Christine Nickell blends essential oil therapy and reflexology in her Botanical Reflexology practice. (Photo by Chip Scheuer)

The Galleria Wellness Center sits above the back patio of Mobo Sushi in downtown Santa Cruz. A sweet smelling oasis, the center is home to the practices of eight different health practitioners—from acupuncture and psychotherapy to a social worker, yoga and tai chi instructors, and most recently, a cranial sacral and chiropractic doctor.

Though it’s been there for two years now, it wasn’t until last Friday that I found myself climbing, for the first time, through the Galleria’s M.C. Escher-like network of stairs into the dark blue calm of Christine Nickell’s office. Director of the Galleria Wellness Center, Nickells is also a certified reflexologist and essential oil therapist.

The philosophy of her practice, Botanical Reflexology, grounds itself in the fact that, in some estimations, 75 percent of diseases are caused by stress. She is there to melt it all away. 

“When our body is at rest, we can heal, our energy can go to places we need it to be. When we’re always busy and putting out, we’re kind of using up a lot of resources, the reserves to do all that work,” she says.

She uses a harmonious blend of two healing modalities—essential oil therapy, or plant medicine, and reflexology, which can be traced as far back as 2033 B.C. Both are ancient, and both are relatively new to America.

But Nickell, who studied at the College of Botanical Healing Arts in Santa Cruz and the International Institute of Reflexology, knows what she is doing: If I entered her office at 11:30am a little sad, and slightly wired on caffeine, I was orbiting planet Bliss by 11:45, nestled cozily in a plush leather recliner, my feet freshly soaked, and—something we should all do more of—up, resting hopefully on the foot rest.

Nickell treated me to sniffs of three essential oils: bergamont, orange and the tropical flower ylang ylang.

“Orange is both uplifting, and it’s good for being restful. You use the same essential oil whether you’re hyper or your hypo, because it’s all about balance. Your body takes what it needs and it gets rid of the rest,” says Nickell.

The ylang ylang oil brought me to a place I wanted to be—a tropical island, perhaps—and a smile crossed my lips. “I believe that oils that speak to us are probably what we need,” says Nickell. And that’s when she began to work on my feet.

Not to be confused with a foot massage, reflexology is based on the principle that we have thousands of reflexes on the bottom of our feet—all corresponding to glands and organs.  According to Chinese medicine, energy (chi) circulates along 12 meridians in the body—six of the meridians that penetrate the major organs are found in the feet, specifically the toes.

“Stimulating these meridians helps to clear blockages and encourages vital body energy to flow,” she says.

Nickells maps every inch of my soles, heels, toes, tendons, ankles and lower calves with thumb and finger techniques she calls “small bites.” When she happens on a tender spot (and my adrenal, or stress glands, were particularly tender that day), she banishes it to the end of the universe with a nice, even, brain-tingling pressure.

To help stimulate my lymph system, Nickell applies fragrant drops of rosemary and grapefruit essential oils to my toes, and to those things I forgot I had, toe knuckles.

It was precisely here when my scalp tingled with a pleasure greater than any of life’s temporary ones—lattes, sugar, nicotine, things. Content, I wanted nothing more than to just be.

“It’s a feeling you can take home with you,” Nickell reminds me, and I did.

Galleria Wellness Center is at 740 Front Street, Suite 250, in Santa Cruz. For more information about Botanical Reflexology, visit botanicalreflexology.com.