Jerusalem — Several years ago Judit Raz, head of the Israel Parkinson’s Association’s Tel Aviv chapter, decided to experience firsthand a therapy others living with Parkinson’s had been raving about.
Raz travelled to the Gyro-Kinetics Center in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv, and, after being assessed by the clinic’s director, Alex Kerten, took part in therapeutic movement classes that included rhythmic dancing and musical conducting.
The classes, whose aim was to help people with Parkinson’s cope with the disease’s most common symptoms — tremors, “frozen” muscles and joints, problems related to gait and balance, range of motion and concentration — “changed my life,” Raz said.
“The disease is not advancing. I haven’t had to increase the dosage of my medication. I can walk, I can dance, I can write, I can drive,” Raz said. “My feet were trembling and I could hardly lift them off the ground. I feel much better.”
Kerten, who founded the GyroKinetics Center 25 years ago and recently published the book (written together with David Brinn) “Goodbye Parkinson’s, Hello Life!,” told The Jewish Week he has worked with “many hundreds, likely thousands” of people with Parkinson’s disease, other movement disorders, muscular-skeletal problems, vascular, respiratory and digestive disorders for nearly three decades.
Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system, affects about 1 million people in America and 10 million worldwide.
The holder of seven martial arts black belts who has intensively studied the physiology of the body’s behavioral patterns, Kerten has no medical degrees, but Israeli neurologists often refer their patients to him because so many other patients say his treatments have eased their symptoms and greatly improved their quality of life.
According to Kerten, who invented gyrokenetics, the therapy draws on movement, touch and music to help the body “restore and maintain its physical, emotional, mental and physiological balance.”
What happens in Parkinson’s disease, Kerten said, is that the rhythm of different parts of a person’s body become wildly out of sync due to an as-yet-unknown disease mechanism that, he believes, is either triggered by emotional stress and/or exacerbated by it.
Kerten said it’s “vital” to determine “what percentage” of a person’s Parkinson’s symptoms are caused by the actual disease and what is being worsened by anxiety.
Prior to treating patients Kerten takes a thorough medical history and asks them about their disease progression, what conventional and non-conventional medical care they have sought and which medications, if any, they are taking. While he is not anti-medicine, “I wish more patients arrived here prior to taking medication,” he said. “Physicians who aren’t Parkinson’s specialists often prescribe medication that should be prescribed years after the diagnosis, not at its onset.”
Patients generally participate in two types of sessions: active and passive.
In the clinic’s active sessions clients are taught (either one-on-one or in groups) sets of movements that they practice to different musical rhythms that work out various parts of the body, from the face to the toes. Learning how to breathe properly is an integral part of the sessions, as is free-form dancing.
During the passive sessions clients lay on a massage table, listen to music and use guided imagery to relax. The gyrokinetics practitioner uses various forms of touch to create vibrations that move through the patient’s body, “stimulating the body systems and restoring them to harmonic cooperation and healing,” Kerten said.
Although most of his patients feel looser and have greater control of their bodies after their workouts, Kerten said, “they also leave with the understanding that they are healthy people who have Parkinson’s disease.”
Kerten teaches clients to change their walking patterns, their facial patterns, how they get up from a seated position.
“They see that if they change their behavioral patterns the body can perform miracles.”
Kerten said martial arts training is an important part of his treatments.
“In martial arts you always have to find solutions to challenges. You need to recognize your feet, your hips, your knees, your vertebrae, your breathing, your heartbeat. You learn how to regulate your body. You learn the art of movement.”
Once clients begin to stand up straighter, breathe deeper, walk farther, learn to relax and better control their muscles and even dance, Kerten said, “they realize they have power over their lives, that life is worth living.”
In an endorsement of Kerten’s book Moshe Kushnir, retired head of the neurology department at Kaplan Medical Center in Rehovot, called him “a pioneer in the field of movement therapy for Parkinson’s patients. Only now is the importance of what he does becoming apparent.”
Although Kerten’s treatments have not yet been scrutinized in a clinical trial, a 2012 meta-analysis of Music-based Movement (MbM) in the Netherlands found that MbM significantly improved patients’ gait and balance.
Shmuel Merhav, 59, said his symptoms have diminished since first attending Kerten’s clinic three years ago.
When Merhav was diagnosed with Parkinson’s four years ago, “I despaired for a month,” he recalled, “but then I decided not to accept that this was irreversible and incurable. I was on a healing journey. I had a tremor in my hand, stiffness in my hands, my legs, my back. My voice was weak. I had difficulty writing and eating with a knife and a fork. My face seemed frozen,” he said.
Six months later Merhav posted his diagnosis on Facebook, and friends suggested he consult with Kerten.
“I asked him if he could heal me. He said, ‘I can’t promise healing but looking at how you hold your body, how you are breathing, indicates that 15 or 20 percent of your problem is Parkinson’s and 80 or 85 percent is anxiety.’”
Merhav worked with Kerten twice a week, focusing on MbM, martial arts and therapeutic massage.
“There has been a lot of improvement in the way I walk, the way I talk, the way I hold my body when I’m with people, especially my clients. I facilitate big events with hundreds of people. I need to be my best in front of them and the treatments are allowing me to do this.”
Merhav emphasized that the improvement has been gradual and that medication is likely playing a role.
“Two years ago Alex insisted I take the medication prescribed by my neurologist,” he said.
Merhav said Kerten “taught me you can keep fighting and not to rely totally on medication. He insists that the Parkinson’s teaches lessons to lead a fuller life.
“I’d never danced prior to my diagnosis and just last week my son brought me a basketball and my body started behaving as if I didn’t have Parkinson’s. I never enjoyed martial arts but now I like the action. These are gifts Parkinson’s has brought to my life and Alex helped me discover them,” Merhav said.