Is Reiki Flaky?

300px-ReikiImage via Wikipedia

Recently I interviewed a colleague, Kathy Fleetwood, about her Reiki practice. She lit up. “It’s changed my life,” she declared.

Last year, Kathy’s mother came down with something that doctors tentatively diagnosed as Parkinson’s. She lost weight, was too exhausted to work, ached all over, and walked with a shuffle and a stoop. Kathy flew home to the UK over Christmas, and gave her two Reiki treatments a day for ten days. A month later her mother was back to normal. The doctors couldn’t say what had happened.

Kathy’s brother is a heroin addict. He has come close to losing a leg from systemic infections. Kathy has given him Reiki when he needed a fix, and the cravings ceased for a day or two. She credits the Reiki for the fact that he still has his legs.

“It’s not coming from me, it’s the energy,” Kathy says. Reiki has been popular in the UK for over a decade; it is widely accepted there as a treatment for all sorts of ills.

In the U.S., Reiki is now being used on cancer patients in respected treatment centers:

Reiki is often described as a treatment that helps life energy to flow in a patient—an explanation not generally accepted by scientists. Barrie Cassileth, chief of the Integrative Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, calls the energy theory “absurd” but says light-touch therapy can have a “great relaxing effect” on cancer patients “who are constantly poked, prodded and given needles.”

I have been using Reiki in my practice for over a decade. I cannot give any scientific opinion about its efficacy, because with the number of different techniques I use, it’s impossible to say which are getting results, or whether it’s the integration of therapies itself which is effective. So all I can offer are my observations, as distinct from my beliefs, which change from year to year. (Belief, for me, is a tool for enquiry–if I subscribe to this philosophy, what are its effects in my life? What about that one? Next year, let’s try Buddhism!)

Some phenomenae I have observed in my practice:

  • If I start doing Reiki while a client is talking, they usually fall silent, sometimes in the middle of a sentence.
  • If they aren’t talking, they often fall asleep. Suddenly, with a slight snore.
  • Their muscles will sometimes release along an entire fascial pathway, with an abrupt jerk or shudder.
  • They feel heat coming from my hands.
  • During or after a session, they report a cessation of pain and anxiety, profound relaxation, and the occasional vision, color display or ‘spiritual experience.’
  • Over time, they describe a progressive increase of energy, positive motivation, and decrease of chronic pain.

All of this is mild, anecdotal, and easily explained away by the placebo effect. Any claim that Reiki is a cure for all ills is greatly exaggerated. But the placebo effect is an effect–it is the body’s response to the mind’s reassurance. All of our minds need more reassurance than we usually get.

What I have found is that Reiki imbues my work with reverence. It causes me to stop and contemplate the fact, as Kathy says, that I’m not the one in control here. It reminds me to observe myself, observe my clients, to acknowledge how little I know, and motivates me to discover more.

In other words, it’s a ritual tool for getting my ego out of the way.

So I have no quarrel with skeptics who dismiss Reiki as so much BS. I do not know whether I am channelling healing purple light through my palms, and I have no way to prove it one way or the other. I do know that we’re all going to die sooner or later, and Reiki won’t change that. The best I can do for my clients is to help them make their finite time more pleasant, and possibly more conscious.


To book a session with Kathy, please contact the Balance Health Center in Center City. For affordable Reiki, tryKensington Yoga and Reiki, just down the street from Practical Bodywork.

Fear Itself

Scientists get around to noticing the obvious:

What if Sullivan’s anxiety wasn’t merely an emotional side effect of her difficult life but the central issue affecting her health? According to research that Burke had been reading, the traumatic events that Sullivan experienced in childhood had likely caused significant and long-lasting chemical changes in both her brain and her body, and these changes could well be making her sick, and also increasing her chances of serious medical problems in adulthood.

As the New Yorker article indicates, research into the long-term effects of childhood trauma is in its infancy, but I see it every day in my practice. The body remembers everything that happens to it, whether these memories remain in the conscious, working mind or not. Chronic illness and unexplained pain correllates with past trauma, more often than not. The chain of cause and effect may not be scientifically mapped, but do we need to know the precise cause of a wound before we stanch the bleeding?

