On one side, you have the scientists who claim irrefutably that reiki does not do a damn thing. On the other, you have attuned reiki masters who claim reiki can cure just about anything. Including cancer.
What’s really going on with reiki?
The inherent problem with determining for yourself whether or not reiki works is the confirmation bias. If you’re skeptical of reiki, you’ll gravitate towards science-y websites that tell you reiki is nothing more than a placebo effect. You confirm your bias that reiki is snake oil. Or, you’re pro-reiki and so you pay close attention to stories from patients and practitioners that claim reiki is a legit healing modality. You confirm your bias that reiki works.
Regardless of which side of the fence you’re on, you continue to reinforce your belief system. Both of these approaches are shortsighted. Both neglect to incorporate the other side’s arguments. And if either side does incorporate the other’s point of view, it is done so in a strawman fashion.
Quick side note: Straw-manning focuses on a partial and weaker (and easier to refute) representation of the opponent’s position. (1) Strawmanning is taking someone’s argument and twisting it so it sounds like a much worse version of what they said or meant. The opposite of strawmanning is steelmanning. Steelmanning is the art of addressing the best form of a person’s argument.
In the context of reiki, both sides tend to strawman the opposing team. Today, I’ll present you with as many reiki facts as I possible can. Then, you can take this information and make your own decisions as to whether or not reiki will help improve your health.
Let’s get going!
What is reiki anyways?
Reiki is a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing. It is administered by “laying on hands” and is based on the idea that an unseen “life force energy” flows through us and is what causes us to be alive. If one’s “life force energy” is low, then we are more likely to get sick or feel stress, and if it is high, we are more capable of being happy and healthy. (2) This is a direct quote from the FAQ page of www.reiki.org.
Developed in 1922 by Mikao Usui after a 21-day meditation retreat in the Japanese mountain of Kurama. Mikao Usui was said to have taught reiki to over 2000 students. These students then spread his teachings throughout the globe.
The word reiki is the combination of two Japanese words – Rei and Ki. Rei is literally translated to mean ghost. More liberal translations describe Rei as a Higher Intelligence that guides the creation and functioning of the universe. (3) The literal translation of Ki is vapour. More liberal translations of Ki describe it as the non-physical energy that animates all living things. You may be more familiar with the Chinese version of Ki which is Qi – the energy thought to be utilized in acupuncture treatment.
With that in mind, reiki is either ghost vapour or, a higher intelligence that guides non-physical energy. As I’m anything but fluent in Japanese, I’ll leave it with you to define reiki how you wish.
How is reiki learned?
Today, reiki is a tradition passed down from teachers to student. The way in which a student learns reiki from his or her teacher is via a process known as attunement. During the attunement process, the teacher channels reiki energy into the student. It is thought that once the reiki energy has been transferred to the student, said student has reiki for life. (4)
The International Centre for Reiki Training describes the attunement process as:
(A) process guided by the Rei or God-consciousness (that) makes adjustments in the process depending on the needs of each student. The attunement is also attended by Reiki guides and other spiritual beings who help implement the process. Many students report having mystical experiences involving personal messages, healings, visions, and past life experiences. (5)
Reiki is divided into the following levels:
- Reiki I
- Reiki II
- Reiki ART/Master
Reiki levels I & II are typically taught together. This is done over two days. To achieve the designation of reiki master, one must have practiced for at least 6 months and then complete a 3 day course. To qualify as reiki master, the student must be able to draw three reiki symbols from memory. (6)
In summary, to become a reiki master, you need 5 days of training.
What does a reiki treatment look like?
As a patient, the typical reiki treatment involves lying, fully clothed, in a supine position on a massage table. The reiki practitioner will place his/her hands on or near the patient.
The practitioner moves his/her hands to different areas of the body. Typical areas include the head, heart, stomach, and feet. Each position is held for a few minutes. A typical reiki treatment will last 45-60 minutes. .
What does science have to say about reiki?
This is the crux of the issue. Sceptics pick data that suggests reiki is a placebo. Reiki supporters pick data that suggest reiki has benefit. Both sides cherrypick data to support their own points of view. Today, I’ll present the best of both sides.
I hope to convey steelman arguments both for and against reiki. You can then make an educated decision based on the best data supporting or denying the effectiveness of reiki.
