Alternative MedicineAnti-Science

The Daily Woo: Reiki

The Daily Woo is a brief summary of an alternative health treatment, as well as how it was experienced by me, Kate Donovan. I grew up with mostly alternative medicine, and now you, lovely skeptics, get to live vicariously! (see note at the bottom of this post for an explanation of my attitude towards practitioners of pseudoscience.)

Reiki (ray-kee) is one of the more well-known pseudo-therapies. It is ‘energy-healing’, or the closest you can get to intent actually being magical. There’s two varieties, the Japanese original, and the Western adaptation. My experience is with the latter, so we’ll stick to that.*
Bonus: I can teach you to feel your own ‘healing’ hands!

Reiki is the notion that one can, with some level of training, manipulate and channel a mysterious life energy in oder to heal. Fishy? Yes. This energy is invisible, immeasurable, and oddly enough, only felt by practitioners and patients. According to the International Center for Reiki Training, and the Center for Reiki Healing and Wellness, you can use this energy to:

  • treat anxiety and depression
  • heal sexual/physical/emotional abuse
  • make plants have more chlorophyll
  • heal pets of all kinds
  • treat wounds
  • prep patients for surgery
  • increase white blood cell count

Holy force field, Batman!

Heal plants, treat mental illness, and fix Fido, all with your own mind! But, you say with head in your hands, what about the….science?  Practitioners claim there’s real evidence of the healing powers of….not touching people. This is patently false. At best, it demonstrates a marked lack of understanding of experimental set up. And physics. And anatomy. And the placebo effect. Even the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine has concluded that:

The serious methodological and reporting limitations of limited existing Reiki studies preclude a definitive conclusion on its effectiveness.


Theraputic Touch (TT), the adaptation of reiki used far too often in hospitals and other medical settings does worse than random chance in experiments. That’s right, patients were asked to note where a hand was that was treating them…and they did worse in trying to ‘feel the energy’ than we could expect if we’d just asked them to flip a coin. Really.

A Reiki Session

The patient lies on a massage table (I’ve always been face-up). The healer will place their hands over different parts of the body, especially the ‘chakras’, which are the crown of the head, the forehead between the eyebrows, the throat, the heart, the solar plexus, the connection between the pelvis and the spine, and the feet. Normally, the feet are grasped, with thumbs pressed into each arch. I won’t deny, it feels nice. Personal attention is great, and in the typical hour session, you get someone who will listen and acknowledge your every feeling. So, of course you go away feeling better. I always did.

The problem is, not one of these healers is bound by a code of ethics. There’s discussion of ethical behavior, sure. Except…

  • It’s totally unethical to be selling a sham treatment in the first place.
  • There’s no governing body, and no consequences if you do not behave in an ethical manner.

These aren’t just reiki problems–they permeate alternative medicine. I once had an alt-med practitioner (not of reiki) disclose some private information to my mother–something I realized had happened only when she brought it up to me as common knowledge. I was horrified, and to this day, I have no idea how much personal information was shared over the years I was treated. The fact is, I, and every other patient, don’t even have a leg to stand on in protesting this.

Make Your Own Healing Hands

Stick your arms out at, a la zombie walking. Close your eyes. Imagine energy–or if that’s just too woo-y, water or air–flowing out of the center of your palms. Feel free to pick a color for the stuff, because why not? Can you feel it? Now try to imagine it coming out of that space between your eyebrows, just below your hairline. That’s your ‘third eye’. Now, try to feel it coming out of your elbows. No, really.

If you felt sensation out of your hands and forehead, and less/not at all from your elbows, don’t be surprised. You’ve got substantial clusters of nerves in the first two, and very little in your elbows. So, you can focus attention and get a bodily response much more easily from hands and face. Is it any surprise that chakras are centered on nerve clusters?

The body is a fascinating bit of interlocking, coordinating parts. There’s so much to discover and learn and feel and touch. Isn’t that better than pretending that some hovering hands have any effect on our complex multitude of processes?

 Note: I am rather snarky in my dismissal of these practices. Alternative medicine does real physical and mental harm. It does not deserve kid gloves. People deserve respect, their bad ideas and the damage they do to others does not.

*Of all the practitioners I’ve met, not a single one has done purely reiki. Often it’s paired with crystal healing (to be discussed in this series as well) or massage therapy.

Featured images from here and here.

