What Is Reiki? A Skeptic Dives In To Learn More (And Try It!)

Practitioners of this Eastern tradition believe healing hands reduce stress in the body.

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Can shifting your body’s natural energy help you stay healthy and heal faster? Absolutely, according to practitioners of reiki, an Eastern technique in which a healer channels energy through a person’s body by placing their hands on and above your chakras.

While I try to be open minded about wellness (there’s no one path to self care!), I have to admit that I’ve always been skeptical about reiki. The idea of tapping into some invisible energy field just seemed too far fetched to be real.

I wrote off the practice as a scam and forgot about it until reiki started popping up everywhere. Everyone from Cameron Diaz and Angelina Jolie to Gwyneth Paltrow has reportedly been doing reiki. Even Jax Taylor from Vanderpump Rules calls it the highlight of his week!

Why do so many people swear by it?

I had to learn more, so I sought out some answers from Dana Carretta-Stein, a licensed mental health counselor at Peaceful Living wellness center in Scarsdale, New York. A certified reiki therapist, she uses the technique to help people with panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other concerns.

“A lot of times, clients who have been through traumatic events have a hard time talking about it, so reiki helps me heal their emotional trauma and get them to relax and open up,” she says. “A lot of people experience relief after just one session.”

So reiki works for some people, but would it do anything for me? I had to get to the bottom of this healing technique—and put the practice (and my skepticism!) to the test during a session.

Before we go on, let’s level set. What is reiki?

“Reiki is hands-on energy healing. The practitioner uses their life force energy to heal blockages in the receiver. It’s about using our own healthy energy to cure someone else’s stagnant or blocked energy,” explains Carretta-Stein.

The word “reiki” comes from the Japanese words for spirit (rei) and vital force (ki), which loosely translates to universal life force. The technique stems from the theory of chakras, which are centers of spiritual energy that line our bodies. Supposedly, we have 114 chakras, of which seven are major (you might already be familiar with these if you practice yoga).

When the flow of energy between our chakras is blocked or imbalanced—which can be caused by stress, anxiety, conflict, and other negative emotions we experience every day—it shows up as other ailments in our bodies.

Got self-esteem issues? Headaches? Stomach pains? A low sex drive? Writer’s block? Blame your blocked chakras. Then schedule a reiki session to get it fixed, believers say.

How does reiki work?

Okay, so I get the philosophy, but how exactly does reiki work?

It all stems from something called “attunement,” the part of the training that activates the healing power of reiki in a practitioner’s hands, says Carretta-Stein.

“To become a reiki practitioner, you have to be trained by a reiki master who has gone through all three levels of training. The reiki master is able to attune your energy by putting his or her hands over your head to open up the crown chakra and align your energy with the highest good. By doing that, the practitioner can then help others,” she explains.

Once they have undergone attunement, a reiki practitioner can begin healing clients during sessions at spas and wellness centers by placing their hands on or above different chakras in need of attention. The healthy energy then transfers from the healer to the client’s body to clear their blockages.

“As I go over the troubled spots and set the intention of letting the life force energy from my body go into theirs, it can help heal trauma,” says Carretta-Stein.

The reiki practitioner may also use other healing modalities, such as crystals, essential oils, and guided meditation, to enhance the experience. But none of the techniques, including reiki, will work unless you intend to be healed, Carretta-Stein notes.

“Reiki is right for someone who is wanting to be healed and open to receiving healing. It’s about intention. Our thoughts are really powerful,” she says.

Why do people try reiki?

You’ll try just about anything to find relief when you’re in chronic pain, suffering from a disease, feeling stressed out, or creatively stifled. These are frustrating issues that often don’t have quick-fix solutions. While some people go for exercise, meditation, and acupuncture, others turn to reiki for respite.

“Working with energy centers can help heal emotional trauma, physical or sexual abuse, chronic pain, cluster headaches, migraines, and inflammation in the body. Reiki can work on anything in the mind, body, and spirit,” says Carretta-Stein.

The idea of using something as non-invasive and peaceful as reiki to heal some pretty serious issues sounds amazing, but unfortunately, there might not be a lot of evidence that supports those claims. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, few high-quality studies have been done on this technique, and reiki hasn’t been proven to be an effective technique for health-related purposes. Bummer.