The best evidence against reiki
The first study I’m going to quote is a review. What this study did was look at a number of other studies (8 in total) and combined the results of each into a summary. You can find said study here.
The results of this study suggest all of the eight studies examined were of very low quality. Meaning that there was either not enough participants or that the researchers designed a study that did not control variables very well. This can misconstrue data, leaving us with conclusions that may not be actually true.
This study concludes by saying that there just isn’t any high-quality data in support of reiki’s effectiveness.
The second study I found in support of science was much better. You can find that study here.
This study had a stellar design. Most importantly, this study was blinded – meaning the patients didn’t know whether they were receiving real reiki or fake reiki. The study was done on 189 chemotherapy outpatients. The researchers set up three groups:
- Group 1
- This was the control group.
- All members of this group received the typical standard of care given to chemotherapy outpatients.
- Group 2
- This group was given reiki by nurses not trained in reiki.
- This was the placebo group.
- The nurses in this group were asked to do math problems or create shopping lists in their heads while preforming the treatment.
- Group 3
- This group was given reiki by nurses trained and certified in reiki.
Remember, none of the patients knew whether they were receiving real reiki or fake reiki. If reiki was effective, you would think that the group receiving real reiki would have better health outcomes than the group receiving fake reiki.
Compared to group 1 (standard treatment) both groups 2 and 3 experienced significant increases in mental well-being. But the improvements in groups 2 and 3 were identical. This suggests that the patients improved because they had 1-on-1 attention from a healthcare provider. Not because of reiki.
The best evidence in support of reiki
There are a number of small studies that show reiki to have the following beneficial health outcomes:
- Increased well-being
- Reduction in anxiety
- Reduction in heart rate
- Reduction in pain
- Reduction in stress
- Reduction of systolic blood pressure
The most robust study I could find on the benefits of reiki measured the health outcomes of over 1400 reiki treatments. You can find this study here.
In this particular study, 99 reiki practitioners were recruited from an online mailing list. These practitioners gave a survey to their patients before and after their reiki treatment. There were a total of 1411 surveys collected. Each reiki session lasted 45-90 minutes in length.
After calculating the data of more than 1400 reiki sessions, researchers found that reiki sessions significantly improved the following health outcomes:
- Shortness of breath
- Overall well-being
With a sample of size of more than 1400 treatments, this is a great deal of data to suggest the positive impact reiki treatments can have on your health.
Is reiki real? – My thoughts
Criticisms against reiki
The first issue is the lack of control in the study I quoted in support of reiki. All the participants in the study knew they were going to get a legitiment reiki treatment. There was no control group or placebo group to compare the results against. As the blinded study showed, both fake and real reiki treatments had benefit.
Combine that with the fact that the study participants were almost all middle-aged caucasian females. 99% of the study’s participants identified as having spiritual or religious belief systems. Only 1% of the study participants identified as not believing in religion/spirituality. This is not representative of the general population. For me, it’s too strong a bias.
The second issue I have with the study is the lack of long-term follow-up. I don’t know about you, but if I relax on a massage table with tranquil music in the background (I’m assuming that was the case) I’m going to experience an improvement in my health. I go from deadlines, appointments, commitments, etc. to ahhh – self-care.
I’d be curious to see if the positive changes the patients experienced continued over the long-term. I would have liked to see the researchers do a second follow-up survey at 1 week and 1 month intervals. As I think all of us are more concerned about the long-term benefit/improvement compared to an improvement felt immediately after treatment.
Praise for reiki
With all that said, I think there are two big takeaways here. The first is that humans experience positive health outcomes when they are in a therapeutic relationship with another human. The chemotherapy outpatients felt better when they had a nurse giving them 1-on-1 care and attention. This should not go unnoticed. It should affect how we structure healthcare service for these patients. I would love to see additional studies on how this can benefit many other illnesses.
The second takeaway is that our own personal stress reduction strategies may be better if we include a caring human. Netflix isn’t the best strategy for lowering stress levels. Instead, ask your partner for a loving massage or reiki treatment. It doesn’t matter if your partner knows how to do reiki or not! This focused attention should improve your wellbeing more than binge watching the latest series.
Ok, now you have the best information I could find on whether or not reiki works.
Now, I want to hear from you!
Is reiki an effective treatment modality?
What data do you use to support or deny the benefits of reiki?
Be sure to leave your answers in the comments section below!