Describing reiki is like trying to explain the smell of a rose, says one reiki master when asked—and that’s true. Although the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) defines it as a complementary health approach in which practitioners place their hands lightly on or just above a person, with the goal of facilitating the person’s own healing response, experts interviewed for this article agree: The best way to understand reiki is to experience it.

Ultimately, reiki (pronounced ‘ray-kee’) falls into the realm of mind-body therapies used to help promote health and healing. Most people who experience reiki say it is deeply relaxing, and some report feeling tingling, pulsing or warm sensations in the areas where reiki energy is directed.

“Reiki is administered by ‘laying on hands’ and is based on the idea that an unseen ‘life force energy’ flows through us and is what causes us to be alive,” says Tammy Elkins, a reiki practitioner with Vitality Unlimited. “If one's ‘life force energy’ is low, then we are more likely to get sick or feel stress; and if it’s high, we are more capable of being happy and healthy.”

Reiki master Scott Dehn likens the energy accessed and channeled through Reiki to radiowaves. “The energy surrounds us, and when a reiki practitioner is working with you, he or she is tuning in to that energy,” he says. “Once we’re attuned to the energy, it goes where the body most needs it. We apply it to the body, and then a kind of universal intelligence takes over.”

Dehn admits that reiki may sound ‘woo-woo,’ but he notes that it is not associated with any particular religious or spiritual practice. In fact, he points to the fact that an increasing number of hospitals and medical facilities are offering Reiki as a complementary treatment modality. “Reiki isn’t a cure, but it does help the body access and accelerate its own healing abilities,” he says.

At the Healing Arts Center, an accredited program for educating massage therapists, students learn the fundamentals of reiki as an adjunct to massage. “It’s one of the most favored parts of the curriculum,” says executive director Tom Tessereau. “Studying reiki is, itself, a transformative process, and it’s an important part of our program.” Students begin by becoming ‘attuned’ to reiki energy and then learn how to direct it. Students progress from practitioner to reiki master, the level at which they can teach reiki to others.

Like similar mind-body modalities, scientific evidence to support reiki’s efficacy is sparse. Practitioners note that measuring reiki energy would be difficult to impossible in a laboratory setting, so most studies and articles rely on participant responses. NCCAM reports that research has examined the use of reiki for conditions such as fibromyalgia, pain, cancer and depression, and for overall well-being. Although some studies have shown reiki may help with symptoms related to these conditions, others have not found it to be helpful.

Despite the lack of scientific backing, the proof is in the pudding, Tessereau says. “If someone is experiencing a physical, emotional or mental problem, a good reiki practitioner can help. When the body relaxes and the mind clears, we feel better.”

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