times online logoDecember 3, 2005

Body & Soul It works for me: reiki: unblocking the airways

by Emma Mahony

Asthma had blighted one man’s life for years until he took a deep breath and found relief in a gentle hands-on treatment

When you talk to Michael Smith, a gruff, 37-year-old Mancunian with a penchant for Saturday football and the pub, it is hard to imagine him being a fan of one of the most bizarre and unproven of all complementary therapies, reiki healing. And yet his story of how last April he stopped using inhalers for asthma and found himself able to breathe freely after just five sessions almost defies belief. Not that he didn’t approach the reiki practitioner’s table with skepticism. “My cynical side thought it was probably a load of old balls,” he says. Today, free from all asthma medication, he practices reiki on himself every morning.

Asthma is no small problem in the UK. According to Asthma UK, Britain has one of the highest rates of asthma in the world, with more than 1,400 people dying from it and 69,000 people taken to hospital every year. Occasionally the chronic form of this condition hits the headlines when it claims another victim, such as the actress Charlotte Coleman, who starred with Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral. She died, aged 33, of an attack in 2001. Last year asthma cost the NHS £889 million in treatments.

Asthma deeply affected Smith’s childhood. He spent time in hospital with the condition when he was 5 years old and he was allergic to everything from pets to furniture polish. “I would get a cold and afterwards it would trigger a bout of asthma for two or three weeks, leading to a course of antibiotics and the need for a steroid inhaler.” Asthma came and went in waves all through his childhood until he grew out of it in his early teens. Then, aged 27, it struck again.

Within a year, he was back puffing away on two inhalers — a blue one for relieving the symptoms and a brown one for controlling the swelling and inflammation in the airways and reducing the risk of severe attacks, sometimes as often as 20 times a day.

It was a chance meeting with an old friend that set Smith on the road to reiki. “I bumped into Leigh on the way to watch a rugby match and noticed that she seemed very different, calmer.” It turned out that she had been having reiki healing to deal with stress. The therapy involves lying fully clothed on a table, or sitting upright if more comfortable, while a reiki master gently lays their hands on the body, starting with the head.

Reiki is Japanese for “universal life energy” and practitioners claim that they can channel this force through their hands into the client’s body so that it can heal itself. Unlike massage or osteopathy, the patient is not manipulated in any way, just lightly touched, and the transfer of energy may be felt as a sensation, sometimes heat, cold, tingling or unusual heaviness. Reiki has not been studied in depth in the West so its claims are medically unproven.

Smith knew little about reiki when he approached Melanie Hoffstead, a practitioner based in North London. Encouraged by his girlfriend to make an appointment but feeling that it could do little for him, he omitted to tell Hoffstead about his asthma. After answering a series of questions, she placed her hands on him and followed a set pattern of hand movements over 12 key areas of his body.

“To begin with my mind was racing, and while I was lying there I was half thinking yeah, right, OK. Then after half an hour I began to feel incredibly relaxed and couldn’t feel any part of my body except the weight of my head. It wasn’t unlike that moment before falling asleep,” he says.

When Smith came around 30 minutes later from his meditative state at the end of an hour-long session, he was incredibly thirsty. “Without sounding like a hippy, I had a genuine feeling of optimism and wellbeing.” He promptly signed up for four back-to-back sessions beginning the following week and at the next consultation mentioned his asthma.

Hoffstead, a reiki master for 14 years, first experienced its power when an 80-year-old woman put her hands on her during an alternative therapy workshop she attended in Scotland. “She did something to me that made me weep, and I found out later it was called reiki,” she says. The experience made her decide to train as a practitioner, practicing for three years before becoming a master, the highest level in reiki training.

When treating asthma, Hoffstead subscribes to the idea that it is a psychological and emotional blocking, “as if the chest and lungs are filled up with emotion that doesn’t dare to be expressed. I was surprised that Michael had such a fast reaction.”

“The results were spectacular,” says Smith. “At the time, I was using both the blue and brown inhalers and my chest felt constantly tight.” Hoffstead’s work required no change in diet or “homework” in the form of exercises. She claimed that she simply channelled healing energy into his body daily for one-hour sessions over four days. She worked specifically around his chest, getting him to think about opening up the area and focusing on breathing deeply in a relaxed state.

“It’s not magic, but it gave me confidence,” says Smith. “By Day 4, I didn’t feel the need to use either of my inhalers and felt excellent, really good about it.”

Since June, he has been practicing on himself after a weekend’s initiation into reiki level one. Every morning when he wakes, he practices the movements by putting his hands on himself for an hour. “I still have asthma,” he says, “and I can’t explain how reiki works, but I now have a way of dealing with my asthma without relying on medication. I’m more relaxed than I used to be and I can deal with things in an even-handed manner.” He has had no asthma attacks since his first session last April.

“Often with asthmatics it’s about not daring to take a deep breath because they are full up with emotion,” Hoffstead says. “Reiki can soften and melt people, taking away their armour”. Or as Smith might say: “It’s not just a load of old balls.”

WHAT IS IT?

REIKI practitioners believe that energy can be channeled through their hands to the patient’s body for the purpose of healing. Reiki has been used and taught in the West since the late 1930s and is an oral tradition handed down from reiki master to a student.

SUITABLE FOR everyone, particularly those suffering from backache, arthritis, asthma, period pains, pregnancy, stress, depression, grief or anyone who wants to experience deep relaxation. Claims of relief are not scientifically proven.

COST From £45 for an hour-long session.

CONTACT There is no official training for becoming a reiki practitioner, so for guidance visit the Reiki Association’s website (www.reikiassociation.org.uk). To find a practitioner visit the Reiki Alliance’s website (www.reikialliance.org) and click on Find Teachers. For further details on the reiki master Melanie Hoffstead, call 020-7263 2628 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

For advice and information about asthma, visit the Asthma UK website, www.asthma.org.uk

WHAT’S THE EVIDENCE DR GEORGE LEWITH

Does it work? There are no clinical trials evaluating reiki as a treatment for asthma, although there are some studies on spiritual and other healing techniques that do suggest clinical benefit. Diane Wardell, from Texas (Journal of Advanced Nursing 2001), reports that in a study of 23 people, it was found that their immune system was more competent at dealing with infection after having had healing therapy. However, it’s difficult to measure changes accurately.

How does it work? There is often a strong emotional component to asthma. It’s frightening not to be able to breathe properly, so the breathing exercises and supportive environment provided by Melanie Hoffstead may have done the trick for Michael Smith.

Is it safe? With asthma, which can be fatal, treatment should be in co-operation with the patient’s doctor. It can be dangerous to take patients off their conventional medicine as this may lead to uncontrolled acute attacks of asthma.

Dr George Lewith is head of the complementary medicine research unit, Southampton Medical School.

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