Reiki is Not Energy Medicine

By Karrie Osborn

If you’ve read the headline and are sitting there scratching your head, know that you’re not alone. It’s the same place I was when I first started talking to longtime Reiki Master and educator Pamela Miles about this concept over a year ago. From there to here goes something like this: I sent a message to Miles in 2018 about including a reiki article in an energy-themed issue of Massage & Bodywork. The problem with that idea?
“Reiki is not energy work.”
Wait, what? It took a few moments for Miles’s words to resonate. We quickly scheduled a phone call. I had not heard this reiki perspective expressed before. Had I been wrong throughout my nearly 22-year career with this magazine in thinking reiki was energy work? Hadn’t other experts over the past two decades conveyed to me those same thoughts of reiki being energy work as we discussed article ideas? Was I not receiving and perceiving reiki as a client over the years within the paradigm of energy work?
Confused and intrigued, I left head space for this concept to meander. And, with the expert on the subject ready to guide me through this reiki-as-spiritual-practice perspective, I wanted to understand further.
So, back to the question at hand: If reiki isn’t energy work, what is it?

“Reiki is a spiritual practice,” says 33-year reiki veteran Pamela Miles. If nothing else, the “story” of reiki shows us this.

“Our history begins with Mikao Usui, who lived in Japan from 1865 until his death in 1926,” Miles says. “He was a lifelong spiritual aspirant and a family man—a husband and father of two children. We don’t have a lot of really good documentation, but it seems that in 1922—perhaps at a peak of spiritual disappointment—he went to Mount Kurama, a sacred mountain in Japan. He was determined to fast and meditate until he either had a spiritual breakthrough (a satori) or he died. He told his friends, ‘If I don’t come down, please come collect my bones.’ Fortunately for us, he did have a spiritual breakthrough and that was the genesis of what we now call reiki practice.” Born of meditation and fasting, Miles says this history places reiki squarely in the realm of spiritual practice.
But there are more guideposts pointing to the identification of reiki as a spiritual practice, including its passive, noninvasive approach, and its call on the body to heal itself. But what’s most important, Miles says, is that if you are willing to consider the possibility that reiki is a spiritual practice and not an energy-based modality, it gives new life to the possibilities reiki holds—especially for an audience more willing to see its value in that spiritual light instead of being defined within a new-age paradigm.

What Reiki Is and Isn’t

“The reality is, there’s probably more misinformation about reiki practice than there is credible information,” Miles says. “When you combine that with the emotional investment many have in their practice, their business, and their lineage, it makes for a lot of confusion.”
Why is this important to understand? “Because there are absolutely no standards for reiki practice or education, none whatsoever, so people practice according to their understanding, and have made changes without noting them for their students and the public to know.” Miles believes the public needs to know about the wide diversity of practice approaches, because “there is an understandable expectation that all things reiki are the same, or very similar … and they are not.”
For example, Miles says, listen to the language. “When you hear reiki practitioners talk about intention, that’s not traditional reiki practice. Or when they talk about doing clearing, or ‘I have to remove a block in your energy field’—reiki practice is not like that. It doesn’t involve entering the person’s boundaries; we’re not violating the integrity of the individual.” Miles says when you practice reiki, you remain at the “periphery.” What’s carried in reiki-trained hands evokes a “remembered wellness,” and a self-healing response from deep within the receiver’s system. “That wellness is inviolable; it’s spiritual. It exists within our system, but it’s been pushed so far into the background that the physiologic ability to reengage at that level has been forgotten. Reiki practice helps the body remember.”
The presence of reiki hands reminds the body of its capacity to self-heal, Miles says. “We don’t know why it works, but as a spiritual practice, we don’t have to know why it works. We don’t, for example, know why prayer works (in the sense of providing support, not forcing outcomes), but we know people generally feel better after prayer. We can speak about reiki as a spiritual practice in an evidence-based, credible way (rather than a belief-based way). We don’t have to know everything, but if we want to be credible enough to bring reiki practice to more people, we do need to know the limits of our knowledge, and for that, we need to acknowledge the difference between facts and beliefs.”
Unfortunately, Miles says many reiki practitioners don’t respect that boundary of knowledge, and they share their belief system or pet theory as if it were fact … and that’s when they can “lose” people—especially when dealing with those in the medical community.