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Kate Donovan

Kate Donovan

Kate is an outspoken atheist, feminist, demisexual, stigma-busting student in Chicago studying psychology and human development. She juggles occasionally, would knit you something warm if she knew you, and reads anything she can get her hands on. She was raised believing alternative medicine worked, and now spends her time making skeptical faces at it. You can find her on Twitter at @donovanable


  1. June 29, 2012 at 12:56 pm —

    What you say is true, about Reiki feeling good because of the complete, focused personal attention. Exactly what I thought after my first Reiki treatment – Hold me down for an hour, no telephone, no kids, no decisions…Hell Yes I’m going to feel great! So I was prepared to write off Reiki as just another WooWoo Rip-off. However, how to explain the healing my horse experienced after receiving Reiki? My Vet was so astonished by the complete lack of progress of my horse’s tumor that she paid for all the testing herself. Yes, the tumor was there, but it wasn’t growing and this type of tumor was the poster child for aggressive. In the end, she could only shake her head and say “I don’t know what-in-the-HELL is going on here, but this just doesn’t make sense. She should be dead by now!” I was too new to Reiki to say what we were doing. My Vet grilled me on what I was feeding her, what supplements I was using, every little detail was examined and evaluated. SHe even sent the water out for analysis. All at considerable expense, to her!

    My point is, animals don’t lie (OK, pigs do but that’s another issue entirely!). How do you measure the ‘placebo effect’ in horses, dogs, cats and birds? I came to Reiki by watching the effect it had on animals. So, yes, I can be ‘fooled’, even duped! But my dog can’t. Either it worked, or it didn’t. And who evaluates whether it ‘worked’? I’ve had 2 vets, in 2 separate instances, 2 separate animals, tell me that ‘What just happened is impossible’! in regards to animals under their care experiencing miraculous healing. And Reiki was involved both times.

    Oh, and as for your comment about never receiving ‘Pure Reiki”? Yes, that is a huge frustration of mine because we can no longer talk apples-to-apples when it comes to Reiki. I practice Reiki. Plain, simple, Reiki as taught by Takata who taught it to her granddaughter Furumoto who taught it to Bell who taught it to me.

    So, the above are my experiences. I was a strong skeptic, a cynic actually, when I first ‘met’ Reiki. I agree with you that now there are many, many ‘reiki practitioners’ practicing something and calling it Reiki. However, those I know who practice Reiki as taught by Takata all have their own healing stories/experiences they can tell you about. So, ‘buyer beware’, but don’t throw out all Reiki because some reiki doesn’t produce what it promises.

    • June 29, 2012 at 10:27 pm —

      Okay. I’m going to do my best to address everything you’ve said with the caveat that I’m not nearly so proficient in this subject matter as Kate is.

      First, all of the “evidence” towards Reiki’s efficacy is anecdotal. This means it isn’t actual evidence, plain and simple.

      Second, your argument that animals can’t be influenced by the placebo effect is a common and flawed argument used to support alternative medicine. Here is a helpful link to address that:

      Is There a Placebo Effect for Animals?

      Third, you used quotes around the term placebo effect. I’m not sure if this was meant to dismiss it as not a real thing, but in case that was your intent, it’s real. This isn’t idea that continues to be debated.

      Lastly, you addressed Kate’s lack of experience with “pure Reiki.” Two things here. First, what she meant by this is that she’s never had a Reiki session performed by someone who only practices Reiki, not that she hasn’t received a session composed only of Reiki. Second, you use the “No true Scotsman” fallacy in this address. Here’s another helpful link:

  2. July 5, 2012 at 10:53 am —

    Thanks Kate, for sharing all the faults Reiki practitioners have. As practitioners of Complementary Medicine we have a long way to go to gain credibility it seems.
    The Reiki I practice has nothing to do with the Chakras – as that is East Indian not Japanese, and crystals while lovely aren’t Reiki either.

    Two summers ago, I was fortunate to have a Dachshund client. In 6 weeks, he was able to recover from a medically diagnosed case of herniated discs. His owner was very happy, and it was a great experience for me too.

    Once again thanks for your post.

  3. October 15, 2012 at 1:13 pm —

    Lorinda, the first treatment for herniated discs is rest, and gentle physical therapy. There is no evidence to suggest that any treatment you provided had any effect on the dachshund either way – the likelihood is, as with the vast majority of herniated disc cases, the problem resolved itself without intervention.

    The term “Complementary Medicine” is a bad one – if it works, it’s medicine. Simple as that. To know whether it works, it should be tested properly under test conditions. Reiki has been tested repeatedly and shown to not work. Hence, it is not medicine, complementary or otherwise.

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