When 68-year-old Hollywood executive Michael Wiese was diagnosed with Parkinson’s eight years ago, he accepted what his doctors told him, that it was a progressive neurodegenerative disease and his life would only go downhill. Soon, he was hunched over and experiencing tremors throughout the day. He could no longer play the piano or button his shirt, and grew so depressed that he rarely left his house.
Wiese, who is also a publisher of screenwriting and spirituality books (“The Writer’s Journey” is one of his well-known titles) began researching alternative therapies and heard about a man named Alex Kerten in Israel, the developer of a mind-body therapy for Parkinson’s called Gyro-Kinetics.
“He came to Israel two years ago,” relates David Brinn, managing editor of the Jerusalem Post and co-author of a new book, “Goodbye Parkinson’s, Hello Life!” with Kerten.
“Within a week, it had changed his life. It reduced his symptoms right away, and he has come back to Israel twice since then, and he has kept the symptoms at bay ever since.”
Wiese was so pleased that he told Kerten he would like to publish a book describing his technique. Wiese introduced Kerten to Brinn, who became the book’s co-author, and in December 2015, “Goodbye Parkinson’s, Hello Life,” hit bookstores throughout North America.
The book is a combination of medical and psychological insights into the Parkinson’s condition as well as practical exercises that involve breathing, relaxation and dance. “There’s been a remarkable change in me and in the way I view life,” says Wiese.
Changing your scripts
Kerten lives and works in a pretty cottage on a quiet street in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. His gaze is intense, and the first thing he does when he meets a new client is study their breathing, facial expressions, body language and posture.
Often, the client is in a state of shock from just having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
“I wonder how much Parkinson’s they have, and how much is the problem that brought about the Parkinson’s?” he relates to the Times of Israel. “The person doesn’t speak with me about this, they keep saying ‘Parkinson’s Parkinson’s Parkinson’s.’ But his body tells me he is not telling the truth. I ask, ‘What is the truth, what brought about the Parkinson’s? What is the point where the Parkinson’s began?’
Kerten says the source of the disease often goes back as far as childhood.
“Perhaps his mother never showed her feelings, she was very mathematical. Perhaps there were problems between a brother and sister because of a family’s patterns of behavior.”
This psychological approach is very unconventional, explains Brinn. Despite decades of research, the cause of Parkinson’s has not been established, with many researchers believing it is a combination of genetics and environment. Kerten believes that in addition, Parkinson’s is behavioral–brought on when a patient wears out their nervous system through anxious states of mind and body repeated over many years.
“If you get diagnosed with Parkinson’s and go to your doctor he is never going to ask you why do you think you got Parkinson’s,” Brinn remarks. “That would be the last question a doctor would ask. But it’s the first question Alex asks.”
Surprisingly, rather than offending the patient, the question often elicits flashes of insight. “I was never allowed to express myself,” said one, “I don’t feel respected by my family and peers.” “The panic I feel isn’t really about the Parkinson’s, it’s the panic I’ve been feeling my whole life.”
“That’s his charm in a way, his skill and his talent,” explains Brinn. “He can look at people and see if something is bothering them, look into their eyes and look at their body forms and understand where they’re coming from, and that’s how he helps people.”
Kerten leads patients to understand that everyone is an actor, and many of us are unconsciously acting out scripts that put our bodies in perpetual fight-or-flight mode.
“If I am mad, I acquire the form of an angry person, I breathe angry, I get an angry expression, my pulse is angry and my whole autonomous nervous system is angry,” explains Kerten. “If I am afraid, I acquire the form of a fearful person. After a while, it becomes automatic.”
When a patient comes to him in the early to middle stages of the disease, Kerten says, they may be exhibiting the symptoms of someone with an advanced stage, when in actuality they are not that ill. This is due to anxiety, and also because once they are told they have Parkinson’s, they begin to act the script of a “person with Parkinson’s”: exhibiting tremors, slow movements and rigid muscles. Through conversation and movement, Kerten is able to help a typical patient who perceives themselves as having “80 percent Parkinson’s” to reduce their symptoms to “20 percent Parkinson’s” or less.