Making the Case for a Spiritual Practice

The distinction of reiki as a spiritual practice is bolstered by the very characteristics that make it unique.
1. When we practice reiki, it’s not energy work, because it’s not deliberate.
“Reiki is a mere presence effect,” Miles says. “We place hands mindfully and without intention, and we wait. But, when doing energy work, like Therapeutic Touch or Healing Touch (two energy therapies created by nurses that are very popular in the nursing community), or a traditional practice like medical qigong, or Donna Eden, Barbara Brennan, or Rosalyn Bruyere’s work—all valuable, beneficial therapies—the practitioner is actively trying to affect a change, a specific result, using specific pathways.” Reiki, she says, is more passive. It’s not trying to affect change. “It’s a mere touch that gently engages the self-healing wisdom of the receiver’s system.”
2. Reiki touch invites the body to do what it knows best how to do.
“Reiki is an invitation to the system to re-find its balance. The body responds from deep within itself with a self-healing response, which shows up first as a change in the breath and a down-regulation of the nervous system, a shift from sympathetic fight-or-flight overdrive to parasympathetic rest/digest dominance. From there, the individual’s system affects the change that is appropriate at that moment. The body’s response determines the details of the change in any given reiki treatment.”
For example, Miles says someone who is very agitated will likely say after a reiki session, “I feel calmer; I feel more centered now,” while someone who is depressed, lethargic, and unmotivated may get up from a reiki session and go clean a closet. They might feel empowered and motivated. “What those two people, with seemingly opposite responses, would have in common is they both feel more like themselves—they both feel better,” Miles says. “When we feel better, we function better … and we make better choices.”
3. Reiki Practice doesn’t breach boundaries.
Because reiki is an “invitation” to self-healing, it does not “infiltrate” the system of another or use any external force. “We’re not overriding the system or intervening. We’re not breaching any boundaries,” Miles says. “We’re simply placing our hands and waiting.”
Energy healing, Miles says, has a different modus operandi. “Energy work follows the medical model—diagnose, create a treatment plan, implement the plan, and evaluate the change; energy healing is an intervention rather than a practice. Energy workers might say they are helping balance the body, and they likely are, but they take specific actions based on their diagnosis.”
4. Reiki Practice encourages balance.
Miles says a recent participant at one of her Reiki & Medicine Intensives, who had been going through a very tumultuous, painful time, shared these thoughts: “I don’t think I’ve ever felt as safe as I felt on the table today.” Reiki recipients typically report feeling centered and balanced after a session. “Of course, reiki practice is healing, but it’s a spiritual practice in that it’s not just healing the body—it heals the whole system.”
Miles says healing comes from the most subtle aspect of our being, the spiritual core of who we are. “It’s a challenge to speak about that without it sounding like vitalism, which is where reiki practitioners typically go, especially if they come from a Judeo-Christian background, because that philosophy is dualistic—God and humanity are separate. Asian spirituality doesn’t see it that way; it’s a non-dual philosophy in which everything seen and unseen has arisen from the same, ever-present consciousness.”

Believe What You Want to Believe

But what about reiki practitioners who believe their practice is energy-based?
“No one needs to change the way they practice or their personal beliefs,” Miles says. “It’s more about the model you’re presenting to the public. If you insist upon presenting reiki practice with a new-age model—an energy model—you’ve just really limited your audience.” But Miles confirms most reiki practitioners operate under that model. “Almost everybody coming to my trainings, whether they’re coming to a first-degree (beginner’s) training or they are reiki professionals, are thinking in terms of the energy model.” But most of those who come to her have also seen the limitations of the reiki perspective they’ve had, or the way they were communicating, and they find it frustrating not to be able to share a practice they find so valuable without people rolling their eyes.
“I say it doesn’t matter what you believe; of course you can believe anything you want. But why do you communicate from your beliefs? Isn’t that religion? Just think in terms of engaging clients in a way that’s meaningful to them, and then they have their experience and they come to their own conclusions.” Instead of reiki teachers thinking it’s their job to indoctrinate people into their belief system, they could be focused on teaching students how to practice, and inspire and motivate their students to self-practice regularly. “Because daily self-practice unlocks the goods.”
Miles says she is always careful and considerate to draw a distinction between spirituality and religion. “I share the quote from [the actor] Peter Ustinov that says, ‘Beliefs are what divide people. Doubt unites them.’ Our presentation is more credible and welcoming when we make space for people’s doubt.”

