Mind over matter: Treating Parkinson’s through martial arts
Many Israelis are hard at work looking into the causes of Parkinson’s disease, new treatments to relieve symptoms and technologies to manage the disease.
One Israeli, however, has focused his efforts on a mind-body approach. Alex Kerten said his gyro-kinetic program of martial arts, movement and music has helped hundreds of Parkinson’s patients from Israel and abroad over the past 20 years in slowing the progression and easing symptoms of this disorder, which affects the brain’s control over muscle movement.
As many as 10 million people worldwide suffer from tremors, impaired balance and rigidity associated with Parkinson’s disease, which has no cure. Drugs prescribed to lessen the symptoms also often cause unpleasant side effects.
“I don’t know what is worse: Parkinson’s or the cocktail of medications people receive to treat it,” Kerten said from his Gyro-Kinetics Center in Herzliya. “They get addicted to the drugs and need medication for its side effects.”
Kerten’s approach targets the physiology of behavior to provide a placebo effect on symptoms as a complement to medications and to reduce the amount of medication needed.
“The physiology of behavior means that our behavior patterns are based on how our nervous system reacts to situations,” he said. “Our biochemistry and our psychology start to change as we learn to control our way of thinking. They begin to interact through body/mind awareness and language, and when they do that, we begin to see a change in our physiology. And that’s when we begin to feel better.”
Kerten said he gets thousands of requests from people across the world interested in his method, and he has treated people at his Israeli clinic from Australia, the United States, United Kingdom and France. He long felt that a how-to book would enable him to reach a greater audience with the message that “there is an option.”
The project came together when Michael Wiese, head of American publishing company Divine Arts, came to Kerten for treatment and then offered to publish his book. David Brinn, managing editor of The Jerusalem Post (and founding editorial director of Israel21c), agreed to co-write “Goodbye Parkinson’s, Hello Life! The Gyro-Kinetic Method for Eliminating Symptoms and Reclaiming Your Good Health.” It is scheduled for a January 2016 release on Amazon.
Although there is scientific evidence that movement and music open up new pathways in the neural networks and make them more efficient, the 70-year-old Kerten is not a scientist and has no medical degree.
He studied martial arts, structuring and healing movement, as well as somatic exploration and movement education. That was prior to working with Parkinson’s patients for four years at Reuth Hospital in Tel Aviv and teaching at the Maccabi Health Institute in Israel, then opening his private practice.
“Having seven black belts in martial arts is the only ‘diploma’ I need, and my clients provide all the proof I need,” he said. “They’re really rehabilitating and treating themselves.”
Most clients come to his clinic twice a week for four or five months, and then occasionally for maintenance. He prefers to work with people who have recently been diagnosed, before they have become dependent on medications.
The first time Kerten meets a client, he observes and asks questions to ascertain the level of disease and its physical and psychological effects.
“In many cases, the effect of the shock over having Parkinson’s is bigger than the Parkinson’s itself,” he said. “The most important thing is I try to see what medications they have gotten and how their behavior patterns have limited or entered their systems.”
Two phenomena he often sees are incorrect breathing, which harms the diaphragm and causes speech difficulties, and less usage of the hands because of trembling, which he said leads to memory problems.
“By seeing where their limits are in movement and rhythm, I tell them what we have to improve, and then I enter into systematic, methodic work. I have built four basic exercises that answer most of the problems and harmonize the body’s systems,” Kerten said.
He explained that when people have internalized the message that their body is going to get worse over time, the autonomic nervous system goes into survival mode and the disease becomes chronic.
“We teach people to communicate with themselves so as not to pass over messages that are not correct,” he said. “And with time, something very interesting happens: All the systems become entrained toward better health.”