But, let’s take a step back and look at the potential upsides of reiki. You take some time out of your busy, stressful week to go to a calming environment, rest on a comfortable bed, and have a healer focus on you. For one hour, you leave the hustle and bustle of the world for a little TLC—which isn’t a bad thing.

“The biggest benefit is a deep sense of relaxation from the inside out. That stress relief may, in turn, help chronic inflammation go down, headaches get better, and overall give you a renewed sense of self,” says Carretta-Stein. “After reiki, you’ll have better moods, feel more balanced, and be less on edge.”

I can definitely get on board with these kinds of benefits, even if they’re not easily measured. But would reiki give a skeptic like me true tranquility? I had to try it for myself.

A Skeptic’s Experience Trying Reiki

The first week of May was a tough one for me. I somehow fell uncharacteristically behind on all my deadlines, my tasks were taking three times as long as usual, and I couldn’t seem to get enough rest no matter how much I slept. Oh, and did I mention it was my time of the month?

Needless to say, I wasn’t feeling much like myself.

My first reiki session could not have come at a better time. On Friday afternoon, I hopped on a subway downtown to Modrn Sanctuary, a luxury wellness center in Manhattan’s Flatiron District that offers just about any alternative treatment you might be looking for, including aromatherapy, life coaching, acupuncture, and hypnotherapy.

My reiki session kicked off right in the lobby, where intuitive energy worker Alexis Alvarez had me fill out a questionnaire on an iPad. I answered questions like “Are you disorganized?,” “Do you have an aggressive nature?,” and “Do you find it difficult to be loved?,” and looked at a color spectrum to choose hues that I felt attracted to and repelled by. My responses would give a sense of my state and which chakras needed work, Alvarez explained.

what-is-reiki
Joni Sweet

Then it was time to go into the reiki treatment room, a dim, soothing space with a special therapeutic bed (similar to a massage table, but it had subtle vibrations) beneath a line of crystal lights. After I was given a brief consultation and explanation of how the session would go, I kicked my shoes off, lay on the table, and hoped for the best.

Alvarez guided me through a short meditation to calm my breathing and quiet my mind. Next, she placed crystals around my body and on my chakras and began slowly moving her hands along the space above my feet, knees, and other parts of my body. I felt restless at first, but before I knew it I was in a completely chilled-out state that reminded me of a savasana after a tough yoga class. She continued to work on my energy for a while.

When the reiki was over, Alvarez gently woke me from the restful place I had drifted to. I felt in a daze, and I barely remember slipping my shoes back on. How long was I in there? What time was it? My mind wondered but then let the concerns go in carefree way.

Alvarez explained the work she had done. She said she noticed something disruptive in the chakra near my reproductive system (how did she know I had my period?), healed some creative blockages (please let her be referring to my writer’s block!), and worked on my solar plexus chakra (the one associated with self-discipline). All of that sounded like just what I needed—but how long would it last?

I drifted out of Modrn Sanctuary and back into the city. It was rush hour on a Friday, yet everything moved in slow motion, like I was swimming. My typical mindset runs a mile a minute—Where am I going? What do I have to do? What’s next?—yet today, I felt completely at ease just standing there. Energy felt like it was buzzing through me. And I was content with just letting that happen and not immediately funneling it into a project or task like I typically would have.

I grabbed myself an iced matcha drink and slowly made my way to Madison Square Park, where I sat quietly, observed people enjoying the evening in the grass, and gazed at the trees, just taking in everything that early spring has to offer. I couldn’t remember the last time I was this relaxed. For once, I was fine with just being.

Over the weekend, I felt like my state continued to improve. I focused on resting and catching up on some essential things that were now overdue—no longer burdensome, my projects felt fulfilling. I felt like an improved version of my old self by the time Sunday rolled around. And it was bliss.

Did reiki actually work? I went into the session with a deep hope that it would fix my issues. But whether the healer cleared up blockages in my internal energies or it was just the placebo effect, something changed for me in the room that day. I finally got what Jax was saying—reiki was the highlight of my week—and that’s the only thing I know for sure.

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