The “Back Story” to Zu Qigong!

This is a brief account of why and how Zu Qigong (Foot Energy Work) came about…… the story that lies behind the technique!

“………the real dilemma is what to do when you love working on feet but find yourself at odds with the mainstream reflexology world?”


Love them or hate them where would we be without our fabulous feet? They carry us throughout our lives and give us that all important physical connection to the amazing planet that we live on. Across the millennia, the importance of our feet has been recognised by ancient cultures around the world, often being associated with spiritual customs and wellbeing practices.

Call me weird but I love feet! From the very first day of my reflexology training I felt a powerful connection to working on the feet, perhaps subconsciously tapping in to some inherent knowledge of the power and significance represented by feet. Having trained in many different touch based therapies over the intervening years I have consistently felt drawn back to working on the feet. For that reason, reflexology has been, for me, the natural focus of my therapy studies. However, I have made no secret of the fact that my previous science training has frequently left me feeling far from comfortable with the often illogical and contradictory theories that are found within the various approaches to reflexology. Subsequently I have attended many different reflexology courses in my quest to find an approach that resonated with me, and eventually I found an affinity with energy based techniques and became intrigued by the meridian theories of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Although this answered some of the questions I had about reflexology, I continued to feel very much out of step – if you’ll pardon the pun – with the reflexology world in general.

Having embarked on holistic therapy training with a view to finding the elusive missing component I experienced in my nursing career, that all important human aspect of caring and supporting the individual, nurturing the whole person rather than focusing on tasks, clinical diagnosis and the disease, reflexology appeared to offer that missing holistic element. Sadly, as time passed, I gradually became aware that the clinical focus of reflexology teaching and practice was becoming increasingly dominant over the holistic content. This is a problem that has grown exponentially over the last few years and is not exclusive to reflexology but appears to be a problem across the wider therapy industry. It is the growing commercialism within therapies that I suspect truly lies at the heart of the problem, everyone jostling for position in an increasingly crowded marketplace and struggling to find a unique selling point to bring clients to their door. We see therapists who specialise in this or that aspect of health, treat specific client groups, there is so much hype, spin and clinical language, an ever-growing list of contraindications and warnings about potential hypothetical dangers. Yes, there is the desire to prove everything scientifically, but let’s not pretend that this is going to happen any time soon, the science simply does not exist yet whereby we can categorically define the mechanisms involved in the myriad of therapies now in use. I can’t help but feel that the true role of the holistic therapist is slowly being eroded, lost in the hazy boundaries that now exist between physician and therapist. Not a problem if that is how you wish to work, the clinical viewpoint and competing with allopathic medicine is, for many therapists, the preferred approach and it works for them and their client base, however that is not what I came into this line of work to do. I see my role as being very different to the average physician, I am a holistic therapist and aim to support and work with the inherent natural healing abilities of the individual client using touch and positive intention, combined with time and a safe, comfortable space to listen to the client. It is about empowering the client to make the necessary changes rather than forcing the therapist’s interpretation of what does or does not need to change. My aim is to encourage the client to take responsibility for their own wellbeing, and sadly this is an ability that many in Western society appear to have lost, having become so accustomed to handing over responsibility to their doctor or therapist with the expectation that a pill or potion, a quick manipulation or brief massage is all that is required. Focusing on a clinical approach and the use of clinical language does little to reduce this mind set of a quick fix and lays the responsibility for rectifying problems squarely at the therapist’s door, only made worse when the therapist advertises their skills as specialising in condition X, Y or Z.  Our clients need to realise that the therapist does not heal, we can assist but healing comes from within. As therapists, we seem to be missing the point – the public are looking for a different approach, and I hesitate to use the term alternative, because I strongly believe that allopathic medicine should work in partnership with complementary therapies. Many are disillusioned with the current health care system; the harsh clinical approach simply is not working for these people; the human aspect of medicine is by and large being ignored and good holistic therapists certainly have the skills and knowledge to provide that missing component. The spiralling increase in stress and mental health issues combined with the associated physical health problems is testament to the fact that we need to switch focus, treating the clinical symptoms is not the answer, we need to look at the bigger picture, take time to see the whole person instead of simply seeing the disease. Rather than trying to impress our clients and clinical colleagues by mimicking the medical approach and language, we should be confidently forging our own path and in time the physicians will begin to see our true value spurred on by the quiet revolution that is slowly taking place in the public mindset regarding general healthcare and the growing demand for something different.

