Most people are familiar with the concept of massage, even if they have never had one. But reiki, a complementary medicine technique that involves a ‘healing touch’ or sometimes simply holding the hands over the body, is much less well-known.

What is reiki?

Reiki is an ancient Japanese method of healing illness and reducing stress through touch or, often enough, hand positions that stop short of touching. The word reiki comes from two Japanese words, rei, meaning higher power or supernatural force, and ki, meaning life energy. Loosely translated, reiki means universal or spiritually guided life-force energy.

Although healing touch has been used for thousands of years, what is today considered reiki originated in the 1880s when a Buddhist monk named Mikao Usui went on a quest to rediscover what he viewed as the divine healing methods used by Buddha and Jesus Christ. According to his followers, Usui discovered a force he called reiki, or universal life-force energy, and was able to use it to heal.

When the practice of reiki was first introduced to Western cultures, it underwent a few changes. Some innovations included the use of specific hand positions, establishment of a degree system to certify practitioners, and acceptance of the idea that a person can be compensated for performing reiki. Reiki has continued to evolve, and there are now many modified versions which all derive from the same source.

How does it work?

Reiki is based on the assumption that unseen energy, ki, flows through all living things along pathways in the body called “meridians.” When the flow of ki is blocked or disrupted by negative thoughts or energy, serious health and emotional problems can result. A reiki practitioner channels energy by gently putting her hands on or near the body in several specific positions. These positions mirror the pathways that carry the ki energy to major organs. The flow of positive reiki energy from practitioner to patient is thought to heal ailments by correcting imbalances and restoring the healthy dynamics of the person’s life force.

What is a session like?

A typical reiki session lasts from 45 to 90 minutes. The practitioner begins by placing her hands in seven basic positions that cover your head, shoulders, stomach, and back. The healer holds each position from two to five minutes and then may target the specific areas of the body where you are experiencing pain or discomfort. While performing these positions, the healer may not actually touch you, but may simply hold her hands an inch or two above your body.

Reiki is usually done while you lie down on a table with your practitioner standing behind your head. After a reiki session, some people describe experiencing a glowing or radiance, as well as feelings of peace and well-being. Others feel nothing at all, while still others experience an intense emotional release. At the very least, expect to feel extremely relaxed; you may even fall asleep.

What ailments respond to reiki treatment?

People have used reiki as an adjunct method to help treat everything from impotence to heart disease, although there are relatively few scientific studies of its effectiveness. Reiki is not meant to be used in lieu of traditional medical care; its practitioners promote it as a helpful alternative for controlling side effects of other treatments, reducing pain, and speeding the healing process. In one small study, Canadian researchers at the Cross Cancer Institute recruited people experiencing pain from various conditions, including cancer, to test whether reiki was effective as a complement to traditional drug treatment for managing pain. The patients’ pain was assessed immediately before and after a reiki session, and a “highly significant reduction in pain” was registered after the treatment.

Reiki can also be used preventively to reduce stress and tension. Some people include regular reiki sessions as part of their overall wellness regimen.

Is it safe?

Yes. Reiki is a noninvasive technique, and practioners use a light touch (if any) in all hand positions. However, reiki’s spiritual nature does involve a certain intimacy. It is essential to find a practitioner with whom you can establish a good rapport. That way you won’t feel uneasy about letting her know what makes you uncomfortable, and she will be respectful of any boundaries you establish.

Where can I find a practitioner?

Reiki practitioners are trained by other reiki practitioners and undergo a process called “passing attunements.” This is a ritual that literally transfers the reiki energy from the teacher to the student, giving the student the power to heal and to pass attunements to others. The nature of reiki is very communal and information tends to spread through word-of-mouth, so it might be best to ask your friends for recommendations.

The International Association of Reiki Professionals ( also maintains a list of practitioners who have pledged to uphold the group’s Code of Ethics.

The bulletin board at your local health club or natural food store is also a good place to look. If you still have trouble finding someone whose style you like, you might consider signing up to take a reiki class yourself. The benefits to this method are twofold – not only will you be immersed in an entire reiki community, but you can learn how to perform reiki on yourself!


Mayo Clinic. Energy Therapies – A Complementary Approach to Promote Well-Being. July 22, 2009.

University of Saskatchewan. Nursing researcher receives funding for unconventional breast cancer therapy. April 24, 1998.

© HealthDay

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