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Reflections - At Ease

Photographs by Christopher Navin

As a massage therapist, your career is physically, emotionally and spiritually demanding. One way to avoid repetitive physical stress is to add variety in modalities, such as reiki to your practice.

My first semester of massage school, I was diagnosed with tendonitis in both of my arms and was advised by conventional health care specialists to drop out of school and forget a career in massage. Desperate to find an alternative approach to abandoning my dream, I turned to a massage therapist with a great reputation for helping difficult cases. That therapist told me that my neck and shoulders were as “hard as marble” and that I needed energy work.

The therapist suggested that I learn reiki. When asked what that was, she responded with “universal healing energy.” I rolled my eyes in disbelief and told her I was a scientist. The therapist gently replied: “If you are a scientist, then go experiment.” Without a quick retort, I decided that given my level of pain and strong desire to stay in massage training, getting reiki treatment was worth a try.

My skepticism melted away during my first reiki treatment as I felt a gentle, warm wave come over me and an immediate easing of tension in my neck and tingling in my arms. I also experienced a flashback of the moments before a rear-end collision I was involved in five years earlier. I could see the truck that was about to hit my van in my rearview mirror. My body shook for several minutes with the memory, and then I felt a strong sense of calm.

The power of this first experience inspired me to learn reiki and use it for self-care, which helped heal my tendonitis. Since that experience a decade ago, I have graduated from massage school and become a reiki teacher. I perform self-reiki on a daily basis, and I’m convinced this has helped me maintain a part-time integrative clinical practice and to teach reiki to several hundred students. Because of my own experience with healing myself, I am passionate about educating massage therapists, other health professionals and the public at large about the potential value of learning reiki.

Although the research about reiki is limited, what has been conducted reveals that it can be a helpful modality for both physical and emotional well-being as well as coping with a variety of health conditions. It’s something Sharon Woodbine, a reiki practitioner and massage therapist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has experienced firsthand. “It calms and centers me and balances my energy,” says Woodbine. “Normally my energy is a bit manic/frenetic, but after reiki, I slow down overall. It also eases muscle tension and alleviates body aches, or any physical concern for that matter.” And in an era when massage therapists and other health care practitioners face greater physical, mental and spiritual demands, and see clients with increasingly complex and chronic health conditions, reiki can be a valuable tool that can not only support mind/body wellbeing, but also add to your practice.

Becoming a Reiki Practitioner

In many ways, the reiki profession is in a position similar to where the massage profession was a decade ago, and as the massage community did, the reiki community could benefit from some self-reflection and standardization. The reiki community could also seek ways to standardize the training and experience requirements of practitioners through some sort of certification process. At least some schools of reiki have sought to standardize the training of their practitioners.

Although there’s great variation in the training time requirements, cost and training content within U.S. schools, in general terms, a reiki practitioner is focused on balancing the seven major energy centers of the body. These centers are referred to as chakras (see the illustration on page XX). By balancing these centers— which correspond to endocrine organs of the body—reiki practitioners help provide clients with maximum support for healing on multiple levels, including mind, emotions and spirit. With reiki practice, the practitioner serves as a conduit for energy from the universe—in other words, the energy is thought to flow through the practitioner to the client rather than from the practitioner.

Different schools have varying levels of training, all of them share an intention to heal on multiple levels:

  • Principles for approaching life (e.g., “just for today, I will live a life of gratitude”).
  • Hand positions for use on the body (intended to maximize balancing of the system).
  • Symbols and mantras that the teacher uses to “attune/initiate” the student (i.e., prepare the student to become a conduit of reiki energy).

Within the reiki curriculum, there are three levels of training that are largely distinguished by the number of symbols and mantras the student has learned. For example, in first-degree reiki, students learn how to give reiki to themselves and others, but learn no symbols or mantras. In second-degree reiki, they are taught symbols and mantras for empowerment, mental/emotional healing and distant healing (similar to prayer). For third-degree reiki, they learn the reiki master symbol, which enables them to attune themselves and others through teaching. Sometimes the third level is divided into teaching the master symbol first and how to teach later.

The length of time required to become a reiki practitioner and teacher varies tremendously. While Mikao Usui’s—a Japanese educator in the 1800s, who many consider to be the father of reiki—students are thought to have apprenticed with him for years before becoming teachers, some reiki instructors train people over the Internet or do multiple-level training in two weekends. Most others require weeks, months or years. In Usui reiki tradition, the term “reiki master” is often used to refer to someone who has attained the highest level of personal training of reiki, but is not yet ready to teach it. The term “reiki master teacher” distinguishes those who are ready to teach others.