Beautiful Kensington

When we moved to Philadelphia, Joe and I spent a LOT of time house-hunting. We scoured every neighborhood in the city, often block by block, photographing every ‘for rent’ sign on every halfway decent building. We wanted light, space, affordability, and that elusive phenomenon, ‘community.’

In Kensington, it seemed like the sun was always shining. Perhaps it’s a function of architecture–the buildings aren’t too tall, there are open spaces between them, and the residents like to garden.


Take a walk down the Frankford Avenue arts corridor; First Friday art openings are only a block away. If the galleries aren’t open, just stroll down Norris between Frankford and Front. You’ll discover the magical Norris Passage mural project for yourself.


Joe and I don’t agree about the best neighborhood café; he spends his spare time in the Rocket Cat, drinking Rocket fuel, while I could happily move in at Leotah’s. Both of them have comfy couches, friendly baristas, rotating art exhibits, excellent food, and a sound track that makes you feel like Hemingway in Paris.


Saturday afternoons, you can take a tour of the Philadelphia Brewing Company, and sample a fistful of scrumptious brews in their Dickensian tasting room. You will definitely want to take home a sampler case, available at bargain prices in the York Street Beer Barn (well, the sign says ‘Philadelphia Beer Co.,’ but…).


Oh, and yes, there’s an actual community. The Kensington Community Food Co-op doesn’t have a physical location yet, but they’re well on their way to obtaining one, and they throw great parties! Become a member and get discounts at twenty local businesses, including Practical Bodywork.


And now, I will let you in on a deep dark secret. This nineteenth-century police station for sale at the corner of Trenton and Dauphin is the potential future home of the Practical Bodywork Integrative Wellness Center. Envision those cinder-blocked windows framing a warren of treatment rooms, a meditation garden and an indoor therapy pool. All we need is time, working capital and the support of our beautiful community.

UPDATE: The police station is now being renovated into condos and, it is rumored, a bank on the first floor. I devoutly hope that it’s the Philadelphia Federal Credit Union, as that would mean I didn’t have to go downtown to deposit checks, but this is unconfirmed as of December 2012.

(Also featured: The Rocket Cat Café; photo by Joe Rosato)

The Mechanics of Miracles

After twelve years of practice, I’m finally getting around to reading Anatomy Trains, by Tom Myers. It’s blowing my mind–not so much because it’s giving me new information, but because it’s describing why my way of doing bodywork has the results it does.

For example, it’s a common thing for a client to come in complaining of neck pain, and wonder why I spend so much time working on their feet. Actually, they don’t wonder; they say things like, “wow, I can feel that all the way up to the top of my head.” They go away thinking I did magic.

But I’m not a magician; neither do I have an encyclopedic knowledge of anatomy (though I’m working to remedy that.) My hands know how to seek the areas of strain in your body, and I don’t assume I know where all of them are. If you have a pain in your hip, I’ll work your hip, but I’ll also work every area that connects to your hip in any direction, which means your whole body.

Because the human body is not built like a brick warehouse. It’s not a pile of units that stack linearly on top of one other from the ground up, dependent upon gravity to keep them stable. It’s more like a knot of Tinker Toys held together by rubber bands; it’s flexible, resilient, and held together by all-over tension. This kind of structure is called tensegrity.


Edward Villella: not a brick warehouse.

What this means in practice is that when one area of your body comes under strain, the whole structure adjusts to distribute that strain. This means that you are capable of absorbing considerably more shock per square inch than a brick warehouse. It also means that your whole body is only as strong as its weakest link. If you’re putting inordinate strain on your right arm over a long period of time, it’s quite possible for this to manifest as chronic failure of your left ankle. (It happened to me.)

One of the phrases in the book that I loved was, “The victim screams, not the thug.” Just because you’re hurting in one place doesn’t mean that spot is the source of the problem. Particularly if you’ve been in pain for more than a day or two, and particularly if the pain isn’t resulting from an obvious, sudden injury, it’s much more likely to be a result of compensatory strain.

