State Board of Touchy-feely?

Reiki, an Asian touch therapy that traces its origins to Buddhist monasteries in ancient Tibet, is supposed to channel divine love rays to heal the human body. But the exact opposite effect occurred with a bill filed last month by Texas Representative Debra Danburg to give the state hands-on regulation of the commercial practice of Reiki.

Some Reiki masters can hardly wait to apply their special killing touch to the legislation.

"Reiki is a mystical practice that will exist unbridled regardless of any attempts to govern it," declared lllinois-based Reiki master Mark Maluga in an e-mail to Danburg's Austin office. "This bill appears to be a witch hunt-like piece of proposed legislation that attaches penalties and fines."

Mark Cohen, an Austin lawyer who drafted the bill at the instigation of Houston Reiki master Julia Carroll, defends it as a consumer protection law designed to ensure that the expanding popularity of the touch-healing discipline does not attract charlatans and fakes.

"There's too much hokey Reiki stuff going on out there," says Cohen, who specializes in representing alternative health professionals.

"It's dangerous to the people who really are qualified to do Reiki because then the reputation gets out that Reiki is full of baloney and there's nothing to it."

On the other end of the transaction, Cohen says customers are "paying money to get some help, and the person they are paying money to doesn't know what they are doing."

The bill proposes voluntary registration for Reiki practitioners and a ban on nonregistered devotees from using the word Reiki in connection with any delivery of services. It also would establish registration fees and make violations Class B misdemeanors with mandatory fines.

Emily Laurel, a Houston Reiki master, sides with Maluga in criticizing the bill. She sees it as an issue of religious freedom.

"This effort is an attempt to regulate God-directed, life-force energy," contends Laurel. "It's as if the Greek Orthodox Church was going to come in and ask Debra Danburg to introduce legislation that made the Greek Orthodox Church in charge of all religion."

Reiki certainly doesn't seem like your typical candidate for state regulation on the order of healing professions like physicians, chiropractors or dentists. A Reiki teaching manual offers this spiritual explanation for how the practice of touch healing works:

"Reiki is part of the Emerald Ray, and is served under the direction of the Reiki masters in spirit.... Reiki energy comes from God through the White Brotherhood, the Masters of the Seven Rays, to the Reiki Hierarchy itself ... those drawn to the Ray of Reiki quickly illumine and attune to the Fifth Ray of Truth."

Reiki relies on no standard ceremony or garb, according to practitioners. It can resemble a massage, except that the client remains fully clothed. Practitioners use various hand positions to administer a series of light touches to particular areas of the body, depending upon the ailment described. In theory, the touch releases the flow of life energy that can heal both emotional and physical illness. Recipients of the therapy often describe the touch of a master as a tingling, relaxing sensation.

Reiki crosses traditional religious lines and traces its modern origins to mid-19th-century Japan. A Christian minister, Dr. Mikao Usui, sought to explain Biblical accounts of Jesus performing healing miracles. The minister eventually focused on Buddhist texts from Tibet and claimed to have recovered lost knowledge about divinely inspired healing techniques. Usui passed on the spiritual and hand-touch techniques to a disciple, Dr. Chujiro Hayashi, who initiated a Japanese woman, Hawayo Takata. She returned to her native Hawaii to begin a school for Reiki in the '70s. Her classes produced masters who spread Reiki throughout the West.

Along the way, masters began initiating new masters for a set fee of $10,000, a price that has caused dissension in Reiki ranks. Some masters began charging far less for initiations, believing the higher rate had kept Reiki from being readily available on a mass-market basis.

Reiki master Lois Werner of the Clear Lake area is rallying Reiki devotees around the country to oppose the proposed state registry, claiming the legislation is designed to restrict the practice to those willing to pay the $10,000 for initiation. Danburg's bill would recognize only two groups -- the Reiki Alliance and the Reiki Touch Institute of Holistic Medicine -- as the sole arbiters of who can be certified a master. Both charge ten grand to train and credential a master.

"I think they are the ones who are trying to make everybody join their little group and charge the same amount they do," Werner alleges. "Price fixing, it looks like to me."

"It is outrageous," agrees Laurel. "That is elitist, and they have used that for all of this time to keep normal people who want to serve -- but are not wealthy people -- from having that healing gift. There are people today who think if they don't pay $10,000, it's not worth as much."

Linda LaFlamme, president of the Massachusetts-based International Association of Reiki Professionals, also opposes the bill. She argues that limiting Reiki graduates would be akin to saying only doctors with degrees from a particular medical school could practice medicine in the state of Texas.

"Part of the bill also states the term Reiki could only be used by these particular groups," notes LaFlamme. "Take yoga and its many, many styles. If would be like saying only yoga practitioners of one particular style, say Hatha, could teach and practice yoga."

"It's the first step in a real scary direction," says Werner. "It's terrifying to me to think the Constitution could be threatened. When you start to legislate anything spiritual you might as well be joining Church and State."

