You’re semi-supine, on hour three of mindless TikTok scrolling. Doja Cat is there, followed by some actual cats, and suddenly a creator called Mystique Awakening is violently plucking at the screen with rapid hand movements, her manicured nails scratching your brain in that impossible-to-reach place. You didn't ask for it but you feel oddly cleansed, as if your bad energy is being squeezed out of you like toothpaste. You dive into the comments to figure out what the hell that was, but everyone else has already asked. "Trying to understand what just happened to me," says one commenter. "I couldn’t breathe for a moment. Then felt better," says another. "I can feel it in my head (it feels right) is that normal?"
Welcome to Reiki TikTok, which hit virality at about the same time as the pandemic, as the world searched for potential relief in new places. Mystique Awakening, famous for her expressive, fast-moving take on the practice, is one of the best known reiki creators (she has 1.2 million followers, and at the time of writing, over 27 million likes). There are hundreds of Reiki TikTokers and the #reiki hashtag has 435.5 million views. According to Google Trends, searches for reiki hit an all-time high in March 2020 (go figure). But reiki’s digital explosion has brought with it a new audience, and a new pile of questions.
Reiki is a form of energy healing which emerged in early 20th century Japan. It works with the energy fields around the body and involves the transfer of universal energy from the practitioner’s palms to the client. The word 'reiki' comes from the Japanese words 'rei' (which roughly translates as 'universal') and 'ki' ('life energy'). There is no hard scientific evidence that such an energy exists but reiki is often shown to have a positive effect on those who embrace it. A 2017 Australian study concluded that there is "reasonably strong support for Reiki being more effective than placebo." A 2019 US study yielded similar results.
It is used to alleviate insomnia, stress, muscle ache, anxiety and even as a way to cope with things like recurrent miscarriage. It is offered in many NHS hospitals (like at the Trinity Holistic Centre at South Tees NHS Trust in Middlesbrough) as a form of complementary or 'supportive' therapy, "to be used alongside conventional treatments", the website explains. Because of its noninvasive and gentle nature, reiki is also frequently used in palliative care, rehabs and cancer treatment facilities in the UK. For those who are curious to try it, there are currently 78 locations in London offering in-person reiki treatments privately available on Treatwell. (This writer left her first physical session feeling a new complexity of stoned and wired.)
In a physical reiki session you will typically lie on a treatment couch while the therapist uses gentle stroking or light finger pressure on certain points on your body. But how does it work through a phone screen, on a pre-recorded, 60 second video, when the reiki practitioner is on the other side of the world? If Mystique Awakening's comments are anything to go by ("My eyebrows started twitching like someone was actually touching them"), there seems to be evidence that physical effects are being felt by members of the TikTok audience. But can this TikTok experience be described as reiki, or even energy healing?
The idea of ‘distance’ reiki is not as far-fetched as it may initially sound – it was actually inbuilt into the idea's inception in early 20th century Japan. "Since reiki is divine healing energy, it is not limited to time or space," Mystique Awakening tells Refinery29. "This allows a transfer to happen even without having the practitioner or Master in the same room as the one receiving the healing. This transfer of energy happens through intention and focus (along with a ton of practice). When you are attuned, this energy is easily accessible to the practitioner or Master at all times with the help of sacred reiki symbols that are used to anchor the energy to a specific person or group of people."
In theory, then, a healer can reach through the phone and direct their positive energy anywhere in the world, to anyone. Apparently it works because of something called the Hermetic Law of Similarity, which holds that we are all connected as we are all made of energy and part of a larger whole.
Sceptical? Bre (@tipofthemoon), another prominent Reiki TikToker, was too at first. She came to reiki five years ago, stumbling upon it on YouTube when searching for ASMR during a difficult time in her life. Through watching videos by YouTube ASMR frontrunner Lune Innate, she knew she was feeling relaxed and calmed by them but didn't buy into "all this New Age reiki stuff". That is, until it started working for her "on a deeper level". Increasingly intrigued, she spent the next four or five years focusing on her own practice, working on herself at home and studying the history of reiki. She never planned or expected to make a career of it.
In February 2021 Bre posted her first TikTok video, on a whim. She woke up the next morning to thousands of followers, and her success on the platform has snowballed. Seven months later, at the time of writing, she has over 1 million likes and 130,000 followers. ("TikTok’s funny like that!" she says.) Today, around 95% of Bre’s followers are women, who shower her in positive feedback. She explains: "The most common piece of feedback I get is: 'You’ve helped me in a way I didn’t know I needed.' She has found a community, a space for expression, support and even a potential career change. She still has a "proper job" but is looking at the possibility of moving into reiki healing full time.
For Bre though, distance reiki and TikTok reiki occupy different, if adjoining, spaces. "To get the full effects of reiki, the individual must be fully open to receiving it," she explains. This happens "much more deeply" on one-to-one distance sessions, which she and many other creators offer privately. People come to these sessions with an openness that simply cannot be found when being presented with a reiki clip as you scroll because of an algorithm quirk. "That being said, the beautiful thing about reiki on TikTok is that a reiki video can catch you totally by surprise, when you’re least expecting it, scrolling on your FYP (For You Page)." Isn't this what we love about TikTok, after all? The intermingling of desultory snapshots from around the world, combined into an endless filmic ticker tape, reaching across societal divides, reigniting lost passions, discovering new communities. "Randomly discovering a reiki creator on your FYP can kickstart you on a spiritual journey you maybe didn’t know you needed," says Bre.
But what if you don’t want to go on said spiritual journey? Is there any harm in being given an involuntary reiki treatment, randomly, on your FYP? Bre suggests not. For her, most reiki on TikTok bears more resemblance to simple ASMR than to traditional reiki – not that this is any less helpful or relaxing for people. The brain tingling which myriad commenters refer to is the automatic meridian response that comes from someone waving their hands in front of a camera to a backdrop of vibey music, as much as it's a sacred transfer of energy. If you're not open to receiving the energy, it will simply pass you by.
Both Bre and Mystique have adjusted their practices for the small screen. "There are a few things I have had to adapt to while using the internet to send reiki healing," Mystique explains. "Being confined to the space of the camera frame, as well as incorporating rhythmic hand movements to synchronise to the beat of a song, which turns my videos into a visual ASMR experience for those viewing the healing."
Similarly, in the one-on-one distance sessions she conducts, Bre is able to build a rapport with the individual in question and may have a photograph of them to channel healing energy to. On a pre-recorded TikTok video, she acknowledges that it’s more "performative" though no less concentrated. "I focus on communicating with all aspects of myself. I smile, I engage in eye contact with the camera," she explains. "With my TikTok videos, it’s like I’m creating a time capsule of the healing session. I can't sense the person on the other side – it's much more one way."
Nonetheless, the digital transformation of reiki is exciting. "There isn't a rule book for what reiki should be," she explains. "We have the opportunity to help it evolve. What I personally aim to do with reiki on TikTok is give the world a hug every day, and I'm excited about the amount of people we are reaching. I try to be as positive and authentic as possible."
While more research is needed to assess the impact of distance reiki generally (a US clinical trial due to conclude in December this year is assessing the benefits of distance reiki in myeloma patients), the benefits of TikTok reiki may never be fully known. Perhaps it's all hippie-dippie BS. But those who watch and are eased (like me) are not likely to care.