Reiki for Sustainable Health Care

By Pamela Miles
[Energy Work]

The massage therapist on my table was in pain, but not physical pain. Tears flowed as she explained that she feels so drained after a day of providing oncology massage that she’s forgotten why she ever thought she could help people with cancer. She feels confused and guilty about her loss of enthusiasm, and her conflict is spilling over to her work with other clients. 

Like so many health-care professionals—licensed, unlicensed, conventional, complementary, or alternative—my new client had not yet discovered that the care of the client begins with the care of the caregiver. Her generous heart reached out to help those in need, but she didn’t have a daily self-care practice beyond brushing her teeth. 

Hoping to empower her self-care, I asked if she had ever thought of practicing reiki. She replied that she had trained as a reiki master last year, but only used it when a client specifically asked for energy work. 

“Actually,” I said, “I was thinking of reiki self-practice. Do you ever give yourself a reiki treatment?”

“No,” she said. “I did for the first three weeks, as instructed, to help my body adjust to the new reiki energy, and then I stopped.”

I knew I had to choose my words carefully. The last thing she needed was to feel criticized or corrected, but I knew that reiki self-practice could bridge the disconnect between her heart’s desire and her hopelessness. 

“I don’t know about reiki energy,” I said, “but I know that reiki practice is balancing and can be helpful at any time, not just the first three weeks.”

Her eyes sprung open as she asked, “You don’t know about reiki energy? Then what are you doing? What am I feeling?”

“I don’t know. What are you feeling? Can you describe your experience?” 

“It’s hard to put into words,” she started. “I feel a sense of flow, as if energy were pouring through my body, and sometimes pulsating. And I feel like I’d fall into a deep meditation if I weren’t so stunned by what you just said.”

I asked if she’d ever felt these sensations before.

“Yes, I have, actually … usually during an acupuncture treatment, or in shavasana at the end of yoga class. And once I felt them very strongly when I went chanting with a friend.”

“Is it possible it’s not reiki energy you’re feeling, but rather your own system reorganizing itself toward greater balance and coherence?” I asked.

“I never thought of it that way, but it makes sense,” she said, and paused before adding, “That feels right somehow.”

“Imagine giving yourself that same balancing benefit at least once a day, and more often when needed,” I suggested. “Since reiki practice is balancing from within you, it is refreshing and helps you stay in touch with yourself in a simple, yet profound way. It might be just what you need to find peace with yourself and your work, and stay connected to the compassion that drew you to oncology massage.”

Reiki Spiritual Practice

Reiki is often thought of as “energy work” or “energy medicine,” and it clearly has therapeutic benefits and applications. Nonetheless, reiki belongs alongside chanting, meditation, prayer, tai chi, yoga, and others in the category of spiritual practices. 

Spiritual practices arise in all cultures. Regardless their form or orientation, whether they involve stillness or movement, silence or sound, they all have the same goal: to influence our systems toward balance. This shift toward balance often brings a sense of greater clarity and ease, and of feeling simultaneously relaxed and energized. The decluttering that accompanies spiritual practice, and the increased sense of inner alignment, enables us to live with greater awareness of ourselves and the world around us.

Consistent spiritual practice forges a pathway to our innermost reality, our spiritual core. Repetition is key, because it is only through repetition that we create pathways that change our habitual responses, particularly our response to challenge. These pathways are not only metaphysical, but also physiologic.

The pioneering research of affective neuroscientist Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has shown that those who meditate develop neural pathways in the brain that support a less stressful approach to life. It is too soon to extrapolate Davidson’s findings to all spiritual practice, but it is likely that these findings have some generalizability beyond meditation. 

Let’s clearly distinguish spiritual, which refers to a part of our nature, and religious, which refers to a complex system of beliefs. We are spiritual beings just as we are physical, mental, emotional, and social beings. We may choose to develop any of these aspects of ourselves, or not. Regardless our engagement in these various aspects of ourselves, they are still part of who we are. 

Irrespective one’s religion or chosen spiritual practice, spiritual experiences have some common characteristics. Spiritual experiences typically involve a sense of transcendence—of being something greater than our individual selves—and a feeling of oneness and open-ended, all-enveloping beneficence or love. It is through spiritual experience that we discover wholeness and meaning, venturing beyond the limits of what can be known, and embracing mystery.

Spiritual practices connect us to our unique inner perspective in much the same way physical exercise and movement connects us to our own bodies. Although spiritual practices may be wrapped in religious or cultural trappings, the practices themselves are neutral and nondogmatic. 

The catch to reaping the benefits of spiritual practice is that we have to actually practice. Spiritual practice is not a spectator sport; it is participatory. No one else can do our practice for us. And we don’t really get more skilled at spiritual practice; rather, we become more deeply engaged as we practice consistently over time. 

Spiritual Practice or Health-Care Modality?

Spiritual practices such as meditation, reiki, and yoga carry health benefits that are increasingly documented by research, but let’s not blur the distinction between spiritual practice and health-care modalities. 

