What is Reiki?

reiki healing therapy
Reiki practitioners believe healing energy passes from the Reiki master's hands to the patient.
Credit: Sanjay Deva | Shutterstock

Reiki is a therapy often described as palm healing or hands-on-body healing in which a practitioner places hands lightly on or over a patient's body to treat or cure various ailments.

Reiki (pronounced ray-ee-key) is a controversial form of alternative medicine for numerous reasons. Reiki has never been shown to be of any therapeutic value beyond relaxation; is based on long-discarded concepts of vitalism and a universal healing energy force; has no explanation through known laws of physics; is largely divorced from its spiritual origins in Japan in the 1920s and lives on as a watered-down Western commercial practice; and entails loose and questionable training practices for practitioners, called Reiki masters.

As such, unlike acupuncture, which has been shown to be of some therapeutic value for certain medical conditions, Reiki remains on the fringe of the complementary and alternative medicine movement.  Reiki therapy is rarely covered by health insurance, is highly discouraged by most medical and disease associations as a waste of time and money, and also is restricted by the Catholic Church for its members because of its core concept that the healing energy — the ki in Reiki — is a spiritual and intelligent entity. 

Most Reiki practitioners, however, truly believe they are healing.  And many patients describe Reiki therapy as relaxing and Reiki practitioners as caring.  Lisa Oz, wife of the television personality Dr. Mehmet Oz, is a Reiki master.  Reiki's minimal value appears to be its ability to help patients relax, similar to massage or meditation.

Reiki is cosmetically similar to therapeutic touch, another alternative medical practice involving the "laying of hands" with no scientific support of efficacy. 

Spiritual origins

Reiki combines the Japanese and Chinese word-characters of "rei" (spiritual or supernatural) and "ki" (vital energy).  The latter is the same ki or qi in qigong and other Eastern practices. 

Its foundation is the concept — once known in Western medicine up through the Middle Ages and still seen today in Eastern medicine — that disease is caused by imbalances of vital energy or fluid in the body and that correcting the imbalance — through acupuncture, qigong, Reiki, etc. — promotes healing.

Reiki's origins are cloudy, but the therapy dates back to the teachings of a Japanese Buddhist monk named Mikao Usui.  Legend has it that Usui, after several weeks of fasting and praying while studying Buddhist Tantric texts in 1922, had a spiritual revelation — that of Reiki. 

In short, Usui is said to have "rediscovered" ancient concepts that there is an inexhaustible spiritual energy in the universe that can be harnessed for healing.  Through a process called attunements, a Reiki master (Usui was the first) can teach others to master this healing power.  The energy flows through the master's hands to the patient; and the energy is intelligent, able to diagnose and correct the patient's problem.

Today, attunements are available to anyone through weekend training for about $500, a source of consternation among some in the broader Reiki community.

Hands on or hands off

As with many forms of Chinese traditional medicine, Reiki has an intricate set of concepts and principles that, because of its complexity, might be construed as something that is indeed proven to work, similar to a description of DNA transcription in a medical textbook.  These principles, however, are themselves based on ancient beliefs of spirituality that cannot be proven or disproven by science.

After Usui died in 1926 of a stroke, at age 60, his disciples splintered.  Reiki maintained a very low profile in Japan and, today, is largely unknown to most Japanese people.  Reiki in Japan often is rolled into other forms of traditional Eastern practices.

Reiki came to the United States via Hawaii, then California, in the 1970s through an American named Hawayo Takata, who learned Reiki from Chujiro Hayashi, who himself was a direct Usui disciple.  Takata is credited with, first, taking Hayashi's lead in stripping away Eastern mysticism to make Reiki more palatable to Christians and, second, turning Reiki into a de facto franchise system to become a Reiki master.

There is no standard licensing or training procedure to become a Reiki master; some masters claim more authentic mastership than others.

What the studies say

Reiki and the similar practice of therapeutic touch have no proof of efficacy beyond the placebo effect.  Reiki is considered safe because, for the most part, the practitioner hardly touches the patient.  Reiki also is considered a peaceful practice, often infused with New Age music and other calming sights and sounds, and thus can be as therapeutic as other forms of relaxation. 

Scientists, however, have yet to identify any kind of energy field, biofield, or life-energy force said to be at play in the healing process.  Nor have scientists found Reiki to cure any disease. 

Reiki appears to work best for conditions that are largely mental, such as stress and anxiety.  Some cancer doctors allow their patients to receive Reiki therapy for stress relief, akin to massage, provided the patients continue their proven cancer treatments. 

Reiki admittedly suffers from a dearth of high-quality studies.  Few Reiki masters have any training in science and have little knowledge of how to conduct studies or even the necessity for conducting studies.  Also, many research funding sources view the concepts of Reiki to be so ludicrous — that diseases can be cured by laying one's hands over a patient — that they are reluctant to fund (and thus justify) Reiki research or other forms of alternative medicine.

Among the largest Reiki studies is a systematic review of all published Reiki research, which appeared in the International Journal of Clinical Practices in 2008.  The researchers concluded that most Reiki studies "suffered from methodological flaws such as small sample size, inadequate study design and poor reporting" and "the evidence is insufficient to suggest that Reiki is an effective treatment for any condition."

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