How This Gives Reiki Practice Greater Credibility

Despite its foundation and characteristics, reiki practitioners don’t typically describe their work as a spiritual practice. “This is not the way reiki practice is generally expressed, and that’s why this conversation is so important,” Miles says. “The way the practice is usually expressed pushes away many people who would otherwise be interested in its benefits. While some are entranced by the new-age language and speculative model that are wrapped around reiki practice, many more people—especially the mainstream public and medical professionals—are turned off by it.” Miles says she’s met and taught many professionals who tolerate the language of the practice because of how beneficial their reiki experiences have been.
“For example, at a recent three-day Reiki & Medicine Intensive, one of the participants was a nurse who is actively working, and another was a reiki professional who had been asked to expand her hospital’s reiki program. These are people who are in health care, and they tell me they feel stymied by the language,” Miles says. “They can’t get up in front of colleagues and talk about reiki energy coming through and going where it’s needed.”
Miles says she understands that angst, because she was faced with the same dilemma when she was invited to set up the first hospital reiki program back in the 1990s. “I was personally uncomfortable with the usual language and model, and I knew I’d get nowhere in medicine if I insisted upon using it. Based on 25 years of spiritual practice before first experiencing reiki in 1986, I recognized it as a spiritual practice from the beginning. As I prepared to present reiki practice to doctors, I knew I had to be concise, use clear language to report what I’d been observing, and present a plausible model. I needed to envision the practice as doctors would see it, and highlight what would be valuable to them. This was in a hospital HIV clinic before we had the sophisticated treatments that help patients manage their disease today. Patients were frightened, in pain, and distrustful of conventional medicine. Reiki practice helped relieve their suffering and bring them present so they could be better partners to their health-care providers.”
But, Miles says, if the usual language is working for you, that’s great. “I’m certainly not saying anybody needs to change their practice or their presentation, but if you are uncomfortable with the language, or if you haven’t taken reiki practice seriously because of the way it’s been presented, let’s take another look at it.” There is tremendous value in the relief reiki practice can provide, and Miles says it’s a shame if people aren’t exploring it because of the language and model presented.

The Importance of Daily Self-Practice

Regardless the schools they attended, the lineages they follow, or their years of practice, Miles says there is only one question you really need to ask a professional reiki practitioner to know if they are qualified: Do you practice hands-on self-reiki every day?
“That is the deal breaker. If the person says anything other than, ‘Yes, of course,’ then I encourage the public to find someone else, because that’s where the profound understanding comes from: that daily self-practice.”
Why is self-practice so important? “Daily self-practice tethers you to your own inherent wellness, which then becomes your core identification and your command center,” Miles says. “That’s where you live from and that means it’s much more likely that you make choices that contribute to your happiness and health, and the well-being of others. It all comes back to the distinction between spiritual practice and energy work,” Miles says. “It’s as if reiki practitioners got so fascinated by the phenomena that they missed the heart of the practice. I can’t imagine missing a day of self-practice.”
Self-practice is especially critical if you will be laying hands on another. “If you aren’t practicing every day, you are unlikely to maintain your detachment when practicing on others. When people are ‘helpaholics,’ when they are on a rescue mission and have lost their detachment to outcomes, they are in danger no matter what they do. They start leaking their own vitality because they don’t have confidence in the practice. And it’s a lot harder to speak truthfully and meaningfully about reiki as a spiritual practice when you don’t have the experience yourself.”
If you have a self-practice protocol, Miles says be sure to follow it daily. “Just do what you were taught. As Hawayo Takata (who with her Reiki Master, Chujiro Hayashi—a direct student of Usui—brought reiki practice to the West) said, ‘Any reiki practice is better than none.’ I say, let’s move out of right and wrong and look at reiki practice as good and optimal. Anytime you can get even one hand to your body, that’s good; optimal is your full protocol.


