Reiki may sound “new age” to some, but it’s anything but new. In fact, it’s a form of energy healing with roots in ancient cultures. Reiki uses what’s known as universal life force energy—ki or qi—to improve people’s lives and ailments.
What Is Reiki?
The term “Reiki” comes from the Japanese words “rei,” meaning universal, and “ki,” which means vital life force energy that flows through all living things. Reiki is a complementary health approach in which practitioners place their hands on or just above different areas of the body. It’s based on an Eastern medicine belief that living beings have energy fields that support their health and vitality.
Energy blocks, on the other hand, impede innate flow of energy, causing not only health problems, but also negative life circumstances. Energy blocks of any living being can be treated, which is why some practitioners also work on animals and plants. Reiki practitioners focus on sensing energy blocks and moving the energy for the greatest good of the client.
The History of Reiki
There are at least 30 slightly different branches of Reiki, but Usui is by far the most popular form. Usui is the method practiced and taught in Japan as early as the 1900s by Makao Usui, who is credited as the founder of modern Reiki.
Usui Reiki came to the West via Hawaii in the 1930s thanks to a Japanese-American woman named Hawayo Takata. She traveled back to her native Japan to seek healing for her own physical and mental ailments, including a lung condition, asthma and a nervous breakdown after the death of her husband. One of Makao Usui’s students, Dr. Chujiro Hayashi, taught Reiki to Takata. Her healing experience was so profound that Takata returned to Hawaii and became the first person to teach Reiki in the West.
However, due to the abundance of anti-Japanese and anti-Asian sentiments in the United States around World War II, Takata shied away from using the name “Reiki” and instead referred to her establishment on the island of Kauai as a “healing studio,” according to researcher Nat Newton, Ph.D., a Usui Reiki Master in Orange County, California.
Takata modified some of the teachings for her English-speaking students and ended up training 22 students in Reiki as we know it today”. Today, thousands of people worldwide are trained in Usui and similar Reiki methods.
What to Expect During a Reiki Session
While Reiki can easily be done in just about any setting, a typical Reiki session takes place in a relaxing environment or treatment room, like to massage therapy. Petra holds her Reiki sessions in well-ventilated room. Meanwhile, many Reiki practitioners (Petra) do remote healing where they aren’t even in the same building as the client.
In a typical treatment room setting with a Reiki practitioner and a client, the client begins face up and fully clothed. They might briefly discuss their ailment or situation they hope to heal. The session might begin with a brief meditation, and then the practitioner uses various hand movements to lightly touch or hover over various parts of the client’s body while they are face up and face down. Throughout the session, the practitioner focuses specifically on their intent for healing.
We usually think about activating whatever is in the highest good for the client. Setting a positive intention for whatever they need at the moment that would serve their highest good. We let Reiki do what it needs to do.
A typical session lasts 30 minutes to an hour, and a client-practitioner discussion may use a good amount of that time. After the session, I always spend time talking to my clients about what came up for them and perhaps also what I intuited.
Potential Health Benefits of Reiki
The most well-documented benefits of Reiki revolve around the relaxation response, which practitioners say invokes the body’s natural healing process.
Dr. Rachel Lampert, M.D., a professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine, and her colleagues studied 37 patients after having a heart attack. The patients were randomized into three groups: patients who simply rested, those who received a single session of Reiki treatment from a nurse trained in Reiki and those who listened to relaxing music. The researchers measured activity of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which regulates heart rate, breathing, blood pressure and digestion.
Lampert’s team zoomed in on heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of the pattern of heartbeats that’s controlled by the ANS. The higher the HRV after a heart attack, the better the outlook for the patient, explains Lampert.
In the Yale study, patients who received Reiki had a higher HRV and improved emotional state. “Our study was a very nice demonstration that doing things that are relaxing has benefits,” says Lampert. “We showed increased activity of the healthy arm of the nervous system.”
Boosts Mood and Sleep
Researchers at Harvard Medical School followed 99 patients at multiple sites to determine the effects of a single Reiki session. The study—a single arm effectiveness study published in 2019 in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine—found statistically significant improvements in anxiety and depression symptoms, as well as pain and nausea.
