A Reiki Primer for Wellness Professionals
Can this stress-relieving healing technique complement traditional exercise program design?
It doesn’t take long before many fitness professionals realize that teaching and training clients involves much more than simply counting sets and reps. The perfect exercise program falls short if the client practices poor nutrition, for example, or is experiencing chronic stress, which can take a toll on mental and physical health.
Approaching clients from a more holistic perspective, with an eye toward physical, mental and spiritual health, is one solution. Some fitness professionals have found that offering Reiki (ray-key), a Japanese healing technique intended to reduce stress and promote relaxation and healing, not only helps clients reach their fitness goals but also provides a safe space for wellness to thrive.
How can fitness professionals use Reiki to complement and add value to their clients’ lives? This article explores the history of Reiki, what research says about it, and how fitness professionals can integrate it into their current services.
The word Reiki is made up of two Japanese words: Rei, meaning “higher power”; and ki, meaning “life force energy.” The full word, Reiki, translates as “spiritually guided life force energy” (ICRT 2014). It is this life force energy that is said to flow through a Reiki practitioner’s hands as she channels it into the client’s body, boosting the client’s ability to harmonize with his environment (ICRT 2014). During a Reiki treatment, the recipient lies on a massage table or sits in a chair, while the practitioner uses a series of hand positions on or near the body. The client remains fully clothed, and no “massage or manipulation” is involved (The Reiki Association 2014). Sessions last 45 minutes to an hour or more, depending on the client’s needs. Many people report feeling “deeply relaxed and at peace” following a session and say they are better able to make healthy choices from a centered place.
A Brief History of Reiki
Mikao Usui, a Japanese man who held many occupations and enjoyed studying healing methods, is credited with founding modern-day Reiki practice in 1922 (Powell 2012). Usui enrolled in a 21-day meditation training on Mount Kurama in Kyoto, and it was there—according to his memorial stone—that he experienced the “great Reiki” that prompted him to begin practicing and teaching the system (Powell 2012).
Usui passed his core teachings to Chujiro Hayashi, a naval physician, who further refined the method in his own clinic (ICRT 1990-2014). Before Hayashi died, he taught Hawayo Takata, who had experienced Reiki healing firsthand in Hayashi’s clinic.
Takata, a Hawaiian native, is credited with bringing Reiki to the West in 1937. She practiced and taught until her death in 1980, initiating 22 “masters,” who began teaching others. William Lee Rand, founder and president of the International Center for Reiki Training and publisher of Reiki News magazine, estimates that there are over 4,000,000 practitioners and at least 1,000,000 Reiki masters (advanced practitioners) in the world today.
While there are many anecdotal reports about Reiki’s power to boost well-being and “refresh the spirit,” the effects of Reiki are difficult to quantify, which poses a research dilemma. To date, a limited number of studies have been completed, and studies have typically been small and not always well designed (Miles 2014a).
According to Pamela Miles, a Reiki master practicing since 1986 who has 30 years’ experience in complementary and alternative medicine, healthcare practitioners need evidence that a healing practice is safe before they can recommend it. With respect to safety, she says, “there have been no reported negative effects from Reiki in any of the research studies” (Miles 2014a).
There are numerous obstacles to studying Reiki, including the inability to document the existence of the biofield (subtle energy field), the challenge of controlling for the effects of human touch, and the vagueness of the term balance (Miles 2014a). The debate about the best ways to study Reiki continues, and so does research. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the National Institutes of Health are among those who have funded studies. Here are some of the findings:
- In a placebo-controlled, crossover, randomized trial (21 participants), Reiki had a measurable effect on the parasympathetic nervous system when applied to healthcare professionals with burnout syndrome (Diaz-Rodriguez et al. 2011).
- HIV and AIDS outpatients who were suffering from pain and anxiety reported a decline in pain after a Reiki treatment. On an 11-point scale, the average pain rating dropped from 2.73 to 1.83 (Miles 2003).
- In a crossover trial with 16 cancer patients, participants experienced “significant improvements in quality of life” and a decrease in fatigue over the course of seven Reiki treatments versus rest (Tsang, Carlson & Olson 2007). However, “available scientific evidence at this time does not support claims that Reiki can help treat cancer or any other illness,” according to the American Cancer Society (2011).
