Just like cupping or healing crystals, Reiki is having a moment in the wellness world right now. But even though the practice has infiltrated your Instagram feed and brunch circles, you might still be wondering what it is exactly (errrr, is it like acupuncture—or yoga, maybe?).
So yeah, what is Reiki?
Reiki is a Japanese healing technique in which practitioners can help your body heal itself through touch. “Rei” translates to “universe” or “life force,” and “ki” translates to the physical energy of the body (also known as qi); put together, Reiki translates to “universal life force energy.”
That means the job of a Reiki practitioner is to help your body work its own healing magic. “We don’t consider ourselves healers, because the body is its own healer,” explains Brian Brunius, a New York City-based Reiki master who founded the NYC Reiki Center in 2007. “The process of giving Reiki to someone is the process of giving them even more of the life energy that they already have—so we just give the body the extra energy to do with it what it will.”
In the modern world, he explains, we’re all running around on empty, with just enough energy to get through what we have to do every day—meaning there’s not a lot of energy left over for your body to work on maintenance, repair, and deeper healing. “And so when you give your body extra energy, it takes that energy and uses it how it wants to, likely for deeper healing,” Brunius explains.
Wait, how it Reiki actually done?
During a Reiki session—which can last anywhere from half an hour to nearly two hours, depending on where you go—you sit on a massage table, fully clothed and covered with a sheet and/or blankets, and a practitioner lightly rests his or her hands on (or hovers them over) various parts of your body where energy is said to flow the most.
he hand positions are designed to cover three main areas: your major organs, your major chakras, and your major meridians (energy pathways). These areas can be found all over the body, so Reiki practitioners may touch or hover above your head, extremities, midsection, and feet. During a session, patients tend to fall into a trancelike state where they have incredibly lucid dreams (a.k.a., “Reiki sleep), says Brunius.
Honestly, I’m still skeptical: Is Reiki even safe?
According to Robert Graham, MD, a Harvard-trained, board-certified doctor of integrative medicine who runs the integrative health clinic FRESH MED, Reiki is safe and possibly even helpful — as long as it’s used as a complementary medicine, not an alternative one.
hat’s an important distinction, says Dr. Graham: “What people don’t understand sometimes is that there is a big difference between those two types of medicine,” he explains. Alternative medicine is when you forgo Western medicine to go with something else entirely, whereas complementary medicine is when you practice another form of healing in addition to conventional medicine. And when you practice Reiki as a complementary medicine, it can certainly be a win — or, at the very least, not a loss, Graham explains.
“When it comes to complementary medicines, it all comes down to a risk-benefit ratio,” he explains. “If the benefit outweighs the risk, it’s game on. But when the risks outweigh the benefits, it’s game over.”
And according to Dr. Graham, Reiki falls under the game-on umbrella. “From a safety point of view, Reiki hasn’t been shown to have any harmful effects,” he explains. “And I do believe that there is an untapped mechanism behind energy that supports your own body’s healing abilities that we don’t understand just yet—so it’s certainly worth a trial if you’re in pain.”
So when should I give Reiki a try?
According to both Dr. Graham and Brunius, Reiki is most often used as a solution for people who are in pain—both physical and mental.
“What makes pain so hard to cure is that it’s not quantifiable. Aside from the pain scale, there’s no objective measurement of how much pain someone is in, which is why there isn’t a magic-bullet cure for most things pain-related,” says Dr. Graham.
And when there isn’t a magic-bullet cure, it can’t hurt to try complementary therapies like Reiki, he continues. “Reiki has a long healing tradition in medicine, particularly in the nursing world — it’s really safe and gentle.”
In fact, even if you’re not in any particular pain and just want to try it out, that’s cool, too. “There’s actually a lot of anecdotal evidence that it can help your psychological wellbeing with no adverse effects, no matter if you have a particular ailment or not,” explains Dr. Graham.
Brunius, who works with many patients who come to just check it out, agrees. “People who come to just find out what Reiki is tend to report that they’re able to sleep better and feel calmer after just one session. But if you have a specific problem you’re trying to cure, it tends to take a number of sessions to start working,” he explains.
One word of caution before you go down the Reiki road: Be really careful about which practitioner you choose. “Reiki is incredibly practitioner and user dependent, so you want to be sure you are choosing someone with good credentials,” says Dr. Graham.
Of course, that can be easier said than done. Reiki, unlike more conventional therapies, is more of a folk-based practice with many different styles, which means that there isn’t necessarily one common, gold-degree standard. Reiki masters are the highest level of Reiki practitioner, as they are able to teach Reiki to others, but you can also receive Reiki from first or second-degree practitioners, who aren’t masters yet but can still administer Reiki.
Your best best? Look for someone who has been trained for a while, and who practices often. And, perhaps most important of all, always go in with an open mind.