Recently I had a client–a dancer–declare, “when I cough, I get an agonizing pain in my piriformis.” I worked her piriformis, of course, but didn’t find any significant adhesions, certainly nothing that would cause ‘agonizing pain.’ So in addition to my regular sequence of back, hips, legs, feet, arms and neck, I worked her rib cage. She said, “that’s interesting, nobody has done this before. Feels amazing.”

While she was dressing, I heard experimental coughing sounds coming from the treatment room. She emerged to report, “I can cough without crippling myself!” Further experiments will continue.

Let’s Go Dancing!

Do you feel like you’re fighting a losing battle with gravity? Have you stopped going dancing? Do you skip workouts because it hurts too much?

I know what that’s like.

But there’s hope! Meet your fascia. It holds you together. And, as this groovy video shows, it’s capable of shifting in nearly infinite ways:

Notice how everything slides and moves? What that means is that with a little help, we can rearrange your tissue so that your body supports itself in harmony with gravity, not at war with it.

So I’ve designed some special packages that use structural myofascial technique to address your unique stress patterns, subtly realign your body, and address areas of chronic pain, freeing up your energy for dancing. Sound good? All righty then.

The packages consist of three to six ninety-minute sessions, spaced about two weeks apart. At the beginning of each session, I’ll do a detailed analysis of your alignment, your stress patterns and areas of restriction. Then we’ll work out a customized treatment plan.

The first hour of each session will be fairly intense structural work. I might have you get on the table in side-lying or three-quarter position, supported by pillows and towels, so I can get deep into your hips, ribcage and fascia lata. Each session will focus on a different area of concern, starting from the ground up. Over the course of the series, we’ll continue to reassess and realign different parts of your body, integrating the work as we go.

The last half hour of the session, we’ll complement the structural work with some scrumptious deep tissue, Swedish massage and energy work, allowing you to relax completely and sending your brain into a theta-wave state. Lots of structurally-oriented bodyworkers skip this part, but I believe that it’s one of the most important elements of the session.

You see, your immune system kicks into high gear when your body relaxes deeply. The longer you stay in that state, the more energy your body puts into healing itself. Thus, the effects of your session may be multiplied exponentially by jump-starting your own healing capacities.

And before long, you’ll be standing on your head, just for fun.


Why Practical?

So why did I decide to name my massage therapy practice ‘Practical Bodywork’?

For entirely pragmatic reasons, of course.

On the West Coast, where I got my training, everybody names their businesses things like ‘Soul Harmony,’ and gets away with it. On the East Coast, this is openly mocked. I wanted a name that I could pronounce in front of a loan officer without cringing.

More importantly, I wanted to emphasize my conviction that taking excellent care of yourself on all levels–physical, mental, emotional and spiritual–IS practical.

What is impractical, in my view, is waiting to address your health until you have an incapacitating problem, then going to a doctor. This doctor may spend 8-15 minutes examining you, then order expensive diagnostic tests, which your health insurance (if you have it) may or may not pay for. Then a treatment is prescribed which may or may not alleviate your symptoms.

What you usually don’t get, unless you have a truly extraordinary doctor, is: a place where you can talk about everything that bothers you, no matter how long it takes or how seemingly trivial; a treatment environment that relaxes you, instead of sending your nervous system into ‘fight or flight’ mode; uncritical acceptance; and most of all, a treatment that feels incredible and nurtures you on multiple levels.

I am not suggesting that massage therapy is a substitute for medicine. Habitual self-care simply reduces the need for medicine.

This may seem obvious, except that on so many levels, ‘self-care’ is perceived as either self-torture (low-fat diets, punishing exercise, teetotalling) or self-indulgence (spa treatments every week.) My practice is founded on the notion that self-care is just that–listening to what your body needs, and providing it.

Much hoopla has been spouted by the media in recent years, touting the ‘holistic’ approach. In many places it has come to be seen as a synonym for ‘flaky.’ When I am working on a client, however, it is self-evident that she must be treated as a whole. I can’t work on her musculoskeletal system without affecting her nervous system, her immune system, her circulatory system and her myofascial system. Treating these systems has a profound effect on her emotions, her thoughts and her energy level.

People are infinitely greater than the sum of their parts. I do my best to address and honor that.