In ancient India, this energy was known as prana, as it still is in the contemporary practice of yoga and Ayurvedic medicine. Traditional Chinese medicine uses the term qi to describe this vital energy.
Pranic healing seeks, by widely varying means, to strengthen and equalize the pranic flow. And, as the number of alternative therapies has mushroomed during the last several decades, the concept of prana/qi has become almost a common denominator among approaches that may otherwise seem wildly diverse.
The belief in a fundamental life force flowing through the human body (and, by extension, through all living things) is an ancient one, common to many healing systems worldwide. More recently, many Western therapies have incorporated a similar concept.
The concept of prana evolved thousands of years ago in India, apparently in connection with esoteric religious practices. A central concept in both yoga and Ayurveda (an ancient healing system), it is discussed in the earliest written sources for these disciplines—the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the ancient Hindu scriptures known as vedas.
As with prana, the origins of the concept of qi are lost in the distant past. Acupuncture, which uses needles inserted at specific points to stimulate the flow of qi, has been practiced extensively in China for thousands of years. Archaeologists have unearthed stone acupuncture needles dated to around 3000 B.C.
The Nei Jing (or Classic of Internal Medicine ), the oldest known text that discusses the theoretical basis of traditional Chinese medicine, is believed to have been written roughly 2,000 years ago. In addition to acupuncture, one type of Chinese massage is known as qi healing or healing with external qi.
Some practitioners might argue that dealing with imbalances at such a fundamental level, rather than treating symptoms at a superficial level, benefits the patient by getting to the root of the problem and avoiding the risk of merely masking it by treating symptoms. Pranic healing also makes a good fit with the concept of wellness, as opposed to the mere absence of disease, that underlies many alternative therapies.
The diverse array of therapies loosely described as pranic healing may be grouped under several subheads, depending on both their origins and the nature of the healing techniques they employ.
Traditional healing systems
Both Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine are ancient medicinal systems that view health and disease in terms of blockage and flow of vital energy. Both use various diagnostic techniques, herbs/diet, and other treatments (notably acupuncture, therapeutic exercise, and massage, in the case of TCM) to stimulate and balance energy flow.
Practitioners of pranayama, or yogic breathing, believe that prana is moving when the human breath, which is a manifestation of universal prana, is flowing freely. When the body’s energy is blocked, this stagnation can lead to illness and disease.
Because Ayurvedic medicine considers prana a kind of nutrient that one can take in through the breath, breathing exercises play an important role in health promotion in Ayurveda. Pranayama soothes the nervous system, induces relaxation, regulates respiration, and balances the hemispheres of the brain. The major technique of pranayama is alternate nostril breathing.
Over the last century or so, more especially in recent decades, a number of alternative therapies have emerged that manipulate the body and/or noninvasively stimulate specific points to promote wellness, achieve healing, and strengthen the vital force. Among the many such modalities are reflexology, polarity therapy, breema, and reiki.
The many different schools of meditation generally involve some combination of breathing, chanting, special postures, and mental exercises to produce enhanced or altered states of being. The focus of different meditation techniques can range from simple relaxation to mainstream religious devotion to esoteric spiritual evolution.
Various ancient systems—including yoga, qigong and t’ai chi—represent a blending of exercise, therapeutic benefits, and spiritual path. To the extent that these disciplines are viewed as healing modalities, they can be said to represent forms of pranic healing.
Qigong, for example, literally means “energy cultivation.” In each case, specific postures and/or movements—practiced daily, often in combination with breathing exercises—are said to encourage optimal energy flow.
Despite the widespread adoption of the concept of prana by contemporary alternative therapies, it is not accepted in Western scientific circles. Although controlled studies have confirmed specific therapeutic benefits for both yoga and acupuncture—which, in different ways, are based on the idea of pranic healing—there is as yet no generally accepted scientific evidence for the theories that underlie these systems.
Because so many different techniques and practitioners are said to employ some form of pranic healing, it can be difficult even to determine what, exactly, is meant by their respective uses of this terminology. And there is always the risk that a focus on maximizing pranic flow might interfere with more mainstream attempts to address tangible physiological problems.
Given the variety of practices and techniques that can be classified under pranic healing, persons who are interested in a specific form should find out beforehand what level of physical exercise is involved (if any) and what belief system (if any) underlies the practice. Some forms of bodywork may be too strenuous for people with heart disease, fragile bones, or other major health problems.
In addition, some forms of pranic healing may produce physical or psychological phenomena that can startle those not expecting them. For example, a type of yoga known as kundalini yoga works with energy stored at the base of the spine that is activated by exercises.
Some people who have experienced the movement of kundalini energy found it unsettling because they had not been prepared for it. It may be helpful to seek out an experienced guide or mentor who has practiced a specific form of pranic healing long enough to be aware of possible reactions.
The side effects of pranic healing can range from headaches and muscular soreness or stiffness after bodywork sessions to edginess or nervousness resulting from energies released by meditation. These side effects are usually mild and disappear after further practice.