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All About Reiki: How This Type of Energy Healing Works, and Its Health Benefits

By Lauren BedoskyMedically Reviewed by Justin Laube, MD

Reviewed: May 12, 2020 Reiki is a form of energy healing that originated in Japan in the early 20th century. (1) According to the International Center for Reiki Training, the practice is based on the idea that we all have an unseen “life force energy” flowing through our bodies. (2) A Reiki practitioner gently moves her hands just above or on the client’s clothed body, helping reduce stress and promote healing by encouraging a healthy flow of energy. According to a 2007 survey conducted by the National Institutes of Health, 1.2 million adults and 161,000 children in the United States received energy healing therapy like Reiki in the previous year, and Reiki is now used by a growing number of Americans to help with relaxation, anxiety, pain management, and depression, according to a study in the March–April 2017 issue of Holistic Nursing Practice. (3,4) Here’s more on the benefits of Reiki, its history, and how to get started. Common Questions & Answers What Is Reiki?Reiki is an energy healing technique that involves a Reiki master using gentle hand movements to guide the flow of healthy energy (what’s known in Reiki as “life force energy”) through the body to reduce stress and promote healing. Reiki is a form of complementary medicine; there’s evidence it can reduce daily stress and help with management of some chronic diseases. What are the health benefits of Reiki? Is there scientific evidence that Reiki works? What happens during a Reiki session? What Is Reiki and How Does the Energy Therapy Work? Reiki therapy is a way of guiding energy throughout the body to promote the recipient’s self-healing abilities, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). (5) The Reiki practitioner doesn’t cause the healing, nor are they the source of that healing energy; they’re a channel for the energy — similar to the way a garden hose acts as a channel for water, according to a review published in December 2014 in the journal Pain Management Nursing. (6) “I’m an open channel, and [the Reiki recipient’s] body takes that energy and does whatever it needs with it,” explains Vickie Bodner, a licensed massage therapist and Reiki master at the center for integrative medicine at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. The word “Reiki” is a combination of two Japanese words: “rei,” which means “God’s wisdom,” or “the higher power,” and “ki,” which means “life force energy.” (2) “Ki is the life force energy that animates all living things,” says Joan Maute, a licensed Reiki master teacher who practices in Waikoloa, Hawaii, and Charlottesville, Virginia. Put together, “rei” and “ki” mean “spiritually guided life force energy.” (2) Reiki is taught according to the Japanese tradition of the “sensei” (teacher) who passes the knowledge to the student through attunement, an initiation ceremony that is thought to open the student’s energy channels to facilitate the flow of healing energy, according to an article in the Journal of the Advanced Practitioner in Oncology. (7) Once open, these channels remain open for the rest of your life. (8) Top ArticlesREAD MOREThe Link Between Your Gut and Heart Health |Everyday Health “[Reiki] is a spiritual practice, like meditation is a spiritual practice,” says Pamela Miles, a New York City–based Reiki master and researcher who has collaborated with the medical schools at Harvard and Yale to help develop Reiki programs there. Reiki, despite its spiritual components and roots, may be and is often used therapeutically (more on this later), including in a secular way. (9) It’s not a religion and is not associated with religious practice. Reiki is taught at three levels: first-level practitioners can practice on themselves or others through light touch; second-degree practitioners can practice distance healing; and third-degree or master level practitioners can teach and initiate others into Reiki. (6) So, how does Reiki practice work? “The honest answer to that is: We don’t know,” Miles says. “Science does not yet know the mechanism of action.” There are theories. One popular theory involves a phenomenon known as the “biofield.” The biofield is an electromagnetic field that permeates and surrounds every living being. In humans, this field extends 15 feet or more from the body, according to Ann L. Baldwin, PhD, a Reiki researcher and professor of physiology at the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine. The heart, for example, produces an electrical field — measured through an electrocardiogram, or ECG — to regulate heartbeats. The brain also produces an electrical field, though at a lower level than the heart. In fact, every cell in the body produces an electrical charge through positive and negative charges, which then create magnetic fields. (6) According to this theory, the interaction between two human magnetic fields may explain the effects of touch therapies like Reiki. (6) It is thought that the biofield is the force that guides bodily functions, and that Reiki energy influences the biofield. “[The biofield] is thought to cause dynamic changes in its vibrational qualities that alter physiological and psychological functions in living beings,” Baldwin says. Quantum physics — the study of how small particles like electrons (particles with a negative electric charge) and photons (particles of light) behave in an attempt to explain the interactions of energy and physical matter — may also help explain how Reiki practice works. (6) Physicists have found that these tiny particles of energy can be in more than one place at one time, and that thought or intention may change how the particles work. (6) In other words, the Reiki practitioner may be able to gather and direct biofield energy to the recipient through thoughts and intentions. (6) On its website, the NCCIH notes that there is insufficient scientific evidence to support the existence of this energy field. (5) What Are the Benefits of Reiki? Reiki practice may help with a variety of physical and emotional problems, including insomnia, stress, depression, anxiety, and pain. For example, research suggests that Reiki may lower anxiety, stress, and pain in people undergoing surgery. (4) In a study published in 2017 of patients undergoing knee replacement surgery, researchers separated 46 patients into three groups: One group received three or four 30-minute Reiki treatments throughout their hospital stay; a second group received the same number of placebo (sham) Reiki sessions; and a third group received neither Reiki nor sham Reiki. Every group also received standard medical care. Researchers found that only those who received Reiki saw significant reductions in pain, blood pressure, breathing rate, and anxiety pre- and post-surgery. (4) Reiki may also improve mood and sleep: A study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that college students who received six 30-minute Reiki sessions reported greater improvements in stress, depression, anxiety, and sleep. (10) Other research suggests that Reiki and other forms of energy therapy may help patients with cancer improve pain control and anxiety levels. (11) A main benefit of Reiki (that leads to a lot of other benefits) is reducing stress, Miles explains. “Our bodies cannot heal when they’re in a stressed state all the time.” Reiki gives your body a break from the stresses of daily life, helping your body return to a state of relaxation. Once in this state, your body is able to heal any damage brought on by stress, injury, or disease: “By helping a person experience deep relaxation, Reiki enhances and accelerates our own natural healing process, because the body can stop being stressed and focus on healing itself,” Maute says. For example, research shows that a single Reiki session may help your autonomic nervous system, the primitive part of your nervous system that you don’t need to consciously control (it's responsible for things like heartbeat and breathing), move from a sympathetic-dominant, or “fight-or-flight” state, to a parasympathetic-dominant, or “rest-and-digest” state, Miles explains. (12) Your brain is constantly processing information in a region called the hypothalamus, which then sends signals through your autonomic nervous system to the rest of your body to either stimulate or relax different functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion, according to Harvard Health. (13) When you experience stressors like poor sleep, a confrontation with a friend, or even exercise, your sympathetic nervous system reacts, releasing the hormone epinephrine and increasing heart rate and blood pressure (the fight-or-flight response that gets the body ready to deal with potential dangers). (14) But when your body is constantly under stress, this response can shift into overdrive, which can lead to problems like greater risk of heart disease, research has found. (15) “The parasympathetic-dominant state is the state we are meant to live in,” Miles says. And Reiki helps keep your autonomic nervous system in that state. In a study published in Biological Research for Nursing, 21 healthcare professionals with burnout (a work-related mental health condition characterized by mental exhaustion, emotional detachment, and a lowered sense of personal accomplishment) received a 30-minute Reiki session with an experienced therapist, as well as a 30-minute placebo treatment with an inexperienced therapist who mimicked the Reiki treatment. The two treatments were separated by one week; participants were randomly assigned their treatment order, and they weren’t told which treatment they were getting during which session. (16) Researchers measured heart rate variability, or the measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat, to gauge how the nervous system responded to the therapy. A low score indicates there’s little variability between heartbeats, signaling that the sympathetic, or fight-or-flight, component of your nervous system may be working overtime, and your stress level is high. Meanwhile, a high score means greater variability in between your heartbeats, and that the parasympathetic, or rest-and-digest, component of your nervous system has kicked into higher gear. (13) Researchers found that heart rate variability was greater following the Reiki session, which suggests (using a very quantifiable physiological measurement) that Reiki may help a stressed nervous system relax. (16) Keep in mind that Reiki is a form of complementary therapy, which means it works alongside — not in place of — other medical and therapeutic techniques. “Because Reiki is so balancing to the system overall, it can potentially benefit any situation,” Miles says — but should not be used