The Benefits for You & Your Practice

Like other complementary modalities, relatively little research has been done on the mechanisms and efficacy of reiki. To date, research on reiki consists of case studies, case reports, descriptive studies and randomized controlled trials with a small number of subjects. In her recent book Reiki: A Comprehensive Guide, Pamela Miles1 summarizes the research evidence to date, and her analysis suggests that reiki is associated with:

  • overall enhanced well-being and vitality.
  • decreased levels of stress hormones.
  • improvement in immune indicators.
  • improved blood pressure.
  • decreased heart rate.
  • subjective improvements in anxiety and pain.
  • improvement in mood and functioning of depressed patients.

Miles1 highlights the challenges in doing credible reiki research, given the enormous variation in reiki training. She suggests that one way to overcome those challenges is to work with reiki practitioners trained by one reiki teacher (perhaps as part of the research project) and focus on assessing the impact of self-reiki on a group of patients who have the same condition. Despite the limited research to date, increasing numbers of hospitals are welcoming reiki practitioners, as clinical experience is showing that patients are recovering faster and feeling better with the use of reiki. As more clinicians of all types become aware of reiki’s value in treating various health conditions and for general wellness, the demand for people with dual training is likely to increase.

Pilot Study
Personally, I’ve had several clients receiving reiki treatment after back and heart surgeries who report requiring less pain medicine than their doctors expected. I’ve also seen cancer patients who were experiencing negative side effects of chemotherapy have those symptoms ease once they started reiki treatments. Since I’ve seen it work in my practice, I decided to do my own pilot study. A convenience sample of reiki practitioners in the Boston area—many of whom are also massage therapists—revealed consistent themes about the value of reiki for self-care and client care.

I sent a questionnaire to 40 former reiki students (out of a population of about 300), and asked them how long they have been practitioners, what made them decide to learn reiki, whether or not they were a massage therapist, what impact self-reiki has had on them, and why—if at all—they thought massage therapists should learn reiki. Most of the 30 respondents were massage therapists. In terms of self-care, people spoke about reiki’s capacity to help them feel more grounded, relaxed, focused and peaceful, as well as its ability to alleviate specific physical discomfort (e.g., sore backs and necks). Several reported using it in the morning before getting out of bed, at bedtime to help them sleep or to help prepare them for doing massage.

“I find it very relaxing,” says survey responder and reiki practitioner Trish Murphy. “It grounds me and empowers me to think positively about myself and decisions. In a world that leaves you little control, I know that I have a tool to regain some of that control.”

Reiki practitioners who are also massage therapists are important sources of information about how reiki is or is not helpful as an adjunct clinical tool. Ulrike ettling teaches reiki classes with her massage therapist husband in the Boston area. Dettling says that besides being a tool for self-care, reiki is also beneficial for therapists to know for cases when circulatory massage is contraindicated for their clients. “I find that reiki helps with envisioning what’s the crux of my clients’ issues,” says Lisa Santoro, a massage therapist and reiki practitioner who does a lot of myofascial release and scar work. “WHen I’m at the deepest levels of fascia, reiki helps give me some answers on what’s pulling on what.” Several respondents to my pilot study also spoke strongly about the value of combining massage and reiki to help clients feel calm and balanced—especially when clients come in with anxiety, stress or pain. “Massage therapists should learn reiki because it is a great way to start and finish a massage session,” says Clara Soto, a reiki practitioner and a massage therapist. “It helps calm peoples’ nerves about getting a massage, especially if it is the person’s first time seeing you. It brings comfort to the environment.”

1. Miles P. Reiki: a comprehensive guide. New York:
Tarcher/Penguin Group, 2006.


Accessing Proper Training

The challenge of finding reliable reiki training can be a bit daunting. But the best way to locate reiki teachers in your area (remember they area referred to as reiki master teachers), is to contact one of at least two professional reiki organizations in the United States who are member organizations with lists of potential teachers in your area: The International Association of Reiki Practitoners (IARP) at www.iarp.org or the International Center for Reiki Training and Vision publications at www.reiki.org. You can also check for any reiki continuing education opportunities in your area through AMTA ’s Learn `N Earn Continuing Education Calendar at www.amtamassage.org/cont_edu.html, or try asking other practitioners you know who have reiki training where they received it and what its strengths and limitations were. You can also contact the author, Cynthia Piltch, at capiltch@aol.com. Before enrolling in a class, it’s advisable to meet your potential teacher and get a reiki treatment from her or him. Assess how comfortable you feel with the person and whether you can imagine learning with him/her as your guide. You also should interview potential teachers about their level of experience (e.g., number of years practicing reiki, number of years teaching reiki, number of students taught, number of current reiki clients) and how often they practice self-reiki. If they practice less than daily, inquire why, since practice is so important to maximizing reiki effectiveness.

