In a tiny yoga studio nestled between Indian restaurants and medical offices, Danielle L. Stimpson, a shaman and Reiki master, is summoning the energy of the universe.
It’s a cool, sunny afternoon in the Philadelphia suburb of Elkins Park, but it’s dark and warm, almost stuffy, inside the mint green walls of Banyan Yoga and Ayurveda. Danielle sits cross-legged on the hardwood floor, which is lined with Buddha statues and strewn with printed mats and blankets. Terri, a thin, red-haired woman in her late 40s, kneels beside her, wagging her index finger in the air as she practices the sacred Reiki symbols.
“Reiki energy, please flow through me,” Danielle chants, tossing her dreadlocks lightly and clasping her hands together in a praying pose. Her youthful face, framed by short bangs and studded with nose and lip rings, is calm and composed. She gestures to Terri, who shuts her eyes and begins to heal Kristin, another student of Danielle’s who is lying on a bed in the adjacent room. Today, they are learning the art of distance healing — a level 2 Reiki skill on the path to becoming a master.
The studio is silent, save the sound of deep breaths, Terri’s muttering as she slowly and deliberately waves her hands, and the soundtrack of tinkling chimes melting into flutes and rainforest murmurs. At precisely 5 o’clock, however, Lynn — a petite, curly-haired woman who owns the yoga studio — rises from the mat where she has been lying and announces the time.
“Thank you Reiki for allowing me to be a conduit for this energy,” Terri says as Kristin emerges from her room. The women rouse themselves from their trance, wiping their palms on their laps as though brushing off imaginary crumbs.
“So, Terri, tell us about your experience,” Danielle begins. “What did you see when you were healing Kristin? How did you feel?”
Still seemingly in a dream-like state, Terri doesn’t acknowledge the question right away. She fiddles with her pink sweater and stammers nervously before answering. “When I was giving her Reiki, I felt my hands on her throat… I felt pain in her heart.”
Danielle nods in approval while Kristin’s eyes widen with disbelief.
“It’s true, my throat is my most blocked area,” she says. “I’m one of those people who avoids conflict … I don’t say things I should say. And then my throat hurts, and my doctors are mystified by it.”
Both women look to their instructor for an explanation of the phenomenon, but Danielle only smiles knowingly. “That is the power of Reiki distance healing,” she says. “We need to remind ourselves that there was no distance in the first place. We’re all interconnected.”
Danielle’s journey into Reiki and shamanism began seven years ago, on the morning she woke up and found that her bed was shaking on its own accord. Curious about the role that energy and psychokinesis played in the incident, she came across Reiki — a form of spiritual healing by which universal energy is transmitted to the body through the practitioner’s hands. The discovery guided the would-be nurse toward the path of natural healing, attuning her to the spirit world of shamanism.
At Learn Reiki Philadelphia, Danielle charges $40 a session for clients, who range from 19-year-old bike crash victims to elderly men with cancer. She also holds weekend-long intensive classes for those who aspire to master Reiki or seek their inner shaman. The three-level Reiki training process is accompanied by a three week bodily cleanse — a nod to the 21 days that Mikao Usui, a Japanese Buddhist, spent fasting and praying atop Mount Kurama in 1922 before having the epiphany that would lead to the development of Reiki.
This session, Terri and Kristin are in the process of “attunement,” or memorizing the five sacred Reiki symbols in order to obtain the second level of mastery and activate the healing Life Force Energy. Through their hands, Danielle explains, they channel the energy into the specific parts of the client’s body that are in need of healing – even if that body is lying in another room, or another country. As she puts it, “Reiki does the work … all you need to do is show up and get out of the way.”
Just like a battery heats up when a current of electricity passes through it, so do a healer’s hands — and after the distance healing lesson, Danielle, Lynn, Terri and Kristin trade anecdotes about the intense heat and sweating they experience during and after a particularly charged session. Kristen tells the others about a Reiki master at the Philadelphia “shares” — the monthly communal sessions of giving and receiving Reiki — that she attends, who would have to take her metal rings off before giving Reiki because they would overheat and leave burn marks on her client’s bodies. Terri’s no stranger to the feeling either, adding that she felt her forehead and stomach burning at her latest session. “There was so much tingling in my third eye, my face,” she says, clutching her abdomen. “I felt so grounded, like I was being pulled back into the table.”
Soon, Danielle calls the class to order and asks if her students are ready to give Reiki once more. This time, it will be to me.
With a bit of trepidation, I enter the room previously occupied by Kristin. It’s bare except for a small, elevated bed and a drawer full of healing oils and perfumes. Before I lie down, Terri asks me if I’d prefer for her to touch or just hover over my body parts in need of healing. I ask her to hover and tell her that my back’s been pretty sore lately. I hear her rambling on about starting at my head chakra just before I shut my eyes and enter a deep, calm reverie.
For the next twenty minutes, I feel the heat emanate from Terri’s hands as she mutters above me. “The spirits are telling me to come back to the right side of your back,” she whispers. “I don’t know why but I just feel drawn to it, so I’m going to spend more time there…”
That’s when I feel it: a soft, pitter-pattering pressure on my lower back, weightless but distinctly punctuated, like falling raindrops. I immediately assume it’s Terri’s fingers, but I don’t feel the force of a hand behind them. Then, a gentle wave of some nameless sensation courses down my spine and seems to lift off the outer layer of my thighs, my legs, my skin. It is at this point that my initial skepticism flounders, grasping at some sort of explanation for a few seconds before succumbing to the overbearing urge to sleep.
Ten minutes later, Terri wakes me up. When I tell her about the raindrops, she seems unsurprised. The tingling feeling, she assures me, is normal — and the power symbol she performed over the base of my spine, called Cho Ku Rei, would heal my back in the days to come.
Danielle hugs each of the Reiki masters-in-training as they leave the studio, then begins stuffing her belongings into a suitcase. As we walk to the train station together, she tells me that she’s about to take a four-hour trip back to where she lives in the middle of the woods, in State College, Pennsylvania. More traveling awaits her in January. She’ll head to North Carolina to teach her first Reiki courses in the South, spreading the tradition to another legion of the sick and injured, as well as those just looking for another way to access the spirit world.
By this point, my skepticism has returned, and on the train I ask her if she really believes in Reiki’s healing abilities. She explains that since Reiki is a complementary healing method that the truly ill pair with medicines and hospital visits, its efficacy can never be scientifically proven. But people continue to tell her they heal faster through Reiki, and 90 percent of her clients come to her through referrals. And the Reiki community, especially in Philadelphia, keeps on growing —despite the frequent inter-practitioner legal battles over who has claims to the practice.
“It works differently for everyone,” she concludes with a shrug. “All that matters is that you feel better. Did you?”
The question gives me pause, and I hesitate to answer. Meanwhile, we’ve arrived at Danielle’s stop. She pushes a stray dreadlock back under her bandana, adjusts her shawl and suitcase, and gets off the train and into the dark and windy night.