Additional research suggests Reiki helps with depression and insomnia. A 2012 study in the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology looked at 40 women who suffered from depression and anxiety. Half of the group received a Reiki treatment twice a week for 10 weeks and the other half received no treatment. The women who received Reiki saw significant improvements in both their depression symptoms and sleep quality.
Eases Physical Pain and Improves Quality of Life
A range of studies address Reiki’s role in pain alleviation after knee surgery, the restoration of range of motion in injured shoulders, post-cesarean section recovery, hypertension management and the improvement of quality of life for patients with rheumatoid arthritis or patients undergoing various cancer treatments.
Portuguese researcher Zilda Alarcao and her colleagues looked at the impact of Reiki treatment versus sham or fake Reiki in two groups of patients with blood cancer. Each group contained 58 patients who received an hour-long treatment once a week for four weeks—either someone trained to administer Reiki worked on them or someone pretending to do Reiki (sham reiki) spent an hour with them.
The researchers found the patients who received real Reiki showed significantly more improvements than the other group in general, physical, environmental and social dimensions of quality of life using the Portuguese version of the World Health Organization’s Quality of Life survey (WHOQoL-Bref), a well-regarded research tool that measures pain and other quality of life issues after undergoing an intervention. They published their results in 2016 in the European Journal of Integrative Medicine.
Risks and Side Effects of Reiki
Multiple studies report no adverse effects of Reiki, likely because it’s a noninvasive treatment. Practitioners note clients usually report feeling relaxed after a session, but some feel energized. Depending on the nature of the problem, some clients also may feel more emotional or have other intense feelings in the days or weeks following a session.
While there is a professional code of ethics that governs Reiki Practitioners, there are no licensing boards like there are for doctors, nurses or even hair stylists. Reiki “Master” is the highest level of training, but there’s a wide range of training and expertise among practitioners. To ensure the best result, practitioners advise clients to do their homework—ask a practitioner about their training and credentials, but also find someone you connect with and trust.
One potential risk is that clients can misunderstand the role Reiki should play in a treatment plan. The code of ethics of the Reiki Alliance, a professional Reiki association, clearly states that Reiki Practitioners work as a complement—not a replacement—to the medical care a patient receives. Reiki is also not a practice intended to instill doubt in other medical treatments and interventions. Clients are strongly discouraged from viewing Reiki as a substitute for medical doctors, surgery, therapy or prescribed medications.
Clients should also be aware that while Reiki—like yoga or meditation—may have roots in spiritual practices from long ago, modern Reiki is not a religion. Practitioners and clients come from all walks of life and belief systems. Receiving Reiki is not intended to interfere with or change a client’s spiritual or religious beliefs.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, Reiki has been studied for a variety of conditions, including pain, anxiety, and depression. They say institutions simply need to catch up with the rapidly evolving science. “At this point, there are probably 60 or more published studies that point to that show Reiki’s benefit, and yet there’s still this persistent myth that no credible science backs Reiki,” says neuroscientist Natalie Dyer, Ph.D., president of the Center for Reiki Research, a nonprofit that aims to advance the scientific knowledge and study of Reiki.
Dyer acknowledges, however, that some studies have lacked rigor and some have not found statistically significant benefits with Reiki. She calls for more high-quality research to understand the practice, how it works and its limitations.
In the Yale study of Reiki following a heart attack, researchers note that it’s “unknown whether the beneficial effects of Reiki treatment over music stem from the presence of another person, the presence of a person with healing intention, the light touch technique, or a combination of factors.”
Like any intervention, Reiki Practitioners warn it isn’t a cure-all and shouldn’t be viewed as such. But it’s deemed safe and potentially effective enough that a considerable number—15% and growing—of U.S. hospitals offer Reiki healing specifically. Leading institutes like Yale, Harvard, the University of Minnesota, the University of Arizona, UCLA and others offer Reiki as a complement to medical interventions.
The Average Cost of a Reiki Session
Costs for reiki sessions vary nationwide, but expect to pay about what you’d pay for a massage. In a major metropolitan area, you might pay $80 to $150 for a one-hour Reiki session.
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