A research scientist’s personal experience of receiving a reiki attunement, and his subsequent efforts to understand the clinical evidence for the efficacy of reiki.
What is reiki?
Reiki is a healing modality commonly used in Australia for managing chronic diseases, yet most people know little about it. Reiki is a natural form of healing therapy that is applied through non-invasive, and non-manipulative gentle touch. It is a part of the mysterious realm of ‘energy medicine’, which deals with healing the entire human organism, not just our physical manifestation. It aims to increase energy levels and promote relaxation by facilitating balance on all levels: body, mind, and spirit.
I first encountered reiki about 2½ years ago, when it was mentioned in a book I was reading. Immediately drawn to it as a method of bringing ‘compassion in action’ into my life, I signed up for a ‘Reiki Level 1’ class right away. I had no idea what to expect, but felt drawn to reiki enough to be open to whatever might happen.
A key part of the Reiki Level 1 class is receiving a reiki attunement. This is a ceremony in which the reiki master opens up certain channels in your energy body. Thus allowing you to serve as a clear conduit for the flow of reiki energy. At a later time, it is possible to take on additional healing capabilities through further reiki courses.
The nature of reiki energy is being researched, but is not yet pinned down in scientific terms. In reiki classes, we are taught that it is akin to ki, qi, pranic, orgone and other forms of energy that are called ‘life force energy’. In some ways it is similar to the energies of the electromagnetic spectrum. Reiki practitioners are taught that they cannot perform reiki for results, but allow the ‘life force energy’ to flow where it is needed.
I knew none of this at the time of my Reiki Level 1 attunement. I was very skeptical about having received anything during the attunement process and, frankly, was pretty weirded-out by the experience. However, I soon came to see my experience in a different light.
A curious skeptic
Until then, one constant feature in my life was my morning ritual of drinking a plunger pot of coffee. It was so important to me that I would plan my movements around it. If I was travelling, I would take the plunger and coffee with me to eliminate the chance of missing out.
The morning after my reiki attunement, though, I woke up and thought, “I don’t feel like having coffee today. I might have a hot lemon drink instead.” So that’s what I did and haven’t had a coffee since, and haven’t even been tempted.
Given my previous dependence on coffee, that seemed like a minor miracle to me, and convinced me that the attunement must have made some kind of difference. Looking back, I see that this illustrates the problem with defining the nature of reiki energy. In scientific terms, energy is defined by its ability to do work, to cause a change. But what type of energy is it that can change the way you do things? How does this shift give you a healthier motivation? How much energy was needed to make me change my mind about drinking coffee? It must be a very subtle energy indeed.
Intrigued, I set out to learn more about reiki and what it can do. Over a period of months I tracked down pretty much all of the scientific publications on reiki in the English language and bought up a shelf of books as well. I was astonished to find just how many studies there were (more than 90 in total), and the range of conditions for which reiki has been tested.
Scientific studies of reiki and its efficacy
Reiki has been shown to be beneficial in managing chronic disease conditions, in aged care, in the management of cancers, in postoperative recovery, in hospices, in drug and alcohol recovery, and as a form of self-treatment for highly stressed health care professionals. Typically, reiki is reported to reduce pain, anxiety, fatigue, and depression, and to improve relaxation, comfort, and quality of life.
Through my research, I realised that most people wouldn’t know much about the scientific studies on reiki. The most recent review in the public domain included studies up to 2011. There has been an explosion of clinical studies since then. Given reiki practice should be informed by the available evidence, I was encouraged by the Australasian Usui Reiki Association (AURA) to write a paper to bring the latest findings to public attention.
The problem I encountered in writing a review was that there is simply too much information to be adequately covered within the word-count limit of most academic journals. I realised that I had to find a focus, to cut the task down to a manageable size. It seemed to me that the most important point that needed to be resolved is whether or not reiki therapy offers anything more than a placebo effect.
Power or placebo?
The placebo effect is a well-known but poorly understood phenomenon that affects all clinical trials. Basically it means that a healing response can be triggered through the belief that a beneficial therapy is being administered. Early reiki studies had been criticised because they did not include a control treatment to account for the placebo effect.