as a substitute for other treatments your healthcare providers have prescribed. Where Does Reiki Come From? Reiki as practiced in the United States today was developed by the Buddhist priest Mikao Usui (known as Usui-Sensei) in the 1920s. (17) There is evidence that other styles of Reiki were being practiced in Japan before Usui created his style, known as Usui Reiki, but these earlier styles weren’t widely known. (18) After three weeks of fasting and meditating on Mount Kurama, a sacred mountain in the north of Kyoto, Japan, Usui claimed to have first experienced feeling the Reiki energy. (16) Though he had been starving and near death from fasting, the burst of intense healing energy gave him a sense of vitality and awareness that he’d never felt before. Shortly after his experience, Usui opened a clinic in Tokyo to practice the healing technique. Hawayo Takata, a Japanese-Hawaiian Reiki master, began teaching Usui’s modality in Hawaii in the 1930s, and it traveled to the rest of the United States in the 1970s. (7) As early as the mid-1990s, physicians, nurses, and other medical staff who had learned Reiki began using the technique in hospitals around the United States, and Reiki continues to expand as more and more people experience benefits from it. (19) Today, Reiki is used in both hospital inpatient and outpatient settings as a complementary treatment for surgery, cancer, and AIDS. (20) Bodner, who has practiced Reiki at the Cleveland Clinic for nearly a decade, has seen interest in Reiki grow. “The knowledge level has increased exponentially over the past few years,” she says. Who Should Try Reiki? And Should Anyone Not Try Reiki? “There are no dangers in undergoing Reiki. Reiki can do no harm and has no side effects,” Baldwin says. The only time Reiki practice can be dangerous is if the practitioner isn’t well-trained, or isn’t truly practicing Reiki. Someone may claim to be practicing Reiki and instead be doing something risky, Miles says. Remember, Reiki should never be an invasive treatment. Reiki practitioners should have worked in-person with a qualified Reiki master to be able to effectively deliver the treatment, Miles says. Make sure you find a qualified professional Reiki practitioner (more on how to know whether someone is qualified or not below). What to Expect at Your First Reiki Session Reiki sessions vary in length, but they often last between 60 and 90 minutes. (21) You’ll spend the entire session lying fully clothed on a treatment table (this looks like a standard massage table), but if you’re pregnant or otherwise can’t lie flat, you may be in a recliner (check with your practitioner first), Maute says. Miles recommends wearing loose, comfortable clothing for your session. Try to avoid wearing anything tight or restrictive. You may be able to change your clothes at the practitioner’s office if needed, but check beforehand. Dress in layers in case you get too warm or cool during the session, and keep in mind that the practitioner may have you roll onto your stomach at some point, so make sure you remove belts or other bulky items. During the session, the practitioner will place his or her hands lightly on or near your body in a series of hand positions, including positions around the head and shoulders, the stomach, and the feet, as well as other positions based on the client’s needs. (22) Each hand position is held for roughly 3 to 10 minutes, depending on how much the client needs in each position. (22) Whether or not the practitioner talks during the session will vary, but typically there’s very little talking, according to Miles. Expect to feel deeply relaxed during the session. You’ll likely daydream, and you may even fall into a light sleep. “Sometimes people will say, ‘Oh, I fell asleep,’ but I’m not sure it’s physiological sleep,” Miles says. Instead, she believes people enter a deep meditative state that helps restore the nervous system. How to Find a Reiki Practitioner and Get Started Reiki is not a regulated practice; practically anyone can get certified online. “Online training and certifications are questionable, not standardized, and often not verifiable,” Maute says. There are some reputable Reiki training organizations out there that offer certifications and licenses, like the International Center for Reiki Training (ICRT), the UK Reiki Federation, the Canadian Reiki Association, the Association of Australian Reiki Professionals, and the International Association of Reiki Professionals, according to Baldwin. ICRT offers a directory of professional Reiki practitioners you can search through. Or you can google practitioners in your area and check that they’ve been licensed or certified by one of these organizations. The cost of a Reiki session will vary depending on where you go. At the Cleveland Clinic, for example, a 60-minute session (50 minutes of hands-on therapy; 10 minutes for intake) costs $60, according to Bodner. Insurance may or may not cover your Reiki sessions, but chances are good that you’ll be paying for it yourself. “I’ve seen one person’s insurance cover it, but it’s really rare,” Bodner says. Insurance may cover Reiki if it’s part of your current treatment program, or when it’s given by a nurse or licensed care professional as part of routine care during a hospital stay. (23) If you’re not sure, check with your insurance provider before your Reiki session.

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