Energy therapies is a collective term used to refer to a variety of alternative and complementary treatments based on the use, modification, or manipulation of energy fields. Most energy therapies presuppose or accept the theory that matter and energy are not exclusive opposites, but that matter is simply a denser form of energy that is more easily perceived by the senses. Some energy therapies are associated with systems of traditional Indian or Chinese medicine that are thousands of years old; others draw upon contemporary scientific theories. Energy therapies can be divided for purposes of discussion into two groups—those that utilize energy fields located in, affecting, or emanating from the human body (biofield therapies); and those that use electromagnetic fields in unconventional ways. In addition, there are energy therapies that combine biofield therapy with some aspects of bodywork—Breema, polarity therapy, and qigong are examples of this combined approach.
Energy therapies vary widely in their understanding of qualifications to be a healer. Some have credentialing or training programs; others do not. Some practitioners of energy therapy believe that all or most people have the capacity to be healers; others regard the ability to use or direct healing energies as a gift or charism that is given only to people who are “chosen” or unusually spiritual.
Although energy therapies are often associated with either Eastern or so-called “New Age” belief systems, most do not expect people in need of healing to give up mainstream Western religious practice or allopathic medical/psychiatric treatments.
The purpose of energy therapies can be broadly defined as the healing of mental or physical disorders by rebalancing the energy fields in the human body or by drawing upon spiritual energies or forces for such healing. Some energy therapies include internal detoxification or release of trauma-related memories as additional purposes.
In general, persons who are interested in Breema, qigong, or any form of energy therapy that involves vigorous physical exercise or bodywork should seek the advice of a qualified medical practitioner before starting such a program. This precaution is particularly important for persons with chronic heart or lung disease, persons recovering from surgery or acute illness, or persons with arthritis or other disorders that affect the muscles and joints.
Some forms of energy therapy may produce unexpected or startling psychological reactions. For example, a type of psychospiritual energy referred to as Kundalini in Indian yoga sometimes produces experiences of spiritual crisis that may be interpreted by mainstream psychiatrists as symptoms of schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder. Practitioners of Reiki healing have reported instances of patients feeling tingling sensations, “spaciness,” an “out of body” sensation, sudden warmth, or similar experiences. As a rule, people in treatment for any mental condition or disorder should consult their therapist before beginning any form of energy treatment. This precaution is particularly important for patients diagnosed with PTSD or a dissociative disorder, and for those who are easily hypnotized. It is also a good idea to find out as much as possible about the background and basic beliefs associated with a specific energy therapy, including the training or credentialing of its practitioners.
Brief descriptions of some of the better known energy therapies follow.
Therapeutic touch, or TT, is a form of energy therapy that developed in the United States. It is a noninvasive method of healing derived from an ancient laying-on of hands technique. In TT, practitioners alter the patient’s energy field through a transfer of energy from their hands to the patient. Therapeutic touch was developed in 1972 by Dora Kunz, a psychic healer, and Dolores Krieger, a professor of nursing at New York University. The principle behind TT is restoration of balance or harmony to the human energy field, or aura, that is thought to extend several inches to several feet from the body. When illness occurs, it creates a disturbance or blockage in the vital energy field. The TT practitioner uses her/his hands to discern the blockage or disturbance. Although the technique is called “therapeutic touch,” there is generally no touching of the client’s physical body, only his or her energetic body or field. TT is usually performed on fully clothed patients who are either lying down on a flat surface or sitting up in a chair.
A therapeutic touch session consists of five steps or phases. The first step is a period of meditation on the practitioner’s part, to become spiritually centered and energized for the task of healing. The second step is assessment or discernment of the energy imbalances in the patient’s aura. In this step, the TT practitioner holds his or her hands about 2-3 inches above the patient’s body and moves them in long, sweeping strokes from the patient’s head downward to the feet. The practitioner may feel a sense of warmth, heaviness, tingling, or similar cues, as they are known in TT. The cues are thought to reveal the location of the energy disturbances or imbalances. In the third step, known as the unruffling process, the practitioner removes the energy disturbances with downward sweeping movements. In the fourth step, the practitioner serves as a channel for the transfer of universal energy to the patient. The fifth step consists of smoothing the patient’s energy field and restoring a symmetrical pattern of energy flow. After the treatment, the patient rests for 10-15 minutes.
