Western science is based on mechanics, determinants and causation. To advocate for a certain treatment, like Reiki – in academia or Twitter – the facts better be straight. So why are hospitals on both sides of the Atlantic prescribing patients a light touch spiritual practice that accesses an invisible realm to restore balance and vitality?
Because reiki, a gentle technique codified in Japan over a century ago, works – even if the how and the why is not precisely clear. Adoption by hospitals began in the 1990s, and has gone some way to calling into question the sole reliance on evidence-based medicine, which relies heavily on research data.
Science has yet to explain the mechanisms through which reiki – which loosely translates to universal life energy – reduces anxiety and blood pressure, thus bringing about heightened states of relaxation. But a number of hospitals across the US and the UK now offer reiki treatments after studies showed they regulate the nervous system, ease chemotherapy side effects, reduce pain, and likely improve surgical outcomes.
‘At first, we reiki practitioners were considered witch doctors in hospitals’
“There has been an enormous shift,” Pamela Miles, the reiki master who started the first ever hospital program at Beth Israel Deaconess medical center in Boston, tells Beatrice. “Back then, the perspective tended to be real doctors and witch doctors, but the increased inclusion of reiki practice into hospital care has been heartening even if there has been an unhelpful medicalisation of reiki practice in some quarters.”
Since then, many highly respected US hospitals – including Memorial Sloan Kettering, Yale-New Haven hospital and the Mayo Clinic – have begun to offer reiki treatment as part of their treatment slate for certain conditions. A large number of UK national health service hospitals also provide it as a supportive therapy to be used alongside conventional treatments.
It is most often offered as part of palliative care, rehabilitation and cancer treatment. Infectious disease specialists in New York city first began to notice the positive benefits of reiki through HIV/AIDS patients, many of whom Miles had taught to self-practice in her program at Manhattan’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis. She was then invited to develop hospital reiki programmes, and it all took off from there.
It all began when AIDS patients were taught to self-practice reiki
“They noticed that whenever an AIDS patient was faring better than would be expected, that patient invariably mentioned reiki practice, and usually they were students of mine,” Miles adds. In modern medicine, doctors take over the body, she explains, and it can be life-saving. “We don’t want a world without hospitals, but even a life-saving surgery is traumatic.”
Thus, reiki practice, which helps the mind and nervous system settle into a healthier state in which the body is capable of self-healing, can support conventional medicine so that patients get the best possible outcomes. “More self-healing than often was thought possible,” she adds. “Doctors want to help people, but they know conventional medicine cannot restore balance in the body.”
Despite pushback, mainstream media slowly supports practice
A landmark 2020 article in the Atlantic headlined, “Reiki can’t possibly work. So why does it?”, carried seemingly the most significant mainstream media endorsement of the practice so far, even suggesting that treatments can be conducted from afar. It inspired a pushback led by one of the scientists referred to in the piece.
“Reiki is based on the belief that a reiki master is able to channel ‘healing energy’ from something called the ‘universal source’ into another person, with therapeutic effect,” wrote surgical oncologist David Gorski, in response. But he maintains that “no one has ever detected or demonstrated the existence of this ‘life force’ or energy.”
“Reiki hasn’t been clearly shown to be effective for any health-related purpose,” says the US National Institute for Health. “It has been studied for a variety of conditions, including pain, anxiety, and depression, but most of the research has not been of high quality, and the results have been inconsistent. There’s no scientific evidence supporting the existence of the energy field thought to play a role in reiki.”
Clinical research often overlooks long term, holistic wellbeing
But Miles says that “the problem with most research is that they look at immediate improvement in conditions rather than assessing overall balance and function.” Crucially, it is the body’s response to the practice that is balancing, rather than the practice itself, she adds.
Perhaps it is simply the case that certain things are impossible for humans to explain, since we do not have the intellectual capacity to do so. Further compounding things for some is that it would require stepping outside of a rationalist, scientific framework.
Holistic therapist João Bicho, from Portugal, acknowledges it would be difficult to prove conclusively the benefits of his practices, including reiki. “I am satisfied with the positive feedback of patients, that’s enough for me,” he tells Beatrice. “If people are better after only due to a placebo effect, it still means that it somehow worked.”
Amid lockdowns, reiki practitioners worked remotely
This goes some way to explaining the increased interest in the practice during the pandemic. As lockdowns were imposed across the world in an attempt to control the spread of coronavirus, reiki practitioners began working remotely like never before, even though their jobs require intimacy with a client. Bicho was one of many to take his practices totally online.
“In order to work from a distance, I connect with the love frequency of my heart, any spiritual entities present, and focus on what the patient needs to heal,” he says. “I can use the patient’s name or photo and do the therapy as if they are physically with me. I send them positive intentions while they meditate.”
During a reiki session, the practitioner typically places their hands lightly on the clothed body of the recipient. If the receiver is in a stress state, their system responds by the nervous system downregulating into the parasympathetic nervous state – in which one can rest, digest and heal most effectively. One may think that they would still need to be in the vicinity, but apparently not. Touch is not a requirement and some practitioners took their work to Zoom, and never looked back.
“Distance Reiki makes up most of my business,” Jade Mordente, a reiki practitioner in Scotland, told Dazed after beginning to give sessions through video calls upon pandemic restrictions on movement. “Achieving the same results is absolutely possible through Zoom. Reiki’s universal energy flows the same whether in-person or at a distance, so time and space aren’t a factor. The person just has to be open to receiving the energy.”