Search for spiritual energy in reiki

The Japanese therapy is being studied with AIDS patients as a way to improve their quality of life.
The Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 3, 2002
Kate Campbell

The sole reason Catherine Holdsworth even tried reiki therapy eight years ago was that all the massage slots were booked at the spa where she was vacationing.

Reiki (pronounced RAY-kee) is a Japanese technique adapted from Tibetan Buddhism that claims to transmit healing energy through the hands.

Holdsworth, a certified nurse practitioner and a practicing Roman Catholic, was skeptical.

“The first 10 minutes, I thought, ‘Oh man, I got ripped off,’ ” she said.

Adherents say reiki taps into a universal life energy that surrounds people. During sessions, a therapist lightly places hands on, or inches above, parts of a client’s body to open energy centers called chakras. Recipients often report feeling heat during the process and a deep calm afterward.

“Something happened. All of a sudden I was blown away,” Holdsworth said. She went on to earn Level II training as a reiki practitioner, one step below a master. “You have to be a bit of a spiritual person to understand the concept of energy that’s not concrete,” she said.

Now, the Philadelphia area has its first federally funded research into reiki therapy.

A two-year, $400,000 study funded by the National Institutes of Health’s Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is looking at reiki’s impact on people living with advanced AIDS. The work, begun in April, is being conducted from the Center for Urban Health Policy and Research at Albert Einstein Healthcare Network. It is the first federally funded study of reiki as an AIDS therapy anywhere.

“We are interested in change over time” in the clients, said Gala True, Einstein’s assistant director of medical ethics, who is principal investigator for the study. “We want to see whether reiki decreases pain, anxiety and depression and increases quality of life and spiritual well-being for patients with advanced AIDS.”

The target enrollment is 146 patients over two years. Holdsworth is one of the three reiki therapists who have been treating them.

Data for the randomized, controlled study, in which half the clients receive reiki and half do not, are still being collected.

“It’s very difficult to study a complementary therapy like reiki using standardized measurements,” said True, who hopes that the study will begin to bridge the gap between conventional biomedical care and complementary therapies. “There is a certain kind of suffering that comes from being HIV-positive that just isn’t addressed through conventional medicine.”

Many of the people in the study are very sick and very poor, she said, and something like reiki is foreign to them.

“Sometimes we have to give them tokens to get to the session. Some don’t have phones, or they get sick in the middle of the study,” True said. “A lot of them are really isolated because of their HIV status.”

But Holdsworth and the other therapists cite anecdotal reports from clients that the treatments help ease some pain and stress and increase well-being.

A man taking prescribed narcotics for pain, Holdsworth said, decreased his use of the medication during the period he received reiki. Another started to reach out to his family and participate more enthusiastically in life.

“This is a society where these people are not touched verbally or physically or even with eye contact,” she said. “They’re emotionally ostracized.”

Holdsworth sees two or three clients a week at her internal-medicine office at Temple University.

“In reiki, you’re calling for the universal energy to come,” she said. Practitioners believe they are the conduits for the energy.

“Our energies are joined for the higher good,” she said. “I go to church, I pray, and I know that there is an influence in my life that I don’t have any control over.”

Chris Lenz is 35 and has been living with HIV for 20 years. He has never been on medication for his disease, he said, and his T-cell count, a marker of disease severity in HIV-positive patients, had always been fairly stable, between 250 and 350.

Lenz works full-time as a health educator. He regularly visits and volunteers at Siloam, an interfaith center at 1133 Spring Garden St. that serves people affected by AIDS and offers strict confidentiality.

People at Siloam suggested a reiki session after learning that Lenz’s T-cell count had dropped precipitously, to 5, last winter.

The idea of a 45-minute energy cleansing session sounded strange, Lenz said. And as a practicing Christian, he was skeptical.

“But I had been wanting to experience a deeper sense of prayer,” he said.

Peggy Bannan, a reiki therapist who volunteers at Siloam, coached Lenz on the process. Focus on what you believe is going to heal you, she told him.

“I believed in that peaceful place to allow God to do the healing in any way possible,” he said. “I allowed Peggy to do reiki, and I sensed that I was allowing my faith to be a part of this, even though it was completely new to me.”

He now feels well, energized and peaceful, Lenz said. When he had his blood drawn in September after a bout with the flu, his T cells were at 236. The doctors could not explain the change.

“Reiki is a movement of the spirit,” said Bannan, a Roman Catholic who is one of the three practitioners in the Einstein study. “I trust and believe in that higher power.”

Reiki has detractors, in religion as well as medicine. A paper published by the Christian Research Institute, a Protestant watchdog group in California, warns Christians about reiki and other “therapeutic touch” practices:

“It is not safe for anyone to assume that the energy [that] therapeutic touch enthusiasts claim to be channeling is a force of good or godly power,” the paper says. “It seems safe to conclude that it is not, as it is clearly associated with world views that are in opposition to Christianity and [with] practices explicitly forbidden in Scripture.”

Lenz, for one, is not conflicted.

“With Peggy, because we’re both Christian, I know where she gives all her credit and glory,” he said. “This is just another form or another expression of my faith in God.”

Sister Mary Joan Smith, a Catholic nun, is a registered nurse and a nurse case manager at ActionAIDS in West Philadelphia. She learned of reiki through a presentation at work.

“I hadn’t heard a lot about it,” she said. “And what I had seemed off the wall. I just thought I’d check it out.”

She was awed, and has since become a Level II reiki therapist. She is one of the practitioners for the study.

“Jesus said by your fruits you will know them,” she paraphrased. “That’s the good fruit that I see happening from reiki. It’s a channel through which God can bless us.”

Does performing reiki put her faith in jeopardy?

“God’s wisdom and power are beyond what any one religion can contain,” she said. “Through research we can augment the truth and beauty of our religion.”

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