Although therapeutic touch has become a popular alternative or complementary approach in some schools of nursing in the United States and Canada, acceptance by the mainstream medical community varies. Many hospitals permit nurses and staff to perform TT on patients at no extra charge. On the other hand, however, therapeutic touch became national news in April 1998 when an elementary-school student carried out research for a science project that questioned its claims. Twenty-one TT practitioners with experience ranging from one to 27 years were blindfolded and asked to identify whether the investigator’s hand was closer to their right hand or their left. Placement of the investigator’s hand was determined by flipping a coin. The TT practitioners were able to identify the correct hand in only 123 (44%) of 280 trials, a figure that could result from random chance alone. Debate about the merits of TT filled the editorial pages of the Journal of the American Medical Association for nearly a year after the news reports, and continues to this day.
Qigong is a form of Chinese energy therapy that is usually considered a martial art by most Westerners. It is better understood, however, as an ancient Chinese system of postures, exercises, breathing techniques and meditations. Its techniques are designed to improve and enhance the body’s qi. According to traditional Chinese philosophy and medicine, qi is the fundamental life energy responsible for human health and vitality. Qi travels through the body along channels called meridians. There are twelve main meridians in humans. Each major body organ has qi associated with it, and each organ interacts with particular emotions on the mental level. Qigong techniques are designed to improve the balance and flow of energy throughout the meridians, and to increase the overall quantity and volume of a person’s qi.
In the context of energy therapy, qigong is sometimes divided into internal and external qigong. Internal qigong refers to a person’s practice of qigong exercises to maintain his or her own health and vitality. Some qigong master teachers are renowned for their skills in external qigong, in which the energy from one person is passed on to another for healing. Chinese hospitals use medical qigong along with herbs, acupuncture and other techniques of traditional Chinese medicine. In these hospitals, qigong healers use external qigong and also design specific internal qigong exercises for the patients’ health problems.
Reiki is a holistic alternative therapy based on Eastern concepts of energy flow and the seven chakras (energy centers) in the human body. Reiki was formulated by a Japanese teacher, Mikao Usui, around 1890, based on Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism, but incorporates meditation techniques, beliefs, and symbols that are considerably older. It is distinctive among energy therapies in its emphasis on self-healing, its spiritual principles, and its accreditation of healers through a system of initiation. Reiki practitioners participate in the healing of emotional and spiritual as well as physical pain through the transmission of universal life energy, called “rei-ki” in Japanese. It is believed that ki flows throughout the universe, but that Reiki connects humans in a more direct way to the universal source. Reiki is used for the healing of animals as well as people. A research team at the University of Michigan is studying the effectiveness of Reiki in treating chronic pain in patients with diabetic neuropathy. Various other studies are also underway in the United States and Canada, some examining the efficacy of the therapy in coping with pain and anxiety.
Although Reiki involves human touch, it is not massage therapy. The patient lies on a table fully clothed except for shoes while the practitioner places her or his hands over the parts of the body and the chakras in sequence. The hands are held palms downward with the fingers and thumbs extended. If the person is in pain or cannot turn over, the practitioner may touch only the affected part (s). Silence or music appropriate for meditation is considered essential to the treatment. Reiki healers practice daily self-healing, in which they place their hands in traditional positions on their own bodies They may use touch, or distant/non-touch.
Reiki healers are initiated into three levels of practice through attunements, which are ceremonies in which teachers transmit the hand positions and “sacred” symbols. Reiki I healers learn the basic hand positions and can practice direct physical, emotional or mental healing on themselves and others. Reiki II healers are taught the symbols that empower them to do distance or absentee healing. In Reiki III the healer makes a commitment to become a master teacher and do spiritual healing.
Polarity therapy, which is sometimes called polarity balancing, is a biofield therapy that resembles Reiki in its emphasis on energy flow, human touch, and the energy centers (chakras) in the human body. Polarity therapy was developed by Dr. Randolph Stone (1890-1981), an American chiropractor and naturopath. It integrates bodywork with diet, yoga-based exercise, and self-awareness techniques to release energy blockages in the patient’s body, mind, or feelings. Polarity theory divides the body into three horizontal and four vertical zones (right, left, front, and back), each having a positive, negative, or neutral charge. Energy currents in the zones are correlated with five energy centers in the body corresponding to the five elements (ether, air, fire, water, and earth) of Ayurvedic medicine.
