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

Posted on Feb 11th, 2023

The technique may help reduce stress and anxiety, improve sleep, and lessen pain through light (or no) touch.

Reiki is a form of energy healing that originated in Japan in the early 20th century.right up arrow 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.right up arrow A Reiki practitioner gently moves her hands just above or on the client’s clothed body, with the intention of reducing stress and promoting healing by encouraging a healthy flow of energy.

According to a past survey conducted by the National Institutes of Health,right up arrow 1.2 million adults and 161,000 children in the United States had received energy healing therapy like Reiki in the previous year. Reiki is now used by a growing number of Americans to help with relaxation, anxiety, pain management, and depression.right up arrow

What Is Reiki?

Reiki is an energy healing technique in which a Reiki master (who has undergone formal training in this healing art) uses gentle hand movements with the intention to guide the flow of healthy energy (what’s known in Reiki as “life force energy”) through the client's body to reduce stress and promote healing. Reiki is a form of complementary and alternative medicine; there’s evidence it can reduce daily stress and help with management of some chronic diseases.

What Is Reiki and How Does This 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).right up arrow The Reiki belief system and that of the practitioner is that they don’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 past review.

“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,” according to the International Center for Reiki Training.

“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,” notes the International Center for Reiki Training.

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 help open the student’s energy channels to facilitate the flow of healing energy.right up arrow Once opened, these channels remain accessible to the practitioner for the rest of their life.

“[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.right up arrow 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.

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 positive and negative electrical charges, which then create magnetic fields.

According to this theory, the interaction between two human magnetic fields may explain the effects of touch therapies like Reiki.right up arrow It is thought that the biofield is the energetic 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,” Dr. Baldwin says.

Quantum physics is the study of how the incredibly small particles that make up matter, such as electrons (particles with a negative electric charge), nucleons (protons with positive charge, and neutrons, with no charge)right up arrow and photons (particles of light energy) behave, in an attempt to explain the interactions of energy and physical matter.

Quantum physics may also help explain how Reiki practice works.right up arrow Quantum physicists, much to the awe of those who digest their findings, have found that these tiny particles of energy can be in more than one place at one time (both a wave and particle at the same time, depending on how it is examined),right up arrow and that thought or intention may change how the particles work.right up arrow In other words, the Reiki practitioner may be able to gather and direct biofield energy to the recipient through thoughts and intentions.

On its website, the NCCIH notes that there is insufficient scientific evidence at this time to verify the existence of this energy field.

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. 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.right up arrow Every group also received standard medical care. Researchers found that those who received Reiki saw significant reductions in pain, blood pressure, breathing rate, and anxiety pre- and post-surgery and greater reductions than the other groups.

Reiki may also improve mood and sleep: A past study found that college students who received six 30-minute Reiki sessions reported greater improvements in stress, mood, and sleep (especially those with higher anxiety and depression), compared with the control group.

Other research suggests that Reiki and other forms of energy therapy may help patients with cancer improve pain control and anxiety levels, notes Cancer Research UK.

A main benefit of Reiki (which leads to a lot of other benefits) is stress reduction, 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 you return to a state of relaxation. Once in this state, your body is [potentially better] 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, past research shows that a single Reiki session may help your autonomic nervous system, the primitive part of your nervous system that you don’t fully, 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.

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.

When you experience stressors like poor sleep, a confrontation with a friend, or even exercise, your sympathetic nervous system reacts, releasing hormones like epinephrine, among others, and increasing heart rate and blood pressure (the fight-or-flight response that gets the body ready to deal with potential dangers).right up arrow But when your body is constantly under stress (or is activated by prior more severe stressful experiences, such as trauma and resultant PTSD), this response can shift into overdrive, which can lead to problems like greater risk of heart disease.

“The parasympathetic-dominant state is the state we are meant to live in,” Miles says. And Reiki helps to support one’s autonomic nervous system toward that state of safety, rest, recovery, and ease.

In a past study, 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.

Researchers measured heart rate variability, or 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.

Researchers found that heart rate variability as greater following the Reiki session, which suggests (using a very quantifiable physiological measurement) that Reiki may help a stressed nervous system relax.

Keep in mind that Reiki is a form of complementary therapy per the NCCIH, which means that it is intended to work 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, according to the International Association of Reiki Professionals (IARP).right up arrow The International Center for Reiki Training notes that 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.

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 Reiki energy.right up arrow 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.

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.right up arrow Today, Reiki is used in both hospital inpatient and outpatient settings as a complementary therapy for surgery, cancer, and AIDS.right up arrow

Bodner, who has practiced Reiki at the Cleveland Clinic for about 10 years, has seen interest in Reiki grow. “The knowledge level has increased exponentially over the past few years,” she says.

Who Might Want to Try Reiki? Are There Any Risks?

“There are no [reported significant] 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 or not practicing as a professional, 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. Reiki is often not covered by medical insurance, so there is the risk of cost that should be considered by anyone seeking to start.

Make sure you find a qualified professional Reiki practitioner (more on how to know whether someone is qualified or not below). It’s important to note that some patients may have an intensification of their symptoms temporarily, or could have an unexpected increase in nervous system activation, so if you have any known disorders such as more severe anxiety disorder, or PTSD, it could be useful to discuss with your primary mental health provider first. This can also be mitigated by building trust and sharing with your Reiki practitioner about any conditions you have and keeping the Reiki practitioner updated on how you’re doing throughout the session.

What to Expect at Your First Reiki Session

Reiki sessions vary in length, but they often last between 60 and 90 minutes.right up arrow 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 depending on the client’s needs.right up arrow Each hand position is held for roughly 3 to 10 minutes, depending on what the client needs in each position.

The practitioner may or may not talk during the session, 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. Yet, personal experiences vary widely and can be related to many factors, including characteristics of the practitioner, so be open to whatever emerges for you and then discuss after the session with the practitioner.

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

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