The goal of spiritual practice is to stay mindfully connected to our essential self. Health benefits such as stress reduction and enhanced self-healing are by-products of the centering that is an essential part of any spiritual practice. 

By contrast, health-care interventions such as bodywork and energy work target specific health outcomes directly, in accordance with the basic medical model. Health-care practitioners listen to the patient’s complaint, form a diagnosis according to their modality, create an appropriate treatment plan, implement the treatment plan, and then assess the response. 

The approach of a reiki practitioner is much simpler. The reiki practitioner does not need to know the client’s complaint, nor does the client need to have one. The reiki practitioner places hands lightly on the client, or on herself for self-treatment. No diagnosis is required, and the same protocol can be used in any situation; modified as circumstances require, such as when the practitioner or receiver have limited range of motion; or completely set aside as needed. Additionally, the practice has no time constraints. Even a few moments of reiki touch can be profoundly beneficial, especially in an emergency or time of distress. 

Since only the length of time and the number of hands can be quantified, and the impact of those variables is not linear, reiki treatment cannot be dosed in a medical sense. Any reiki contact can be beneficial, and the only guideline for treatment is that, within reason, more is generally better. 

Reiki practice is balancing, and there is no pathology attached to balance, so overdosing is not a concern. Since the touch is non-manipulative, very light, or just off the body, and the client isn’t ingesting anything through the mouth or skin, there are no instances when reiki practice is contraindicated. 

The focus in developing oneself as a bodyworker is on skills of execution; students learn how to do something, and to do it well enough to effect a change in the client. The most critical skill in all spiritual practice, however, is the skill of omission, learning to practice with economy of effort so that there is more being and less doing

Reiki practice occupies a unique position in the continuum of spiritual practice and health-care intervention. Although the foundation has always been self-practice, even students beginning their training are able to share reiki practice informally with family and friends (including the four-legged kind). The experience of practicing reiki on others is settling and centering for the practitioner as well as the receiver. Reiki practice never involves the kind of effort needed for other health-care interventions. 

And this is why reiki practice is invaluable in today’s health care, because it offers sustainable care to clients and providers simultaneously. 

Returning to the Roots 

Traditionally, healing and spirituality have always been intertwined. Cross-culturally, the training of traditional healers included spiritual practice. This began to change with the advent of science. The separation between spiritual practice and health care has been finalized by the recent rise of technological, evidence-based medicine, and patients and professionals alike are paying the price. The burnout rate in conventional medicine is alarmingly high, peaking in specialties with a high degree of stress: critical care, emergency medicine, and oncology.

But burnout is not limited to conventional health-care providers. The level of burnout among providers of holistic modalities, such as bodywork, is alarming. 

The good news is that what’s good for our clients is also good for us, and this is the foundation of sustainable health care. Our clients need us to be well nourished and steady, and we need it, too. Nourishment and steadiness come from anchoring ourselves daily in the very core of our being. We lose our steadiness when we allow the outer details to pull us out of ourselves, and from there we easily slip into anxiety and hopelessness. 

Connecting with a source through daily spiritual practice changes everything. We feel vibrant, at ease, and more ourselves. Spiritual practice also gives us the courage and the presence to look at what we do with ever-fresh eyes, so that we continually bring forth our gifts from deep within us and offer them to those we serve, as well as to the world beyond ourselves. 

Our happiness demands that we stay connected to a sense of service, meaning, and agency—knowing that our actions matter even if we cannot control the outcome. Daily spiritual practice is how we stay present today and build our future well-being. With reiki practice, it’s as simple as placing our hands mindfully on our bodies.

In an effort to join the health-care establishment, let’s be careful not to replicate the mistake of severing caregiving from spiritual practice. Perhaps our most profound contribution to health care is the reality of self-care, and since spiritual practice connects us to a sense of meaning, it is a core component of our self-care practice. It doesn’t matter which spiritual practice we choose, but if we are to sustain the effort of caring for others, particularly those with serious diagnoses, we need a spiritual practice to support our well-being. 

Spiritual practice is the pathway through which we come to be the change we want to see in the world, as Mahatma Gandhi so wisely advised. 

Seek Out Credible Reiki Training 

There are no regulations for reiki treatment or training, so it’s important to choose your practitioner or teacher carefully. 

You can learn to practice reiki self-treatment in a 12-hour group class. Look for an experienced teacher whose training took a few years rather than a few hours, who is professional, and with whom you feel a rapport. Ask if the teacher practices hands-on reiki self-treatment every day. Since this is the foundation practice, if the answer is “no,” or even “mostly,” move on. Find out what practice and mentoring opportunities the teacher offers once your first-degree class is finished. 

First-degree, hands-on practice is all most people need. Keep it simple and you’ll practice for life.  


  A Reiki Master based in New York City, Pamela Miles has pioneered reiki practice in conventional medicine for 20 years, developing hospital reiki programs, participating in research, publishing in peer-reviewed medical journals, and teaching reiki professionals to collaborate in conventional health care. She is the author of Reiki: A Comprehensive Guide (Tarcher, 2008). For more information, visit