Polarity therapy can be done one-on-one or with a group of practitioners working on the patient. The therapist as well as the patient removes shoes. The patient lies fully dressed except for shoes on a massage table or bed, or on the floor. The practitioner takes the patient’s history, checks reflexes and touches body parts to determine energy blocks. Polarity therapy uses three levels of touch: no touch (hands held above the body, touching only the energy fields); light touch; and a deep, massaging touch. The therapist balances energy currents in the patient’s body by placing his or her “plus” hand on “negative” body parts and vice versa. Polarity therapy involves rocking the patient’s body and holding the head as well as more usual massage techniques. It takes about four polarity sessions to treat most conditions, with each session lasting about an hour. After a course of treatment, the polarity practitioner usually suggests drinking plenty of liquids for one to two weeks together with other dietary changes as part of a general internal cleansing or detoxification program. Polarity yoga (stretching exercises) is prescribed for the patient’s regular workouts at home.
Breema is a form of body movement energy therapy that combines elements of bodywork, yoga, chiropractic, and New Age philosophy. Breema began in California in 1980. Its founder is Dr. Jon Schreiber, a graduate of Palmer College of Chiropractic. The Breema Health and Wellness Center was opened in Oakland, California, in 1981. The principles of Breema are intended to free people from the conceptual body, defined as “the ideas and images of our body that we carry in our mind.” The aim of Breema “is to increase vitality, not to fight sickness, and to create an atmosphere which allows the body to move toward a natural state of balance.” A person receiving a Breema treatment works with an instructor or practitioner through a series of individualized exercises on a padded floor. The instructors and practitioners are certified by the Breema Center in Oakland.
Decrystallization is an important part of Breema therapy. According to Breema, decrystallization is a process in which the body is helped to release deeply held, or “crystallized,” patterns of chronic discomfort, tension, or emotional pain. As the body releases its crystallizations, its “core energetic patterns” are balanced and realigned. A decrystallization program consists of one or more Breema treatments per week for a year. It includes a set of personalized self-Breema exercises.
Electromagnetic therapies cover a variety of treatments that use a source of physical energy outside the body—most often magnets or electromagnetic field stimulation—to treat a range of musculoskeletal disorders. Some forms of magnetic therapy, such as bracelets, gloves, shoe inserts, and similar items containing small magnets meant to be worn near the affected body part, can be self-administered. This form of magnetic therapy has become quite popular among professional athletes and “weekend warriors” to relieve soreness in joints and muscles from over exercise. At present there are two hypothetical explanations of the effectiveness of magnetic therapy. One theory maintains that the magnets stimulate nerve endings in the skin surface to release endorphins, which are pain-relieving chemicals produced by the body in response to stress or injury. According to the second hypothesis, the magnets attract certain ions (electrically charged molecules) in the blood, which serves to increase the blood flow in that area of the body. The increased blood flow then relieves the tissue swelling and other side effects of over exercise that cause pain.
Other forms of electromagnetic therapy require special equipment and cannot be self-administered. These forms of treatment are most commonly used by naturopathic practitioners. One form, called transcranial magnetic stimulation , is used in the treatment of depression. Another form, called pulsed electromagnetic field stimulation, has been shown to be effective in the treatment of osteoarthritis.
Most forms of energy therapy require little preparation on the patient’s part except for the wearing of loose and comfortable clothes. Patients are asked to remove jewelry before a polarity balancing treatment and to remove eyeglasses and shoes prior to Reiki treatment. Qigong should not be practiced on either a full or a completely empty stomach.
Aftercare for therapeutic touch and Reiki usually involves a few moments of quiet rest to maximize the benefits of treatment. Aftercare for polarity therapy includes increased fluid intake for one to two weeks and other dietary adjustments that may be recommended by the practitioner.
There are no known risks associated with therapeutic touch, or polarity balancing. Using Reiki, precautions should be taken clients diagnosed with schizophrenia, psychosis , dissociative disorder, manic/depressive (bipolar) or borderline personality. The risk of physical injury from the exercises involved in Breema or qigong are minimal for patients who have consulted their primary physician beforehand and are working with a qualified instructor.
Mild headache has been reported as a side effect of transcranial magnetic stimulation. No side effects have been associated with self-administered magnetic therapy.