It’s hard to talk about spirituality because we feel like we have to know everything about it. But spirituality is the realm of mystery, exploration, and discovery, Miles says. “It’s where we discover our values, where we discover meaning. When we go inside, that’s where we retreat to—our spiritual self. And that’s where we discover who we truly are, what matters to us, and what gifts we have to offer.”
Miles says it’s more important today than ever that people access their spirituality, their inner resources. “See the difference even a week of daily reiki self-practice makes in how you feel and how you function, in your attitude toward yourself, your work, your life, and how it protects you from burnout.”
From that base of self-care, Miles says you can share reiki practice with clients using straightforward, commonsense language that anyone can relate to. “Gently guide them to notice how your reiki touch adds to their session, drawing attention to discernible and rapid physiologic improvements in breathing, heart rate, even muscle tension, as well as the unfolding sense of centeredness and safety.”

Self-Practice Tools

Want help deepening your reiki self-practice or just need a good protocol to follow? Read “How to Practice Reiki Self-Treatment” at

Buyer Beware: Reiki Regulations Don’t Exist

Pamela Miles has been educating reiki practitioners for decades, and she is the first to tell you that reiki practice is not regulated in a way that creates standardization among practitioners or their training.
“There are absolutely no standards for reiki practice or education. Some people who consider themselves reiki masters have less training than my first-degree beginners.” For some, “getting certified” is as easy as watching a video. “Some watch canned trainings online and then hang up their shingles as reiki teachers. It is inconceivable to most people how meaningless reiki certificates are, or that many reiki professionals have no training in clinical skills or ethics.”
But Miles isn’t calling for regulation at a state level, especially given that reiki presents no danger to clients. “I do not favor that kind of regulation. I favor educating the public and health-care communities so people get the information they need to make informed choices about professional reiki treatment and reiki teachers.”

Reiki and Massage

Massage therapists who learn reiki can not only practice it on themselves for daily self-care and again briefly to refresh between appointments, they can also (with the permission of their client) integrate moments of reiki touch into their massage sessions. “Maybe at the beginning to help a client start to relax, or at a point of pain during the massage, or if they feel an area in the body is very tender or tight.” Miles says massage therapists tell her that when they use reiki in their sessions, they get the sensation of muscles melting under their hands, and they are then able to move into that area of the body more effectively. After reiki training, massage therapists often report back to Miles that their clients immediately sense a new depth to their touch.
Here are some other tips from Miles on how to practice reiki during a massage or bodywork session:
 1. Put your reiki hand on either the solar plexus or the crown of the head for a few moments to help the client settle before you start the massage.
2. During the course of the massage, if you find yourself at a place where there is congestion or the musculature is tight, rest your palms there.
3. Close the massage with a few minutes at the crown of the head or solar plexus. If the client is on their stomach, place your hands on the “back of the heart” and sacrum. Practicing reiki to close the session helps the person settle and brings them back to themselves in a very subtle, pleasant, delightful way. “It’s a little bit like shavasana at the end of a yoga class,” Miles says. “It’s a time to let the body be still and integrate the benefit of the massage.”

Pamela Miles, author of Reiki: A Comprehensive Guide (Tarcher, 2006), has been pioneering the  integration of reiki into conventional medicine since the 1990s. A reiki professional since 1986, Miles has collaborated with prestigious academic medical centers including Harvard and Yale medical schools, the National Institutes of Health, and New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. Miles teaches reiki practice in New York City and on live, interactive teleconferences, and offers reiki continuing education, including her signature Reiki & Medicine Intensive, to help professionals bring traditional reiki practice to the mainstream public and health care. Reach her at