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In what is surely one of the first inklings of how Reiki and other hands-on healing modalities affect the human body, researchers have documented changes in blood pressure, levels of salivary IgA (immunoglobulin A), and cortisol and galvanic skin responses during Reiki healing sessions.1
"We had anecdotal information about how Reiki can induce relaxation and relieve pain and perhaps more, so we decided to devise a means of physiological measurements of the effects," says Joan Engebretson, PhD, associate professor of nursing at the University of Texas Houston (UT Houston) Health Science Center, where the research took place.
Reiki uses touch to bring harmony and balance to the body, mind, and spirit. It originated among Tibetan Buddhists almost 3,000 years ago and was reintroduced in Japan by Mikao Usui in the mid-19th century. It enjoyed an increase in popularity in the United States in the 1930s. The word Reiki (RAY-kee) is composed of two characters:
Reiki is based on a belief that all life is intertwined in a universal energy. In order to experience a state of health, an organism needs a balanced and sustained flow of energy from this universal source, so illness is a result of disruptions of energy, which can be restored by correcting imbalances and blockages.
Reiki training is passed as a largely oral tradition that involves attunements during which a trainee’s chakras or life energy channels are opened. Of the three levels of Reiki training, practitioners may perform healing sessions with the first- and second-degree levels, and second degrees may perform distance healings. Third degrees can train other practitioners and provide attunements.
"Reiki is an open channel for universal energy," says Engebretson. The patient draws energy through the healer as it is needed. The healer is simply becoming a channel for the energy and is not consciously addressing a specific need, so the healer is a conduit and is not depleted during a healing session."
Engebretson and her colleague, Diane Wardell, PhD, also an associate professor of nursing at UT Houston, wanted to measure the stress response because it is physiologically notable through elevated blood pressure, lowering of peripheral skin temperature, and increased galvanic skin response. It also includes neuroendocrine responses such as elevation of cortisol, and the immune system is involved with a lower level of IgA, so "a relaxation response, for the most part, includes a reversal of those markers," says Engebretson.
"Our study was small, and there wasn’t enough funding to permit a control group — but we think we found some valuable information, and we think there is more out there to discover," says Engebretson.
The UT study included 23 healthy subjects, 18 female and five male, between the ages of 29 and 55. Fifteen subjects had previously experienced some form of complementary therapy. None had previously experienced Reiki. Anxiety was measured using the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, which is widely used in stress-related research. Blood pressures and skin conductance were monitored. Cortisol and secretory IgA were monitored through radioimmunoassay of saliva.
Each subject received a 30-minute Reiki treatment, fully clothed, while lying on a massage table. A Reiki master provided light hands-on contact for 15 minutes in the areas of the eyes and another 15 minutes over the abdomen. They found during the treatment session, anxiety was reduced, systolic blood pressure decreased by 6.6 points, sin temperature increases, and electromyograph readings decreased during the treatment.
"Our small sample size may have skewed results against Reiki, in a way, since most patients had a rather dramatic decrease in blood pressure, but two had an increase," says Engebretson. "When you look at it, this all makes a lot of sense, since Reiki is meant to balance energies. For example, if a person has low blood pressure, Reiki treatments may raise it, and if a person has high blood pressure, Reiki may lower it. It gives us new challenges and new ways to look at data," she says.
Engebretson recalls an interesting experiment in which she was a participant as a Reiki student and PhD candidate. "We were asked to send distant energy to specific people who had requested healing. When it began, I got the strangest feeling that the subject was not receiving the energy that was being sent. It was only after the treatment had ended I was told that the patient I was working on had died," she adds. Engebretson is planning another study on pain relief with Reiki.
Not only do many nurses employ Reiki and other energetic healing techniques for their patients’ benefit, an increasing number of physicians are finding them useful as well, says Daniel J. Benor, MD, a psychiatrist who practices in Atlantic City and Midford, NJ. "Reiki is a biological intervention that can be used for both physical and emotional healing," says Benor, author of the soon-to-be published Healing Research Volume 1: The International Center for Reiki Training (Southfield, MI: Vision Publications; 2001).
Benor has used Reiki for numerous types of patients, even those suffering depression as a result of chronic diseases, particularly back pain. The process is not always pleasant, says Benor. "In a practical sense, what can happen on an emotional level is like lancing a boil, something buried deep in the unconscious, and Reiki and other forms of energetic healing act like a hot compress, irresistibly drawing the infection to the surface. When you lance a boil, it can be pretty painful. It releases emotion, but it eases the discomfort," he explains.
Benor, who uses Reiki regularly in his work, says it is not really possible to target what problem will be addressed during a treatment. "Whatever happens — happens. You invite an energy — a higher power or love — and you hand it to the patient to do with as the patient needs it."
Of course, he says, no one really knows how Reiki works, but Benor has a theory: "Matter and energy are two sides of the same thing. The physical body could be viewed as energy much like a table or a chair could be viewed as energy. Newtonian medicine is slow to recognize theories like this. Just think of quantum physics, which was considered way out there a few years ago," Benor says.
Benor says he has also seen positive results for patients with arthritis, migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome, and multiple-allergy syndrome.
Reiki is an energetic modality with a strong spiritual component, he explains. "People involved in healing often have a strong sense of spiritual awareness as they are doing the healing. However, Reiki and other types of hands-on healing are not connected to faith as a requirement."
The International Center for Reiki Training describes Reiki as "The God-consciousness Rei that guides the life force called Ki in the practice we call Reiki. Therefore, Reiki can be defined as spiritually guided life force energy."
[For more information, contact:
• Daniel J. Benor, Atlantic City, NJ. Telephone: (716) 385-2135.
• The International Center for Reiki Training web site: reiki.org.]
1. Wardell DW, Engebretson J. Biological correlates of Reiki touch on healing. J Adv Nurs 2001; 33: 439-445.