Can Reiki be a legitimate treatment if no one can prove how it works?

Despite being a certified Reiki teacher, journalist Jordan Kisner still struggles to explain how and why this Japanese method of energetic healing actually works. But if the patient feels better, isn’t that what counts?
Nurse Donna Audia performs Reiki on a patient at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. ((Rob Carr/Associated Press) )

No one seems to know quite how it works. But those who have experienced a Reiki session confirm it does.

Reiki emerged in Japan in the late 1800s and involves the transfer of universal energy from the practitioner's hands to the patient. It is said to have healing effects on the body and the spirit.

Journalist Jordan Kisner wondered how one's emotional and mental health can get demonstrably better using a tool that seems to have nothing at all to do with your brain.

"Reiki is a spiritual practice that falls under the category of energy medicine. So when someone is practicing Reiki, they ideally stand near the body of another person and gently place their hands on — or maybe just hovering above — the body of the person they're going to offer Reiki to. And they are with them mindfully."

Healing hands

As a holistic therapy, Reiki had previously been disregarded by the scientific community as a legitimate treatment, but that is changing as rigorous scientific studies increase. 

Reiki is offered in a number of hospitals as a treatment for stress, PTSD, and insomnia, people undergoing surgery, or chemotherapy, among other things. It has been scientifically proven to relieve pain and to offer comfort.

Kisner spoke to both nonmedical Reiki practitioners who would volunteer their services in hospitals as well as physicians who used Reiki in their medical practice alongside conventional biochemical medicine. All said the effects on their patients were positive.

"A calming effect is fairly common … maybe if they're in a lot of pain, they may report feeling a reduction in their pain. And that was something that was reported to me over and over again, not just by people who received a Reiki treatment, but by people who practiced it."

Journalist Jordan Kisner decided to train as a Reiki practitioner herself to gain a deeper understanding of how the practice works. (Ebru Yildiz)

'You're just supposed to love them'

Kisner decided to train as a Reiki practitioner herself, to gain a deeper understanding of how it works.

During her training, when one of her fellow students asked what they were supposed to be thinking as they placed their hands over the patient, Kisner was stunned by the teacher's answer.

"The instructor said, 'Nothing. You're just supposed to love them.' You're just supposed to stand there and love them and think about the fact that they might need to be healed and wish for their healing. That's all you have to do," said Kisner. 

"That was really striking to me, because on the one hand, I had this twin response where I thought, 'Oh my God, is that it? We're just supposed to stand here and love them?' That's absolutely the most, you know, wishy-washy thing. Oh man! And then on the other hand, I thought, 'Well, oh my God, of course, that makes so much sense!'"

The power of the mind-body connection in Reiki is reflected in research from Harvard about the placebo effect. 

"They have found that the placebo effect isn't some kind of imagined thing," explains Kisner. "It is, as they called it, a biological response to the act of caring, that someone approaching you with care creates a biological response in the body. That is healing."

During her own training, Kisner was surprised by the idea of 'Distance Reiki.'

"Many people who teach and practice Reiki say that you don't have to be in the same room, in the same town, in the same state even — you can be thousands of miles away from the person you are healing. And Reiki will work just as well," says Kisner. "So the idea that I could send Reiki to my grandmother in Texas was startling to me."

Kisner said the questions about Reiki are a "staging ground for some larger questions that we are grappling with right now in medicine and in science and in philosophy about the mind-body connection and the distinction between healing that is affective or spiritual or emotional."


Jordan Kisner's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times and The Guardian. Her first book Thin Places was published in March 2020.

Produced and written by Rosie Fernandez.


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