- When 20 community-dwelling older adults were randomly assigned to either a Reiki group or a wait control group, “significant differences were observed [between the groups] on measures of pain, depression, and anxiety; no changes in heart rate and blood pressure were noted” (Richeson et al. 2010).
- In a randomized, sham-controlled study of 100 adults with fibromyalgia, “neither Reiki nor touch had any effect on pain or any of the secondary outcomes.” The researchers [Assefi et al. 2008] noted that “Reiki should be rigorously studied before being recommended to patients with chronic pain symptoms” (NCCAM 2008).
- A Reiki research review concluded that “high-quality randomized controlled trials are needed to address the effectiveness of Reiki over placebo” (vanderVaart et al. 2009).
Reiki and Fitness Professionals
Some fitness professionals decide to learn how to offer Reiki after experiencing a session of their own. Jessica McKenna, LMT, a Reiki master teacher and certified personal trainer who lives in Akron, Ohio, was interested in Reiki before becoming a fitness professional. McKenna integrates Reiki into her fitness and massage services, and she believes energetic health is just as important as physical health.
“I think it’s important to learn about how energy works in our bodies, as much as food and exercise,” McKenna says. “Reiki is ‘therapy’ I can give to myself and others. Knowing how every aspect of my body performs and works is empowering.”
Given the esoteric nature of Reiki, is it possible to offer it successfully as an additional service to clients? McKenna thinks so, even though she reports that many clients come to her for Reiki “as a last resort.” “I’ve had clients who are really struggling with back pain, stomach issues, or self-esteem and depression,” she says. “Reiki is a great, noninvasive therapy that can help [people] relax and get energy moving to every part of the body. Once a client is feeling more confident, exercises and fitness can supplement the Reiki sessions (and vice versa). Reiki is not, however, something one could just perform on [clients] while they are lifting weights!”
Duluth, Georgia–based personal trainer, health coach and Reiki master Debbie Barker practices many different healing practices. She says that while she has not integrated Reiki directly into her personal training services per se, she does use it with clients who have physical pain—sometimes exercise related—that is hindering their ability to stay active.
“If I’m training someone and they have a headache, I will offer to take a break and do Reiki on them for a few minutes to see if it helps,” says Barker. “I once worked with a lady who couldn’t stand straight because of pain. I did about 20 minutes of Reiki on her, and afterward she was almost able to stand straight again.” Barker adds that she practices Reiki with personal training clients only if they also see her specifically for Reiki or are open to receiving the work (not all clients are, and it’s important to respect this).
Both Barker and McKenna agree that Reiki offers many benefits for personal training clients. “Feeling a new-found sense of calmness and relaxation is something so many clients love about Reiki sessions, especially those who have a difficult time [relaxing],” says McKenna. “Reiki is often able to help with blockages that have surrounded an injury; the energy allows the tissues and fascia system some time to unwind and relax enough to let go of stagnation and tightness. Clients leave feeling more familiar with their bodies, minds and emotions.” Barker says she has witnessed her clients become more relaxed, happier, and better aligned in body and mind; she has also heard reports of clients sleeping better after Reiki sessions.
Despite the benefits, Barker cautions against blindly offering Reiki as a profit center. “The only way I see that personal trainers can become successful at offering Reiki is to [offer it to a client base] that is really open to it; then you can discuss it while you’re working out. But I can’t see myself saying, ‘Oh, your arm hurts? Let me throw some Reiki in there and then we’ll go ahead and do this exercise and your arm will be fine.’ I see Reiki and personal training as being two separate offerings completely.”
McKenna agrees there are obstacles to integrating Reiki with fitness training and encourages those interested in Reiki to uphold its sacred tradition and not do it simply for the sake of doing it. “Reiki isn’t just about giving someone energy; it is a serious practice that requires just that: practice. I have integrated it not only into my massage and fitness practice but also into my everyday life. Reiki should be passed to those who are seriously interested in well-being [and] the Reiki principles, and to those who want to help others. To become attuned merely for profit would be a gross misrepresentation of what it means to be a practitioner. However, in the case of a serious practitioner, Reiki is an essential service that clients like having the option to choose.”