However, this had been addressed in many of the more recent studies. A placebo reiki treatment is given by someone who looks and acts as much as possible like an authentic reiki practitioner, sans reiki attunement. In essence, testing reiki against a placebo control is a test of whether the reiki attunement has any real effect on the practitioner.
In selecting studies for my review, I had to ensure that they were large enough to be statistically significant. This means that there must be enough people in each ‘treatment group’ to ensure a reasonable degree of confidence that any differences are in fact real. This is a major challenge for alternative therapy researchers, since it is time-consuming and expensive to recruit large numbers of volunteers for clinical trials, and such studies rarely receive grant funding. For my review, I selected studies with at least 20 participants in each treatment group to ensure that there would be a good degree of statistical confidence in the outcomes.
There were 13 studies that met my inclusion criteria, of which 11 were with human subjects and two involved rats. The rat studies were the most important, I believe. They involved measurements of tangible physical evidence, such as observable changes in microscopic blood vessels and data from implanted sensors measuring heart rate and blood pressure.
The results revealed
Reiki was shown to be more effective than placebo in eight of the 13 selected studies. Five of these were physiological studies, looking for measurable changes in things like heart rate and blood pressure, including the two rat studies. These trials showed that reiki was more effective than placebo in inducing a physically relaxed state. This was measured by reduced heart rate, increased heart rate variability and lower blood pressure.
The other three trials were conducted with people living with long-term health conditions, and included patients with chronic illnesses and blood cancer, and residents of an aged care facility. These studies found reiki to be more effective than placebo, resulting in reduced anxiety and depression, and improved self-esteem and quality of life.
In four of the 13 studies there was no measurable difference between reiki and placebo. In these cases, it was questionable whether the tools used to quantify patients’ subjective responses were sufficiently sensitive to differentiate between reiki and placebo. So no firm conclusion was possible. The only study in which neither reiki nor the placebo provided any tangible benefit was on patients with fibromyalgia, a very painful condition for which there is currently no effective medical treatment. In this case, the study only looked for reductions in pain intensity. However, it did not consider other ways that reiki may have helped patients cope with their condition.
A scientist’s conclusion
My conclusion was that the available evidence provides reasonably strong support for reiki being more effective than placebo. The observations showing that reiki was more effective than placebo for reducing anxiety and depression, and for improving self-esteem and quality of life, were consistent with much of the reiki literature.
At first, I could not see a link between deep relaxation and a better ability to cope with life’s problems. I researched more to find out that the observed benefits of reiki could be explained using some established physiological models. Namely, the polyvagal theory and the neurovisceral integration model. Without going into details here, it appears the common factor relates to reiki’s ability to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
But why does it work?
The state of the body is constantly governed by the dynamic tension between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems; between the well-known ‘fight or flight’ response and the recuperative ‘rest and digest’ mode. Reiki is a gentle but effective way to activate the recuperative functions of the body. In other words, it helps the body to heal itself.
It seems that deliberate activation of the parasympathetic nervous system can have quite profound physical and mental health benefits. Researchers are currently exploring new treatment options based on this insight. Reiki is a very simple and gentle method to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. In a way, it is complementary to all other therapies and medical procedures. I believe that we are only just beginning to understand the potential of reiki for human healing. Much more research is needed, especially into the benefits of long-term treatment.
A scientist’s dilemma
For me, the consensus from the clinical trials with reiki is both reassuring and challenging. It is reassuring that the evidence supports the reiki teachings that the ability to transmit ‘universal life force energy’ by personal attunements from a reiki master in a direct lineage from the founder, Mikao Usui. It is challenging because there is currently no accepted scientific understanding of how this might be possible.
Reiki has recently been recognised as a valid therapy under the National Code of Conduct for Health Care Workers. The science now shows the importance of reiki practitioners being correctly attuned. If you are interested in trying reiki for yourself, ask the practitioner about their qualifications, lineage, and reiki association membership. You should also ask these questions of reiki teachers, so that you receive valid instruction and certification.
My review paper: ‘Reiki is better than placebo and has broad potential as a complementary health therapy’, has recently been published (see below). It is freely accessible online for anyone to download.
McManus, D. E. (2017). Reiki Is Better Than Placebo and Has Broad Potential as a Complementary Health Therapy. Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine. First published online, 5 September 2017. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2156587217728644
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