I first heard about reiki more than 20 years ago, when a nurse asked if she could try it on my mother, who was in the later stages of pancreatic cancer. I remember us thinking it was weird and woo-woo, the way she stood there, not touching her, and we all giggled about it when she left.
Years later, on a whim after spotting a table at a wellness fair, I experienced it for myself. That dreamy session, conducted while I lay on a massage table, under the rustling branches of an oak tree in a park, was transformative. I had been wrestling over what to do about a troubled relationship at the time, but at the end of the session, I not only felt peaceful, but also gained clarity about the situation.
Essentially, reiki is a Japanese technique for relaxation and stress reduction, which also promotes healing. It is administered by trained and accredited practitioners, who either place their hands just off the body or lightly touch it, transmitting energy in the process, according to the Michigan-based International Centre for Reiki Training. The idea is that when our energy is low, we are more likely to get sick or feel stress, and when it is high, we are more capable of being happy and healthy.
A combination of two Japanese words – rei, which means God's wisdom, or higher power, and ki, which means life-force or energy – and pronounced "ray key", it is a spiritual experience. However, practitioners are quick to point out that it has nothing to do with religion. "Reiki is energy all around us, which flows through me to the client," explains Heidi Elmaarouf, an Abu Dhabi reiki practitioner who spent three decades as a nurse in the United States before moving to the UAE 16 years ago.
Elmaarouf, who says clients often describe their reiki treatment as a “massage without the massage”, is clear that she is serving as a conduit. “People say: ‘Thank you for healing me,’” she says. “I say: ‘I didn’t heal you. I just channelled the energy to you, and you relaxed and you did your own self-healing.’”
Elmaarouf, who exudes serenity in her voice and manner, started our recent session by first asking how I was feeling and if there was anything she should focus on. Then I lay down on her massage table, on my back. She covered me with a blanket, put on some relaxing music, and proceeded with the treatment. During our session, she started touching my head, placing her hands on different parts of my scalp, where she spent a lot of time. By the time she started moving down my body I had nodded off, despite my best efforts to stay awake. She woke me up midway, so I could turn over on to my stomach. At the end of the session, I felt spacey and a bit out of it. I was thirsty, and she advised me to drink a lot of water. I was also incredibly Zen-like and went to bed early that night, sleeping soundly. No major life decisions were made, but I felt more at peace than I have in months.
Elmaarouf has a history of helping others heal and being with them when they struggle. When she was a nurse, working on tough wards with kidney dialysis and cardiac care patients, she opted for a holistic approach when possible – a back massage over sleeping medication, for example.
Reiki, which is now used in American hospitals to complement traditional treatments, has been found to reduce pain, anxiety and depression in a growing body of scientific study. When researchers at the University of Southern Maine evaluated the impact of treatments, they found noted improvements on individuals who participated. At the University of London, patients experiencing high levels of anxiety and depression, who underwent two to eight weeks of regular, 30-minute reiki sessions, experienced overall improvements in their mood.
All sorts of people come for reiki treatments with Elmaarouf, who works out of Bodytree Studio in Abu Dhabi. In the year she has been practising, she has treated an aviation professional who lost his confidence, an equestrian, an autistic child, people going through divorces, tough diagnoses and cancer treatments, as well as those who are struggling with a combination of negative emotions, including fear, anger, sadness and guilt. "No matter where they are from, everybody has the same life [and] I don't want to say problems, but challenges," she says.
Elmaarouf explains that during sessions, she thinks only of the client. It's not draining and, afterwards, she often feels energised. "I don't get tired because it's not my energy," she says. "I feel tingling in my hands. That's all I feel."
Once, in a post-session discussion with a client, she realised that she was seeing the ocean and her client was seeing the colour blue. And recently, she had three very specific visions, down to colour and detail, and when she asked about them after the session, each vision corresponded with something her client had been thinking about. “We both got the chills,” she admits.
Elmaarouf, who is married and has a grown son at university in America, first decided to train in reiki in 2010 after her sister was diagnosed with brain cancer, and another colleague, who was diagnosed with breast cancer, said that reiki had been like a lifeline. Since arriving in the UAE, Elmaarouf has kept busy by teaching first aid, working at the US Embassy as an on-site nurse and also at the American Community School of Abu Dhabi.
In her new role, she simply enjoys giving people peace and calm, and being “truly amazed” at witnessing how, once they’ve cleared up their stress, balanced their emotions, improved their sleep and increased their awareness, they are strong enough to make some necessary changes. “People come and say: ‘I changed my job. Or relationships. After the reiki session, I had clarity and this is what I’m doing.’”
A 75-minute reiki session with Heidi Elmaarouf at Bodytree Studios are Dh350. Call 02 443 4448 or email firstname.lastname@example.org