Laurel predicts that the bill will "stir up a gallon of fire ants." As for Danburg's office, she warns, "they better hold their hats, 'cause the Internet is alive with this!"

Danburg was unavailable for comment. Her legislative assistant, Phillip Cheatham, indicates that a barrage of protests is giving the representative some second thoughts about the bill.

"I looked on the Internet and saw the warnings to hurry up and alert everybody because this bill is filed and they are fixing to go into session," says Cheatham. He points out that passage of the bill is far from a sure thing, particularly with the wave of criticism evidenced on the Internet.

"If [Debra] decided to push it, we would probably request a hearing, and it would probably not go anywhere because of the amount of opposition -- if they were able to come to the hearing and testify."

On the opposite side of the Reiki divide is Julia Carroll, formerly known as Julie Carroll Stewart. She authored The Reiki Touch and is president of the Reiki Touch Institute of Holistic Medicine, one of the two groups empowered in the bill to certify Reiki masters.

"We are the creme de la creme, the top of the heap in this kind of thing," says Carroll. "We work our butts off. We work so hard at Reiki, only Reiki, 24-hours-a-day Reiki. And that's what our focus is. The only reason we want the bill is to make sure the Reiki masters and all levels of Reiki ... are properly trained and educated."

Carroll is alarmed that almost anyone these days can claim to be a Reiki master.

"People come up to me and say, 'I feel like a Reiki master, therefore I am,' " says Carroll. "Some people say, 'I got it in a dream' or 'an angel came to me when I was three years old and made me a Reiki master.' " Carroll determined that things had really gone too far when a woman decided that reading her book was sufficient to confer master status.

Carroll seems reluctant to talk about the spiritual side of Reiki, especially the jargon about emerald rays and white brotherhoods.

"Can you imagine that going into a hospital arena?" asks Carroll, who has had to fight for years to win acceptance for Reiki from skeptical physicians. "I think a lot of medical doctors are healers, and a lot of Reiki practitioners may be spiritual people. But you won't find too many doctors who will step out of their comfort zones and say, 'I'm a healer.' "

Likewise, Carroll considers herself a Reiki master who has paid the price in dollars, time, education and commitment to be taken seriously. "We are more grounded in the facts," she emphasizes. "Usually, you can't measure a spiritual energy." The facts, according to Carroll, include medical studies that prove Reiki has beneficial effects.

Carroll also sees nothing wrong with the $10,000 initiation fee. "It's a profession," stresses Carroll. "It's commitment and time. It cost me $10,000 to make $10,000."

For the past 18 months, Carroll has worked with Dr. Bruce Perry, a nationally known child abuse expert at Texas Children's Hospital. She says her therapy has had "wonderful results" for abused children there. Carroll says Perry wondered how to be sure who was a qualified Reiki expert. "He urged me to get some state regulation going."

Carroll then hired attorney Cohen to draft the bill. Former state senator A.R. "Babe" Schwartz of Galveston, a longtime Cohen friend, agreed to a minimal fee to lobby for passage. At Schwartz's request, Danburg's staff filed a registration bill in 1997, but it attracted almost no notice because it was introduced late in that legislative session. This time around, the reaction has been very different.

Schwartz seems unconcerned by the protests. "Most of the time, when a piece of legislation is drafted and introduced, the whole idea on the front end is to give it some notoriety," Schwartz says with a chuckle. "And then try to work with the people who have a problem with it."

In the lobbyist's view, critics of the bill are overreacting to a nonbinding piece of legislation. "The Reiki community seems to be up in arms -- or some of them -- about a voluntary registration bill which would not affect them topside or bottom if they don't choose to voluntarily register.... Nobody is required to do anything or change anything about what they do or don't do, or administer their Reiki principles or anything else."

That interpretation doesn't quite jibe with Cohen's. According to the lawyer, the intent of the bill is indeed to restrict the activities of nonregistered Reiki practitioners.

"What we're trying to do is get people to qualify under the act before they can say they're a registered Reiki practitioner," says Cohen. He reiterates that those who do not have the credentials could not call themselves Reiki masters.

Since the state has never verified that Reiki actually works as a healing technique, what would be the difference between establishing a registry for Reiki practitioners and, say, a registry for qualified voodoo priests?

"Well, there isn't anything," admits Cohen. "Reiki is going to have to show it's something the people want, that is not dangerous to them and has had some benefits. We'll be presenting [evidence] to the legislature to show we're not voodoo or something like that."

Cohen vows to push for passage but promises to broaden the bill to include any groups that can legitimately claim to produce qualified Reiki professionals. Exactly how a governmental body can decide who is an expert in an unverifiable discipline remains a mystery on a par with the Reiki Ray itself.

"There is no way to prove that this energy even exists," contends Lois Werner, "much less that the Reiki Alliance or anyone else has a stranglehold on the Real Thing."

Or the unreal thing, for that matter.

Let your news tips reach out and touch The Insider. Call him at (713)280-2483, fax him at (713)280-2496, or e-mail him at insider@houston


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