A whole new massage movement is afoot.
Doug Warren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.