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What is Reiki?

What is Reiki? It's a common question. We take a look at what Reiki is, both from its traditional Japanese perspective as a practice for promoting spiritual awareness and growth, and from its more popularly recognized role as a complementary therapy used to promote health and well–being.

Article by Yadira / Lake Forest, California / May 7 2010

We can answer the question of what is Reiki from a couple of angles, so we will look at it from the perspective of the practitioners who practice Reiki regularly, and from the perspective of those who just come along to receive Reiki treatments as a complementary therapy. We will also give a quick overview of a Reiki treatment, but let's begin with a bit of background on Reiki. (Please also refer to our Talk Page for more articles and stories on Reiki.)

How Reiki has evolved

Mikao Usui - Founder of the system of Reiki. Enlarge Image

Mikao Usui, founder of the system of Reiki.

Public Domain

Reiki began as a complete system of spiritual development and healing created by Mikao Usui in Japan at the beginning of the 20th Century. Usui was a lay Buddhist monk, but he markedly created the system to be non–religious in nature, so making it accessible to people of all backgrounds and beliefs.

Although Japanese in origin, the Reiki system has evolved differently in the West since its creation, losing some of its traditional Japanese roots in the process. There are numerous reasons for this, but largely this is due to a lack of accurate historical information being available until relatively recently.

As a result, the Western practice of Reiki has evolved almost exclusively as a method for healing, often incorporating New Age beliefs and non–traditional techniques (for example, use of the Indian chakra system). However, much more is now known about the traditional Japanese system as it was originally intended to be practiced, with its emphasis on spiritual growth and focus on the Japanese energetic system (based on hara and the flow of Ki energy) placing it closely in line with traditional East–Asian culture and beliefs on well–being.

Both the spiritual and healing aspects are closely integrated within the original system of Reiki, but for the purposes of defining what Reiki is, it is perhaps helpful to differentiate between Reiki as a spiritual practice, and Reiki as it is commonly used today for healing in holistic complementary therapy and integrative medicine.

Reiki as a Spiritual Practice

Mount Kurama (Kurama Yama) in Kyoto, Japan - Birthplace of Reiki Enlarge Image

Mount Kurama (Kurama Yama) in Kyoto, Japan, is the birthplace of Reiki where Mikao Usui first developed the Reiki system.

Public Domain

The traditional Japanese system of Reiki was primarily developed to help practitioners find a path to spiritual enlightenment, with self–healing being integral to the practice. In contrast to other spiritual systems, the system of Reiki is not religious in nature, so it can be readily practiced by anyone regardless of their religious beliefs. The teachings are also structured in a way that makes them easy to pick up and learn, and to readily incorporate into most people's lifestyles, yet they remain deeply profound for those who commit to the practice.

The Reiki system draws on many elements present in traditional Japanese culture and philosophy. For example, in common with many of the established Japanese arts such as Aikido (martial art, “The way of unifying life energy”), Japanese calligraphy (see our interview with Master Calligrapher Eri Takase), Iaido (use of the Samurai sword, see our interview with author and Iaido practitioner Kim Falconer), Chanoyu (tea ceremony), Kyudo (archery), and even Ikebana (flower arranging), the practice of the system of Reiki is based on the premise that we and everything around us has a “life” energy that sustains it. In Japanese culture, this energy is known as Ki. (The word Reiki is in fact composed of two Japanese kanji characters, “Rei” meaning spiritual or sacred, and “ki” being energy, in this case the energy of everything which is spiritual in nature. Combined they can mean the effect of something that is spiritual.) By harmonizing or balancing this energy we promote well–being and overall health.

The Japanese Kanji characters for 'Reiki' Enlarge Image

The Japanese Kanji characters for the word ‘Reiki’

Courtesy Frank Arjava Petter

There are parallels with Ki and the energy that is described in other cultures, for example Ch'i or qi in China, and prana in India. (This is one of the reasons the chakra system may have become popular in the Western practice of Reiki.) To others the energy is simply interpreted as being Universal or Divine in nature.

