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What is reiki and does it work?

Person performs reiki on a patient
(Image credit: Getty)

The term reiki has been bandied around in wellness circles for years, but you’d be forgiven for tentatively uttering the question – what is reiki? A practice that’s been steadily growing in popularity, reiki is a safe and non-invasive form of energy-based healing that can promote relaxation and reduce stress through gentle touch.

Although research into the benefits of complementary therapies can be challenging, a literature review published in the journal of Pain Management Nursing (opens in new tab) that looked at the results of a range of randomized trials revealed a significant reduction in pain in those participants who had received a session of reiki.

And just like practicing yoga on one of the best yoga mats (opens in new tab) may help reduce stress and anxiety and boost your mood, promising research, like a study published in the Journal of Evidence Based Complementary Medicine (opens in new tab), has begun to show a link between reiki and reduced levels of anxiety and depression. 

To find out more, we sought the expertise of master reiki practitioner, Sarah Lloyd, for some guidance on what this mysterious practice is.

What is reiki?

Person performing reiki on patient's head

(Image credit: Getty)

Reiki is derived from the words “rei” which means universal, and “ki'' (or “qi”) meaning life force energy – aka – universal life force energy. 

Reiki was created by Dr. Mikao Usui, and originated somewhere in the early 20th century. It’s a Japanese form of energy healing therapy that uses the touching of hands on (or just above) the body to stimulate, rechannel, and balance your body’s own existing energy flow.

“Essentially, everything is energy,” Lloyd explains. “Reiki just helps us manage and balance our own energetic field. In everyday life, we experience a myriad of physical, mental, and emotional issues which occur if our energy becomes low or blocked. Reiki can manage and improve these imbalances,” she says. 

On the surface, it might seem a bit ‘out there’, but this healing method has been rooted in Eastern medicine for around 100 years, and is becoming an increasingly popular trend in the West. But is it anything more than a trend?

How does reiki work?

Person performing reiki on patient's head

(Image credit: Getty)

We all have a branch of our nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) (opens in new tab). It’s responsible for your body’s reaction to stressful situations (like a sense of danger) that triggers your ‘fight-or-flight’ response. Essentially, your body will recognize danger and produce a stress response, followed by a whoosh of adrenalin.

Great news if you’re being chased by a bear, but how many grizzlies have you seen wandering down mainstreet lately? Unfortunately, modern day stressors (like 10pm work emails or someone standing just that little bit too close on the subway) can activate the same response, leaving your body in a relative state of stress that can knock your energy right off kilter. 

How often have you felt totally depleted as you crawl to the end of your working day? Traditional Eastern medicine believes that much disease and illness stems from these energy disruptions or blockages, when the body has little, or no, time to rest and repair.

Energy-based therapies work by stimulating and clearing energy. Think of it as an energetic version of tuning your guitar – we can tweak the energy in the body to create harmony in the energetic system.

What happens during reiki?

Person hovering hands above a man's torso

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Complementary therapy practitioners identify special points called acupoints that lie along meridians (energy channels) within your body; each of the 12 major meridians are thought to connect to your network of organs via the brain. Think of it as your body’s own energetic communication system. 

In acupuncture (opens in new tab), acupoints are stimulated using needles to release blocked energy, helping to relieve symptoms connected with particular issues. Reiki uses a human hand (palm) touch approach over the body to stimulate energy flow, instead. 

“Reiki is performed by an attuned (qualified) practitioner”, says Lloyd. “During a session, the practitioner places their hands either directly on you, or just above you. The practitioner can then stimulate your body’s natural healing abilities by redirecting energy through their palms.” 

On your first visit, your reiki practitioner will ask about your general health and medical history which helps develop a treatment plan. A session typically lasts 30-60 minutes, during which you are fully clothed and invited to lay down on a therapist's bed with a pillow and blanket for extra comfort. Your practitioner will then ask you to close your eyes as they perform a hand scan over your body. 

During the session, your practitioner will use hand positions to cover major organs, chakras (energy centers), and meridians. You’ll tend to notice a particular focus around your head, tummy, solar plexus, and feet. 

“Often during the treatment, I will see and feel things,” says Lloyd. “I appreciate that it’s different for every practitioner, but I will often feel things shifting in the client's body – like neck pain, for example. I always recommend steering clear of caffeine and alcohol after healing, so the energy can do its thing, and I prescribe lots of water, too.”

