As reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 2, 2005.

May the Force Be with You

By Cynthia Billhartz

The family room in Rita Oldani's south St. Louis County basement was perfect for unblocking some chakras one rainy evening.

Several massage tables were lined up on one side of the room, harp music and incense permeated the air and candles twinkled from every nook and corner.

Oldani, 42, of St. Louis, is a reiki master. She believes we all have a life energy force that emanates from centers in our bodies called chakras. The life force energy (often called chi and pronounced kee) nourishes the organs and cells of the body. When that flow of chi is disrupted, it causes diminished function leaving us more susceptible to illness and stress. If our energy flow is high, we're apt to be happy and healthy. Or so the theory goes.

Oldani was gearing up on this evening to impart her reiki know-how so others could re-balance that vital energy by the simple means of touch. Sometimes reiki masters also use distance healing, which involves visualization. Reiki, Oldani said, is not taught but transferred during attunement sessions when a reiki master helps students open energy centers by drawing sacred symbols in the air above them.

Eight women and one virile-looking grandfather type filled the room. Virility isn't what one conjures when thinking of touchy-feely, new-age treatments, but Paul Steingruby, 70, of Affton, a certified massage therapist, uses reiki as one of several healing processes in his practice.

"I use it where I see fit," said Steingruby. "You could have a direct reiki session where a person wants reiki. Or you can use it at times during massage where you intuitively feel someone could use it and you take a minute to do it. Basically, you're asking God to use yourself as a vessel for energy into the person so you can promote peace and healing."

Practitioners often note that reiki dovetails nicely with religion because reiki brings them closer to the experience of their religion. But they also insist reiki is not a religion itself.

And yet practitioners seem to operate on blind faith that reiki works.

Comforting ... or healing?

Oldani and Linda Harr, a massage therapist from High Ridge, performed reiki on me by placing their hands on and beneath my feet, legs, arms, shoulders and head for 30 minutes. Even though my eyes were shut, I could feel a slight breeze as they waved patterns in the air, inches above me.

Afterward, Oldani, a warm, dynamic blonde, told me to drink lots of water for replenishment.

"It might not seem like a lot, but it is, because I was in there," she said, pointing, presumably, at a chakra in my chest.

The session was surprisingly soothing and comforting, like a mother's touch. It's not hard to believe there could be psychological benefits for the stressed and the sick.

But reiki practitioners believe their benefits go beyond matters of the mind by curing physical ailments.

Oldani and her pupils listed numerous instances in which they claim reiki healed a pain or ailment.

Oldani divulged that she recently sent an e-mail to her reiki pupils asking for distance healing to relieve pain she was experiencing from ovarian cysts.

One pupil visualized pulling the pain out of Oldani's abdomen; another imagined holding Oldani in her arms; and yet a third envisioned filling Oldani with divine light and love. Within in an hour, the pain was gone, said Oldani.

Harr offered her experiences with reiki. Doctors, she said, thought they were going to have to perform heart bypass surgery on her mother. Then Harr put the call out to fellow reiki practitioners and a short while later her mother no longer needed surgery, she said.

Lynne McTaggart, author of "The Field: the Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe," recently declared that the idea of using drugs or surgery to cure anyone will seem barbaric in 50 years.

"We'll be manipulating people's quantum energy, as a number of frontier types of medicine are attempting to do already," she states on her Web site.

Several days after my session, one of Oldani's pupils, Marie Sabatini, a hospice worker from Maplewood, performed reiki on two elderly and infirm women at Mother of Good Counsel nursing home in St. Louis.

One of them, Rosemary Thomson, 89, said her fractured arm healed faster thanks to the reiki and that the pain in her back had diminished. She also said the mere thought of Sabatini soothes Thomson's anxieties when she awakens suddenly in the middle of the night.

"It's all about comfort," said Sabatini. "That's why my company has me. When our patients are more comfortable, they need less pain medication and they get better."

One of her patients, Sabatini added, got well enough to leave the hospice program.

A short while later, Thomson noted that she had fallen several decades ago and fractured her skull. So Sabatini placed her hands on Thomson's head.

"There's something going on right now," said Sabatini. "There's a lot of shifting. I feel all this energy going out of my hands."

Jason Miles, a claims specialist for Trinity Hospice, where Sabatini works, says about 12 of the 18 hospice workers are trained in reiki. Trinity began sending its workers for reiki training to expand the services it offers.

"It makes our patients happy," said Miles. "A lot of times no one puts their hands on patients, they just don't. But we describe it strictly as palliative care."

More study due

Reiki has its share of skeptics in the medical field and beyond. In an article in the Irish Times recently, Paul O'Donoghue, a member of the Irish Skeptics Society, wrote that, more than likely, reiki practitioners aren't purposely misleading clients but rather are the unwitting victims of self-deception. He then went on to argue in detailed scientific terms that reiki is a bunch of bunk.

In 1998, the Journal of the American Medical Association published the findings of a series of trials on 21 therapeutic touch therapists, whose premise for treatment is similar to that of reiki practitioners. Both claim they can feel and affect energy in the human body.

But the outcome showed that the therapists could detect correctly only 43 percent of the time when they felt another person's "energy." That percentage is about the same as anyone who would be guessing.

In coming months and years, there will be more definitive research on the effectiveness of reiki. The National Institute of Health has created a Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine to learn more about alternative medicines. It doesn't currently hold an official position on reiki, but has given at least three grants to researchers at the University of Arizona, the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and the Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute to study it.

Whatever the case, Steingruby, who knows something about science - he was an industrial biologist for 40 years - believes science is behind on understanding what reiki does.

"There's lots of work being done on the utilization of energy," he says. "It's like the organic chemical molecules. You can't see them but we've deduced that they have a certain structure. To me, it's like electricity or radio waves; we just haven't learned to utilize it yet. Years ago people were afraid of electricity. We have a great fear of things we don't understand."