For practitioners, Reiki is a complete system that teaches us how to increase our awareness of this energy, develop its flow within ourselves, and open up a path that allows us to connect ever closer to our original nature and be at One with everything in life. This is achieved through a set of practices that include precepts (on a very simple level these can be viewed as guidelines for living day to day), breathing techniques, hands–on healing, symbols and mantras (tools and techniques for spiritual growth and development), and receiving reiju, a spiritual blessing that is a precursor to the attunements (a means of opening up the ability to allow Ki to flow) commonly practiced in Reiki in the West today. With dedicated practice, the system of Reiki provides practitioners with a way to reach an enlightened state of being.

In contrast to other practices, the role of a Reiki practitioner is passive in the sense that the practitioner does not direct the flow of Ki energy in any way. Rather, the practitioner simply facilitates the flow of Ki, allowing it to go where it is needed. All of us are born with the ability to heal and the system of Reiki teaches us how to develop this ability within ourselves. A practitioner does not directly heal others. Instead, through the energy that is allowed to flow, we each heal ourselves.

At California Reiki, we find there is value in teaching both the popular Western style of Reiki, and the traditional Japanese form of Reiki known as Usui Reiki Ryoho, and so we offer comprehensive Reiki training courses in both. Our Reiki students find that being able to compare and contrast both systems, and discover how and why each came about, is a great way to learn for instance.

 “Try Reiki. This alternative medicine treatment can manipulate your energy and cure what ails you.” 

— Dr. Mehmet Oz

Reiki as a Healing Practice

Dr. Oz recommends Reiki on The Dr. Oz Show as his number 1 “Doctor's Order”. More Info

Dr. Oz recommends Reiki on The Dr. Oz Show as his number 1 “Doctor's Order”.

The Dr. Oz Show

Today, Reiki is becoming more and more popular as a complementary therapy, where its gentle and non–invasive healing benefits can be easily given by trained Reiki practitioners to people with a wide range of health conditions. The typical healing benefits commonly reported by those receiving Reiki treatments include symptom relief, stress reduction, relaxation, and improved overall health and well–being.

Reiki is used in major hospitals and clinics where patients, nurses, and doctors all report on its benefits as a complementary therapy, often in the treatment of conditions such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, chronic pain, anxiety, as well as in aiding recovery after surgery and reducing the side–effects of conventional medication.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) also reports that many people are using Reiki and energy therapy for better health. NCCAM estimated in a 2002 survey that 2.2 million Americans have used Reiki [PDF], and that in 2007 1.2 million Americans have used energy healing therapy such as Reiki in the preceding year alone [PDF]. [Note: These numbers are sourced from what appears to be two revisions of the same NCCAM document where updated statistics have been added to the Uses section.]

Yale-New Haven Hospital is a Yale School of Medicine affiliate offering Reiki. More Info

Yale–New Haven Hospital is a Yale School of Medicine affiliate offering Reiki.

Yale School of Medicine

Renowned cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz has recommended Reiki on the Dr. Oz Show, bringing Reiki to the attention of the show's estimated 3.5 million viewers, and we received an influx of inquiries as a result. (Dr. Oz's wife, Lisa Oz, is herself a Reiki practitioner.)

So why are so many people turning to Reiki as a complementary therapy?

Aside from the obvious benefits such as the ease with which Reiki treatments may be given by practitioners (either to themselves or to others), and the relative ease with which Reiki may be learnt and practiced, there are a whole range of holistic benefits that come with it.