So, the real dilemma is what to do when you love working on feet but find yourself at odds with the mainstream reflexology world – do you just carry on doing what you have always done, disregard your misgivings about the theory and clinical focus? Or is the answer perhaps to listen to that inner voice and search for an alternative? What do you do if an alternative approach does not seem to exist? – then it’s simple, develop one!

Having started training in Taiji (Tai Chi) and Qigong a few years previously, a continuation to my interest in meridian theory, I was aware that the meridian network is much more extensive than simply the 12 regular meridians we hear about in the West and a fact that appeared to be overlooked in the energy based techniques I had encountered. Although I enjoy Taiji I found a real connection with the practice of Qigong.  This exercise discipline uses gentle exercise combined with controlled breathing and mental focus to harmonise and balance energy flow within the energy network of the body. Added to which I found the meditative quality and gentle, fluid movement of Qigong very relaxing and extremely beneficial. Eventually my thoughts turned to whether this powerful healing modality could be combined in some way with working on the feet? Fast forward a couple of years and combining my science training, with the knowledge gained over the years of studying reflexology, Taiji, Qigong and Traditional Chinese Medicine theories, I began to piece together a different way of working on the feet, gradually developing a new gentle touch therapy – Zu Qigong. This technique simply offers the therapist a different perspective to working on the feet, encouraging an alternative approach that leaves behind clinical thinking and looks at the human being from “the other end of the telescope”, a very different and much broader viewpoint.  It is by no means a “cure all” therapy that will work for every client who walks through the treatment room door but the gentle touch used does make it suitable for a wide range of clients including vulnerable groups such as children, and frail elderly clients.  I am more than content to have developed an approach that allows me to feel “re-connected” to my passion for working on the feet using a simple energy based technique, confident that I am staying true to my holistic beliefs, whilst providing clients with an effective therapy that they enjoy, benefit from and seem very happy to recommend to friends and family.

So exactly what is Zu Qigong? The straightforward translation from Chinese Pinyin to English is “foot energy work”, but exactly what does this entail, is it simply another version of reflexology?

Okay – let’s be clear, Zu Qigong is NOT classical reflexology in disguise, however this therapeutic approach does work entirely on the feet and lower legs and it does utilise the anatomical reflection theory on which classical reflexology is based. The fundamental difference being that Zu Qigong is designed to work in unison with the energy transmission network of the body (in Traditional Chinese Medicine this energy network is referred to as the meridian system) rather than being based around the physiological systems of the body and their associated disease patterns as defined in Western/allopathic medicine. With Zu Qigong, there is no diagnosing or treating specific conditions, no specialising in specific client groups. This is a holistic approach to touch therapy that is gentle on both client and therapist, using very light touch – no manipulation of joints, muscles, ligaments etc., no thumb walking or painful “hooking” of reflex points, the therapist does not decide what the client needs or does not need, or indeed what areas should or should not be touched. Instead, over several years and with careful research I have developed a simple algorithm that allows the therapist to work with the “whole person”, or perhaps more accurately the energy network that underpins human function at all levels – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Through specific gentle touch we can provide an energy exchange which the recipient’s body can direct and utilise in whatever way it chooses, bringing about change as needed at the time of treatment. Put simply the Zu Qigong technique is designed to work with the “software” of the human being, with all changes being directed and controlled by the client rather than the will of the therapist. This is achieved by delivering the “human energy” or Qi we emit, providing a supplemental energy exchange, transferred through the therapist’s specific touch to the 20 principal meridians as defined in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) – the 12 regular meridians and the 8 extraordinary vessels. The important factor being that energy is delivered slowly and gently across the network, taking care not to overload any one part of the system – a “trickle effect”, whilst observing the natural flow patterns and cycles of activity as defined in TCM. Working initially with the deepest or core layers of the system, the extraordinary vessels, then out into the regular meridians, the Zu Qigong technique provides energetic assistance which the recipient’s body can transport, transform, store or indeed block or discharge as required. Clients report that this technique leaves them mentally and physically deeply relaxed, feeling calm and with an innate sense of peace. Many have said that they have not found any other technique that takes them into such a deep meditative state, and describe moving through layers of relaxation. I have my personal theories as to what may be happening with Zu Qigong and I have written at length about this in previous articles, however as with any energy based technique, for now the mechanisms involved remain a scientific mystery. Clients find that no 2 treatments will ever feel the same, indicating that the body uses the exchanged Qi in different ways according to need at the time of treatment. On a wider level clients report improvement in a variety of problematic symptoms experienced across the physiological systems; aches & pains, digestive, hormonal, mood, headaches etc.

