HEALTH / Heeling power of massage: Relief from aches, pains and more serious complaints may lie underfoot. Naseem Khan tries out an ancient treatment

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THERE is something quite destabilising about being left, totally naked, in a strange and almost empty room. There were a few things - a chair, pictures and a few plants. Above my head hung a heavy black rope looped between two points seven or so feet apart on the sheer white ceiling. Even though I had expected it, it looked sinister.

'Just take your clothes off,' Julia Oakshett had said.

'Everything?'

'Well.' She paused, and then said, generously: 'You can keep your ear-rings on.'

So there I was, sitting docilely in a large pale green room in Muswell Hill, north London, waiting to be trampled on. Literally.

Julia Oakshett is an exponent of chavutty thirumal, the ancient art of foot massage developed hundreds of years ago on the Malabar Coast of India. By foot massage you should understand not massage of the feet, but massage by the feet.

The practice developed alongside the classical southern Indian dance style, kathakali. The all-night performances at which kathakali's stories are traditionally presented make huge physical demands, particularly on the back and thigh muscles. It is here the foot-masseur comes in. Dancers in training have a daily massage, finding it creates strength and flexibility as well as encouraging the body's own latent dynamism. But it isn't only dancers who use it. Julia learnt it to diploma level as an offshoot of the yoga training she undertook in 1988 in Kerala, home of kathakali and chavutty thirumal.

To be frank, I didn't believe much that was claimed for it. I could just about accept that this somewhat bizarre form of massage might have benefits for the slight and sinewy kathakali dancer. But I doubted that it would travel well. With some scepticism, I lay down on the red plastic mat.

Julia, in the meantime, had been warming a bottle of orangey-coloured oil. She proceeded to coat me with the contents, from fingers to toes. An odd smell emanated - not unpleasant: slightly raisiny, with a hint of cloves.

Then she took hold with both hands of the rope for balance. Next thing, I nearly leapt across the room with shock. I had been waiting to feel that strange bony, chilly, little article - the human foot - on my back. Instead a giant something came swooshing down me, head to toe: a big, animal-like, warm, strong something that shaped itself glancingly in its race downward into the nooks and knots of my back, waist, bottom, legs. Could that have been a foot, I asked myself in awe.

The foot, it rapidly came clear, is an undervalued instrument. Hidden away for much of the year, it has a low profile. Lovely feet do not appear in lists of desirable attributes. If anything, the idea has a tinge of perversion: as if those attracted by feet were slightly odd. But now I know better. People famous for licking toes are doing nothing more than paying homage to a wonderful and powerful entity.

This entity was somehow managing to explore my joints and muscles methodically - partly with its heel, mainly with the flat of the foot, sometimes with the toes. Because it came with Julia's weight behind it (albeit modified by her reliance on the rope), it had a power that hand massages on the whole do not achieve. That does not mean that the hand is ignored. When it came to my stomach Julia resorted to her hands and a swirling figure-of-eight routine. She also worked on my fingers - easing and pulling the joints - with her hands.

The whole session lasted 45 minutes - first my right side, as I lay face downwards, and then my left: then this sequence was repeated when I turned myself over. There is no question that my body liked it all enormously and tingled with its treatment. It also responded by signalling its old areas of trouble: a skiing mishap on hard ice some six years before that had needed physiotherapy; an even older fall in the street that had given me a painfully bleeding knee at the time and arthritic twinges now.

This had its bonus point. Arthritis, said Julia, in between the long deep strokes, can be helped by chavutty thirumal. Her body leaned now one way, now the other, like a rhythmic, strenuous version of t'ai chi. But it can help a series of conditions, says her leaflet: diabetes, heart disease, rheumatism, depression. The massage is said to stimulate the lymph gland, resulting in a reduction of body toxins.

When it was all over, it did not feel like the aftermath of more conventional massage. My posture, I found, fell automatically into a position of balance. I felt centred physically, in a grounded and rather solid sort of way. At the same time, my muscles were toned and I was aware of a warm flow of steady energy. I had no desire to lie down, chill out. Quite the opposite. Indeed, in a local supermarket afterwards, as the muzak churned out of its speaker, I became aware of a contrary impulse - to dance in time to the music down the aisles. I hurriedly left. Behaviour appropriate for kathakali and Kerala clearly has its hazards in Muswell Hill. But well-being is international.

Chavutty thirumal is available from: Julia Oakshett, Wellbeing Clinic, 6 Kingston Road, Oxford, tel: 0865 311704; Muswell Healing Arts (Valeria Ferreira, Rosa Muratore), 169 Avenue Mews, London N10 3VV, tel: 081-365 3545; Nature Works (Jessica Loeb), 16 Balderton Street, London W1Y 1TF, tel: 071-355 4036; The Energy Centre (Emma Field), 7 Ladbroke Square, London W11, tel: 071-724 6582. The treatment costs from pounds 25- pounds 40 for 45 minutes-1 1/2 hours.

(Photographs omitted)

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