Holistic approaches to healthcare such as Reiki treat the whole person, mentally, physically and spiritually. They are preventative in nature, meaning that caring for the whole person strengthens the body's natural ability to remain in a healthful state, and to heal itself when the need arises. They look beyond the symptoms that have already manifested themselves and address the underlying causes that can lead to those symptoms, such as stress, anxiety, or depression. The emphasis instead is on maintaining overall well–being. This is in contrast to conventional medicine where often the focus is on individually treating physical symptoms once they have already developed. (To give one minor example: When we suffer from a headache most of us instinctively reach for a pill. But what caused the headache in the first place?)

The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is a Harvard Medical School affiliate offering Reiki. More Info

The Dana–Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, is a Harvard Medical School affiliate offering Reiki.

Thomas Steiner

While science and conventional Western medicine are of course indispensable, more and more people are seeking a greater depth of treatment, perhaps a more integrative approach, or one that more readily addresses each person's unique needs and not just the symptoms once they have occurred.

Reiki as a complementary therapy is a balancing practice that restores balance, relaxes, centers, revitalizes and gives each person exactly what he or she needs at that moment in time. It requires nothing of the recipient other than an open mind and a willingness to receive the treatment.

At California Reiki, we have provided complementary Reiki treatments to those with a wide range of conditions, including cancer (in some cases diagnosed as terminal), fibromyalgia, arthritis, lupus, chronic depression, bipolar disorders, anxiety disorders, addictions, allergies, ADD, ADHD, joint and muscle problems such as strains and back pain, and many stress–related conditions, as well as simply to promote day–to–day well–being. In most cases those receiving Reiki treatments reported relief from symptoms or an improvement in how they felt, often with a more positive outlook for dealing with their conditions.

At the time of writing, I have been invited to speak at UC Irvine School of Medicine at an upcoming lecture to discuss the benefits of Reiki with doctors and members of the medical community in the field of integrative medicine, and I have called on all those who have experienced Reiki to share their stories so that they in turn can be shared with the doctors and nurses who may one day care for us. My hope is that together we can continue to raise awareness of the benefits of Reiki within the medical community, so that we may all benefit in the future.

Overview of a Reiki treatment

The NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, which offers Reiki therapy. More Info

NewYork–Presbyterian hospital ranked sixth–best in the U.S. Reiki therapy is offered.


A Reiki treatment is usually given with the recipient comfortably lying down (fully clothed) on a massage table, but may be given anywhere, and is usually given while listening to soothing music to aid in relaxation. The Reiki practitioner will then place his or her hands on or just above the body and hold them there for a few minutes before moving them to another position and repeating until the treatment is complete. (Note that Reiki is not massage — there is no rubbing of muscles or tissue at all.)

During a Reiki treatment the recipient almost always falls into a deeply relaxed state often leading to gentle snoring and sleep. A recipient may notice other sensations too such as tingling, heat or cold, see colors or visions, or not sense much at all other than a feeling of wellness afterwards. Whatever the sensations, healing occurs with every Reiki treatment.

Although Reiki has no known negative side–effects, when considering Reiki treatments there are several important things to realize. Like many holistic practices Reiki has not been scientifically proven to work. (A handful of scientific studies have been conducted to date, but these have been limited by factors such as the difficulty inherent in measuring the effectiveness of CAM therapies, limited scope, quality of study, and largely inconclusive results. The case in favor therefore continues to rely mainly on an increasing body of evidence in the form or personal accounts and anecdotal evidence.) As such, Reiki is not considered a part of conventional mainstream medicine and remains a complementary form of therapy. At the time of writing, there is no nationally recognized licensing body so Reiki practitioners are not qualified (as doctors are) to provide medical advice or treatment. This means that Reiki is never a substitute (and is not intended to be a substitute) for receiving qualified care and advice from your doctor or care provider, so you should always consult with your doctor if you have a medical condition before receiving Reiki treatments.

To find out more about what a Reiki treatment is like, see What is a Reiki session like?

Or if you would like to come along for a Reiki treatment yourself, feel free to visit our Reiki Sessions page where you can get more information and make an appointment.

If you have questions about any of our Reiki services, please see our Contact page for details on getting in touch.

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