Simple, gentle and effective.

Life is a journey, each stage teaching us lessons in preparation for the next, often bringing us full circle, but always leaving us a little older and hopefully wiser. My own personal journey has been far from straightforward with numerous twists and turns but I am aware that there has been a single important thread connecting the different stages and guiding me through. Developing Zu Qigong has been a long and lonely process, full of frustration and doubts, but deep down driven on by a real desire to find a way of working that I truly felt at ease with. I had a choice, take the easy route and follow the crowd, or put in the hard work and make a stand for a different way of working.

In the spring of 2016 I unexpectedly found myself taking on a new challenge, providing complementary therapies for palliative care patients. Now, in this clinical environment my remit is not about “curing” anything, it is first and foremost about providing a therapeutic input to improve the quality of life for patients – it is about offering holistic care. Within the hospice, I am part of an amazing, dedicated team of nurses, therapists and doctors making my own small contribution to improving the patient experience – each member of the team providing specialist care for different aspects of the patient’s wellbeing, recognising and respecting each other’s role. My role is to encourage relaxation, providing an oasis of calm in what is for many patients, an extremely difficult and emotional situation. I offer several therapies but the most frequently requested is a “foot massage”, and yes despite my best efforts to educate, staff and patients do refer to work on the feet as a massage, “foot rub” or “reflexology”, the term most synonymous in the public domain with any work on the feet. However, suffice to say that the treatment I use is a shortened Zu Qigong sequence and is recorded as such in patient notes. Now, were I adhering to the clinical model of current popular reflexology thinking, I could find myself in a real quandary about who to treat and which reflexes should I focus on or avoid as these patients have very complex medical histories, consequently spending a lot of time focusing on the disease rather than the patient. However, I have no worries about using the gentle techniques of Zu Qigong, my only contraindications are thrombosis and acute infection. I can work with confidence and the freedom to focus on connecting with the individual, not treating the symptoms of the disease. Patients are left feeling calm and deeply relaxed, describe a sense of peace, many fall deeply asleep, perceived pain levels decrease, their mood improves: all of which adds to an improvement in general wellbeing which is so important when coping with life limiting conditions. There is something very humbling and special about working with people at the end of their lives, being able to support the vulnerable person inside the broken body. With this work, I have come full circle – re-engaging with my nursing skills but now, as a holistic therapist, I have the space, time and skills to provide that previously missing element. In many ways, my working life appears to have reached its destination with the development of Zu Qigong– combining my love of feet with gentle hands on care for the “whole person” and I am so glad that I found the confidence and tenacity to make the choice, to stand alone and be different.

If you would like to learn more about the Zu Qigong technique, then please get in touch.


  1. Sarah on June 23, 2020 at 10:12 pm

    I hope you are well ….and your Family Elspeth, and continuing to do wonderful things with ZQ… I hope to come and have a session when we re less Locked up!!!with warm wishes, sarah. Xx
    (Enjoyed reading all about you as above (despite knowing quite a bit already, good jolt to the memory box!!) Keep well.

    • Elspeth on June 24, 2020 at 11:47 am

      Thank you Sarah, thankfully we are all well and fortunate to be able to enjoy relaxing in our garden and the local countryside. Look forward to catching up with you at some point in the future. x

  2. Jacqueline Rowe on March 20, 2021 at 7:27 am

    I’ve just come across your name and thoughts and practice for the first time. It all resonates with me although, having only been practising reflexology for 10 years I feel I’ve just scratched away at the surface of the layer of knowledge and understanding. What you say feels right to me and I am excited to keep learning more from your experience. I see you were on the reflexology book club group recently. I will catch up with it later this weekend. Do you have a blog I can follow? Where can I purchase your book please?

    Warm regards

    • Elspeth on March 20, 2021 at 11:25 am

      Hello Jacqueline
      I hope you enjoy my reflexology book club presentation. In answer to your question the book is available to buy via the web site shop, just click on the “book” tab on the menu and that will take you into a brief expalnation about the book and links to buy.
      I have a facebook page where you can keep up to date with what’s happening with Zu Qigong.

      If you have any questions please feel free to email me:

      Best wishes


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