With every challenge in life, every illness, heartbreak, depression, even the death of a loved one, Tracie Susalis-Braunstein believes people are prone to developing energy blocks and emotional scarring.

“Over time and with each new block, we become more disconnected from whomever you align with spiritually and our authentic selves,” says Susalis-Braunstein, a licensed massage therapist and reiki master at Modrn (cq) Sanctuary in New York City. “I believe in healing holistically, meaning mind, body and soul. … Nourishing yourself is the first step in clearing old, stagnant energy — making room for absolute abundance and bliss.”

But it’s not always an easy feat to overcome these energy hurdles and achieve better balance for the body. When it comes to whole-body healing, an alternative practice known as reiki (pronounced “ray-key”) might be a more sound fit to mainstream medicine if you have stress, depression, bad sleep habits or even chronic physical pain.

Some experts say anyone can benefit from reiki, whether it’s for health-related reasons or a desire to expand your spiritual journey. But the practice has also gained a somewhat conflicted reputation among some health researchers and medical professionals.

Hands on or hands off?

Similar to acupuncture, meditation and even yoga, reiki is viewed by many as an effective, accepted alternative practice in America. Originating in Japan in the 1920s by Mikao Usui, a Japanese doctor and minister, this complementary therapy is used for the treatment of many physical, emotional and mental diseases.

Reiki is a spiritual touch practice based on the idea that human hands can redirect a person’s energy or their life force for healing purposes. A technique called “palm healing” or “hands-on healing” is used by reiki practitioners. During reiki, energy is transferred through the palms of the healer to the other person’s hands and throughout their body to promote emotional and physical healing.

“Reiki helps bring the body back into balance,” Susalis-Braunstein says. “Our bodies know exactly what we need and when we need it, and when we are in state of balance, we can instinctively begin nourishing and repairing ourselves.”

Since it was originated, this Eastern healing practice has been adapted into varying cultural traditions across the globe, including the Western health industry.

“It has been successfully learned by over 1 million people from all walks of life, both young and old,” according to the International Center for Reiki Training.

While Reiki is influenced by Eastern religions, this technique is nondenominational. “People of all faiths and beliefs can practice and receive the benefits of reiki,” Susalis-Braunstein says.

However, some research points out the lack of proof to support the benefits of reiki. A 2012 National Institutes of Health report says, “Overall, there is a lack of high-quality research on reiki, and the studies that have been done show conflicting results.” Findings from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine have also shown that there is “no scientific evidence to prove that such energy exists.”

But more encouraging research is being done. A 2016 study from the journal Nursing found that reiki significantly reduced pain in people who had knee surgery. And other studies have shown a decrease in depression and fatigue in cancer patients who received reiki.

Many cancer patients seek out reiki as an additional healing method because it can be used to encourage healing alongside other treatments, says Gillian Cilibrasi, a reiki master and program director of the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy program in New York City.

“It is common to feel numb when receiving a diagnosis, whether it be cancer or another diagnosis, and that numbness takes us out of the present moment,” Cilibrasi says. “Any tools that can support someone in a health crisis may prove to be beneficial.”

No right way to feel

According to Susalis-Braunstein, reiki should never be used as an alternative to conventional medical care. “But when the two schools of healing work synergistically, they can work to support one another and have increased benefits,” she says.

The practice is becoming popular in the Western world for other reasons: “The ever-rising costs of health care and political battles over who will be covered for what,” Susalis-Braunstein says. “Americans are frustrated and looking for alternatives to take control of their health.”

Reiki expert Caly Lehrer, owner of Peace-by-Peace in Littleton, Colorado, which focuses on animal wellness, says the popularity stems from word of mouth.

“More people have heard about reiki and how it has helped people and animals on so many levels,” Lehrer says. “I remember when I first started learning reiki and talking about it to friends and family, everyone was like, ‘What is that?’ … It is now more received in hospitals, hospice and animal shelters.”

Lehrer says one of the things she loves about reiki is how safe it is. “Reiki can be shared using a gentle hands-on approach, working through a person’s or animal’s aura or even shared long distance,” she says. “For example, if a person has severe burns to his or her body, touch may not be the most nurturing thing for that person. However, you can still share reiki with them by working through their aura.”

The practice can be done just about anywhere, according to Cilibrasi. You can opt to go to a spa for your first experience, although this is not necessary, she says. A session can range from a few minutes to an hour, with hand placements to the head, torso and legs.

“For self-care, one can practice reiki in bed, in a chair or, in my case, on the subway,” Cilibrasi says. “The more someone practices, the more likely they are to have a sense of reiki’s potency. As I learned it, the reiki energy goes where it is needed to promote balance, so one may simply place hands on their belly or thighs and receive the full benefits. A client may feel heat from my hands, experience a tingling sensation, or feel nothing at all. There is no right way to feel.”

And it’s important to choose a reiki healer you feel comfortable with, says Erica Dunn, a reiki master in New York City, adding that you can also learn to perform reiki on yourself.

“It’s always great to get a reference from a friend or set up a call with the practitioner to see if it might be a good fit and feel that you can trust,” Dunn says. “Read the practitioner’s bio and website, and find out what level of reiki practitioner they are.”

Cilibrasi says to look for someone who “embodies an evident quality of balance. Energy is an esoteric term, so feeling and experiencing reiki energy for yourself is key.”