How do Reiki & Massage Compare?

Both reiki & massage:

  • have long histories.
  • are high-touch/ low-tech and involve the laying on of hands (although reiki can also be done above the body).
  • are complementary to conventional medicine.
  • require training.
  • involve similar levels of time (usually one hour treatments) and money ($50 to $100 per session, depending on the location and experience of practitioner) for clients to receive therapy.

Despite these similarities, the two modalities have several differences including:

  • massage focuses on healing soft tissue while reiki focuses on the human energy system as a whole (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual).
  • massage involves a variety of strokes, while reiki uses a gentle pattern of holding, much like the passive body work that some massage therapists do.
  • massage has had substantially more research done than reiki to support its efficacy.
  • massage is substantially more regulated than reiki in the United States and requires at least 500 hours of classroom training for certification, while reiki requires only one to several days of classroom instruction to be certified (by the reiki teacher) as a reiki practitioner.
  • massage involves clients getting undressed for therapy, while reiki is done fully clothed.
  • the massage profession is increasingly organized and regulated in this country, while the reiki profession is individualistic and unregulated.

    How it Started

    A variety of interpretations of reiki history exist. The following are commonly agreed-upon facts; however, alternative interpretations may exist. Reiki is a Japanese term with several translations, the most common of which is “universal healing energy.” Reiki is a gentle, hands-on (or slightly above the body) energetic balancing modality. Classes teach that Mikao Usui—a Japanese educator in the 1800s who is considered the father of reiki—discovered the key symbols of reiki during a 21-day meditation retreat on a mountain in Japan. Subsequently, he went on to use reiki to help many people with hands-on healing sessions and to train other reiki practitioners. Usui is considered the first reiki master and he is thought to have trained several others, including a naval officer named Chujiro Hayashi, who upon Usui’s death, succeeded him in leading reiki in Japan. Hawayo Takata— who lived in Hawaii and traveled to Japan for health care—eventually received reiki master training from Hayashi, and is credited with bringing reiki to the United States. Before her death in 1980, she reportedly trained 22 reiki masters, a term used to refer to someone who had met the level of learning and practice necessary to teach/initiate others to reiki. Since reiki has an oral tradition (Takata did not allow students to take notes), there was probably great variation in the details understood by various masters. After Takata’s death, reiki leadership in the United States did not rest with one reiki master. Instead, two protégés of Takata’s—Barbara Weber Ray and Phyllis Lei Furumoto—claimed authority and developed different branches of Usui reiki. Since then, numerous other schools of reiki have emerged (e.g., Kahuna and Radiance), which inevitably has led to more variation in its practice.*


The following poses by Cynthia Piltch are for demonstration purposes only. They are designed to be used only after after receiving initiation/attunement and training from from a reiki master teacher.

Place your cupped hands over your eyes, which corresponds to the sixth chakra (i.e. third-eye chakra). This chakra is associated with the pituitary gland, hypothalmus, intuition and the color indigo.
Place palms on either side of the top of your head, with your fingers touching in the middle of your crown. This corresponds to the seventh chakra (i.e., crown chakra), and is associated with the pineal gland, upper brain and self-realization. It’s also associated with the colors violet.
Place palms on either side of your neck, by crossing your arms and placing your thumbs on the opposite side of your chin and the rest of your hand on that side of your neck, or by placing each hand on the side of your neck parallel to that hand. This corresponds to the fifth chakra (i.e., throat chakra) and is associated with the thyroid gland, vocal chords, self-expression and the color sky blue.
Place palms on the chest, with one hand slightly over the other (or with hands on either side of the breast bone with fingers touching). This corresponds to the fourth chakra (i.e., heart chakra) and is associated with the thymus, physical heart, love/compassion and the color green.
Place palms on either side of your sternum with your middle fingers touching. This corresponds to the third chakra (i.e., solar plexus chakra) and is associated with the adrenal glands, stomach, gall bladder, power/wisdom and the color yellow.
Place your palms on either side of your navel, with your middle fingers touching. This corresponds to the second chakra (i.e., sacral chakra) and is associated with the gonads, reproductive organs, emotions and the color orange.
Place your palms on your lower abdomen with your middle fingers touching. This corresponds to the first chakra (i.e., base chakra) and is associated with kidneys, bladder, security and the color red.
This anti-stress position involves placing one hand on your thyroid or chest and the other one on your navel to support the initiation of relaxation.


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