What does reiki feel like?

Person performing reiki on senior man

(Image credit: Getty)

Most patients will fall asleep, or at least experience deep relaxation. This is totally safe as no harm can be done during reiki, nor is it painful. Many people report experiencing tingling, twitching, sensations of heat, and jolts of energy through certain parts of their body – almost like surges of energy. Others just feel a deep sense of calm which can last for several days. 

The benefits of reiki

Reiki promotes deep relaxation, reduces stress and fatigue, and aids pain relief. It’s used to encourage a state of meditation and to also stimulate the immune system. “If you learn how to perform reiki, you can manage your own energy,” says Lloyd. “This can actively reduce anxiety and enable you to operate from a more calm and neutral state.”

There’s still work to be done when it comes to stringent scientific research, but studies are producing positive results in favor of reiki. A pilot study performed at Hartford Hospital (opens in new tab), Connecticut, indicates that reiki improved patient sleep by 86%, reduced pain by 78%, nausea by 80%, and pregnancy-related anxiety by an astounding 94%. Another study posted in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Therapy (opens in new tab) found reiki improved fatigue and anxiety in hospitalized patients more than massage.

Reiki is also now commonly used as a complementary therapy for cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, to help relieve symptoms like nausea, pain, and discomfort. Cancer Research UK and the Breast Cancer Organization actively list reiki on their websites as a recommended complementary therapy to support patient care. 

Does reiki work?

Woman receiving reiki treatment

(Image credit: Getty)

It’s crucial to differentiate between alternative and complementary therapies. Alternative therapies tend to replace standard medical treatment, whereas complementary therapies aim to work alongside them. Complementary therapies like Reiki, cupping (opens in new tab), and crystal healing (opens in new tab), tend to catch a bad rep, but they’re not designed to take over the reins from traditional medicine, and there’s no scientific evidence to suggest they can cure. Rather, they aim to support.

Reiki has garnered a wealth of conflicted opinions over the years, with the jury still out in many cases – mostly because it’s viewed as an ‘unmeasurable’ form of therapy. However, there’s increasing support for this fascinating practice. Once considered pretty woo-woo, reiki is now an established complementary therapy that has been integrated into hospitals and medical facilities all over the world. 

In fact, over 1.2 million US adults have now tried reiki, and, according to a study of America’s Best Hospitals by the International Association of Reiki Professionals (IARP) published in the International Journal of Healing and Caring, (opens in new tab) 60% of hospitals now have formal or informal reiki programs in place. Another study by the American Hospital Association (AHA) (opens in new tab) even revealed that reiki is considered one of the top three complementary in-patient therapies in U.S. hospitals, and the therapy is included in a nursing Scope and Standards of Practice (opens in new tab) publication as an accepted form of care.

However, The Touchstone Process (opens in new tab) is a rigorous review process used to analyze 26 peer-reviewed journals of scientific studies into reiki. Of the 12 that passed robust testing, two provided no support for reiki, five gave some support, and five demonstrated strong evidence for the use of Reiki as a healing modality. So, there’s certainly still work to do.  

How to find a reiki practitioner

Reiki practitioners should be level II trained or above, which means they are qualified to treat others. During reiki training, students receive ‘attunements’ which are thought to open the energetic pathways required to treat others. It’s worth checking the credentials of your practitioner, as the industry isn’t as well regulated as with medicine. 

In some US states, you must be a licensed massage therapist to provide reiki services, but it’s beneficial to ask a trusted health professional for their recommendations. Hospitals and wellness centers offering reiki should be reliable sources, and you can also try the International Association of Reiki Professionals for a list of qualified practitioners. 

Additional resources

Sam Hopes
Sam Hopes

Sam Hopes is a level III fitness trainer, level II reiki practitioner, and resident fitness writer at Future PLC. Having trained to work with both the mind and body, Sam is a big advocate of using mindfulness techniques in sport and aims to bring mental wellbeing to the forefront of fitness. She’s also passionate about the fundamentals of training and how we can build more sustainable training methods. You’ll find her writing about the importance of habit-building, nutrition, sleep, recovery, and workouts.