Normal results for energy therapies include increased physical vitality, lowered blood pressure, a sense of calm or relaxation, improved sleep at night,
Aura —An energy field that is thought to emanate from the human body and to be visible to people with special psychic or spiritual powers.
Ayurvedic medicine —The traditional medical system of India. Ayurvedic treatments include diet, exercises, herbal treatments, meditation, massage, breathing techniques, and exposure to sunlight.
Biofield therapies —A subgroup of energy therapies that make use of energy fields (biofields) thought to exist within or emanate from the human body. Biofield therapies include such approaches as Reiki, therapeutic touch, qigong, and polarity balancing.
Bodywork —Any technique involving hands-on massage or manipulation of the body.
Breema —An alternative therapy that originated in California in the 1980s. Breema combines biofield therapy with certain elements of chiropractic and bodywork.
Chakra —One of the seven major energy centers in the body, according to traditional Indian yoga.
Endorphins —A group of peptide compounds released by the body in response to stress or traumatic injury. Endorphins react with opiate receptors in the brain to reduce or relieve pain.
Kundalini —In Indian yoga, a vital force or energy at the base of the spine that is activated or released by certain yoga postures or breathing techniques. This release is called the “awakening” of the kundalini. Some Westerners have had kundalini experiences that were diagnosed as psychotic episodes or symptoms of schizophrenia.
Meridians —In traditional Chinese medicine, a network of pathways or channels that convey qi, or vital energy, through the body.
Polarity therapy —A form of energy therapy influenced by Ayurvedic medicine that integrates bodywork with diet, home exercises, and self-awareness techniques. It is sometimes called polarity balancing.
Prana —The Sanskrit word for vital energy, roughly equivalent to qi in traditional Chinese medicine.
Qi —The traditional Chinese term for vital energy or the life force. The word is also spelled “ki” or “chi” in English translations of Japanese and Chinese medical books.
Qigong —A traditional form of Chinese energy therapy that includes physical exercises, breathing techniques, postures, and mental discipline. Internal qigong refers to exercises practiced to maintain one’s own health and vitality; external qigong refers to the transfer of energy from a qigong master to another person for healing purposes. External qigong is also known as medical qigong.
Reiki —A form of energy therapy that originated in Japan. Reiki practitioners hold their hands on or slightly above specific points on the patient’s body in order to convey universal life energy to that area for healing.
Therapeutic touch (TT) —An American form of energy therapy based on the ancient tradition of the laying-on of hands. TT is thought to work by removing energy blockages or disturbances from the patient’s aura.
and a strengthened immune system. Some persons report pain relief and speeded-up healing of wounds from magnetic therapy, Reiki, and qigong.
Abnormal results from energy therapies include physical injury, severe headache, dizziness, depressed mood, or increased anxiety.
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American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. 601 Valley Street, Suite 105, Seattle, WA 98109. Telephone: (206) 298-0126. <http://www.naturopathic.org>.
American Polarity Therapy Association. 288 Bluff Street #149, Boulder, CO 80301. Telephone: (303) 545-2080. <http://www.livelinks.com/sumeria/health/polarity.html>.
The Breema Center. 6076 Claremont Avenue. Oakland, CA 94618. Telephone: (510) 428-0937. Fax (510) 428-9235. <http://www.breema.com>
International Society for the Study of Subtle Energies and Energy Medicine (ISSSEEM). 356 Goldco Circle, Golden, CO 80401. Telephone: (303) 278-2228. <http://www.vitalenergy.com/ISSSEEM>.
The Kundalini Clinic. 3040 Richmond Boulevard, Oakland, CA, 94611. Telephone: (510) 465-2986.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) Clearinghouse. P.O. Box 7923, Gaithersburg, MD 20898. Telephone: (888) 644-6226. TTY: (866) 464-3615. Fax: (866) 464-3616. <http://www.nccam.nih.gov>.
The Nurse Healers Professional Associates International (NH-PAI), the Official Organization of Therapeutic Touch. 3760 S. Highland Drive, Salt Lake City, UT 84106. Telephone: (801) 273-3399. [email protected] <http://www.therapeutic-touch.org>.
Qigong Human Life Research Foundation. PO Box 5327. Cleveland, OH 44101. Telephone: (216) 475-4712.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Fact Sheets. Major Domains of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. <http://www.nccam.nih.gov/fcp/classify/>.
Rebecca J. Frey, Ph.D.