Is this alternative healing option right for you?

Holistic medicine was once considered quackery by many. Today, society is slowly starting to support some of its practices as, at the very least, supplemental treatments to mainstream medical therapies. The reasons for this evolution are myriad. A healthcare system that makes getting care easy and/or affordable is one. For others, especially those with chronic conditions that Western medicine has failed to help, alternative therapies may feel like the only way to better health. 

Nurse holding hands for comfortWhatever the reason for the growing popularity of alternative medicine, it is a trend that is difficult to ignore. Following close on the heels of practices like acupressure and acupuncture, Reiki, another ancient Eastern practice has been growing in popularity here in the U.S. According to the National Institutes of Health, as early as 2007 1.2 million adults and 161,000 children in the United States had received energy healing therapy like Reiki in the previous year. Ten years later it was estimated that over 30,000 nurses in U.S. hospitals used touch practices such as Reiki and that requests for such services were steadily growing. Many hospitals are adding it to their list of patient services for everything from pain management to reducing the negative side effects of chemotherapy. Here’s what you need to know if you’re interested in exploring Reiki.

Universal Energy, or "chi"Although its current form was developed by Mikao Usui in the early 1900s, Reiki has been practiced in Japan for over 2,500 years. The name is derived from the Japanese words rei meaning “universal” and ki, which refers to the vital life force energy that runs through all living things. Put simply, Reiki masters use their hands to deliver energy to parts of the body that need it, improving the flow and balance of your total energy to promote healing. The practitioners believe that pain and other ailments such as depression and anxiety are a result of blocked chi or energy and that when used properly Reiki can help unblock those pathways.

In a typical Reiki session, which can last between 30 minutes to an hour, the client is in a calm, peaceful setting. Unlike massage, which typically requires the client to get undressed, Reiki is done fully clothed with the patient sitting or lying down. The practitioner will then lay their hands palms down on or just above the person’s body, trying to focus on specific energy points. The practitioner will keep their hands in one place for as long as they can feel the energy flowing, which is usually described as warmth or a gentle tingling sensation. For the patient, the experience can range from feeling like nothing at all to one of euphoria, although most express feelings of deep calm and relaxation. 

Chakra meditationSeveral studies conducted over the last two decades suggest that Reiki treatments do in fact help diminish the negative side effects of chemotherapy, improve surgical outcomes, regulate the autonomic nervous system, and “dramatically alter people’s experience of physical and emotional pain associated with illness.” (You can read more about it in this article by Jordan Kisner in The Atlantic) The greatest benefits are seen by those who are willing to succumb to the meditation-like state Reiki therapy can induce, and often the health results that are measurable by scientific study are akin to those we see in people who have embraced similar stress-reducing practices such as thoughtfulness, meditation, and yoga. 

The reality, however, is that so far no conclusive, peer-reviewed study can explain how Reiki does this, and there is no solid proof of the existence of healing energy that can be passed between bodies on command. 

The problem, practitioners argue, is trying to use science to explain something spiritual. Pamela Miles, an international Reiki master, explains it this way: 

“Reiki is a spiritual practice. That’s what it was to the founder, Mikao Usui. And all spiritual practices have healing by-products because spiritual practice restores balance, bringing us back to our center, and enhancing our awareness of our core selves. […]Through an unknown mechanism, when a Reiki practitioner places their hands—mindfully and with detachment—it evokes the healing response from deep within the system,” she said. “We really don’t know why this happens.” (Kisner, The Atlantic)

Healing handsWhen you think about it, this makes sense. As a child, how many times did you actually feel better when your mom put a cool hand on your feverish brow? There isn’t always hard science behind what makes us feel better. The reality is that like many spiritual ideas, to receive a benefit from touch practices like Reiki, you need to buy into the belief, at least a little bit. If you are able to let yourself relax and silence your scoffing, skeptical side, Reiki might be just what the doctor ordered.

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