“Parkinson’s has behavior patterns. It affects your expression, your breathing, your digestion and how a person speaks with their hands. If a person is not aware, they become more and more Parkinsonian until they behave Parkinson’s. We at Gyro-Kinetics don’t let the body get into these behavior patterns so that the placebo effect of the body prevents Parkinson’s from developing too much.”
Parkinson’s, says Kerten, doesn’t kill. “It’s not like ALS, which is a terminal disease of the nervous system. It’s become a chronic disease. And when it’s chronic — like migraines — a person gets attacks. And if they know this, they can change it.”
An Israeli Forrest Gump
Brinn describes Kerten as an “Israeli Forrest Gump” because his life has intersected with so many memorable historical moments. Kerten was born to Holocaust survivors in pre-state Israel in 1945. He spent his childhood in Istanbul, where his father was stationed as an Israeli diplomat. As a teenager, he played guitar in a house band that accompanied international stars like Harry Belafonte and Marlene Dietrich on their visits to the fledgling state. In the IDF he served in a special ops force, then lived in Japan for a few years studying martial arts, accumulating seven black belts.
Then, back in Israel, he studied healing movements at the Trager Institute and taught holistic healing for the Maccabi Health Fund. He developed Gyro-Kinetics 25 years ago using his experience in music, martial arts and healing and is referred patients by doctors at Israel’s largest hospitals. He even has a substantial cohort of patients from abroad. Dr. Marieta Anca-Herschkovitsch, head of the Movement Disorder Clinic at Holon’s Wolfson Hospital wrote in an introduction to the book that “many alternative methods have been developed to treat Parkinson’s using movement, but nobody has succeeded like he has.”
But beyond hundreds of paying clients over the years, is there any proof that Kerten’s methods work?
“No, there is no scientific proof,” says Brinn. “But activity is helpful to Parkinson’s patients, that’s a big part of what Alex does.”
In fact, the National Parkinson’s Foundation recommends at least 2.5 hours of exercise a week for Parkinson’s sufferers.
“And I think it goes beyond any placebo effect — he helps patients work through their issues about having Parkinson’s, it’s part psychology and part the whole-mind body thing. You were able to talk through it, and somehow that lightens your load.”
Indeed, scientists have long known that merely believing in a treatment can have real, physical effects on our bodies, in what is commonly described as the placebo effect. New research shows that even patients who are told they are receiving a placebo see a reduction in symptoms, meaning it is enough to believe in the placebo effect for the placebo effect to work. In an essay in New Scientist, journalist Jo Marchant goes further, adding that merely “thinking positive,” has tangible health benefits.
“Optimism seems to reduce stress-induced inflammation and levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. It may also reduce susceptibility to disease by dampening sympathetic nervous system activity and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. The latter governs what’s called the ‘rest-and-digest’ response — the opposite of fight-or-flight.”
Another technique Kerten teaches people is to be so aware of their body, breathing and heartbeat that they can turn off their stress response at will.
“I don’t have Parkinson’s but it helps me with my mind-body connection,” says Brinn. “If I feel worried about money, I am able to put that aside and get back to my balanced state. It doesn’t go away, but I worry less.”
Full disclosure: this reporter met with Kerten while experiencing back pain and after an hour’s conversation, my symptoms diminished.
Kerten does not advocate throwing away your medications but taking them in tandem with Gyro-Kinetics. Then, once your symptoms lessen you can go back to the doctor and have the dosage reduced. This is key, because Kerten believes many of the symptoms of Parkinson’s actually derive from the medications.
Kerten advises anyone who buys the book to also have one-on-one sessions with a therapist near where they live so they can begin to understand how psychology and biology interact.
“Biology is the same as feelings,” he says.
There is also free 6-minute exercise video on YouTube and Kerten offers free initial 30-minute Skype consultations to anyone who is geographically distant.
Kerten believes that anyone can benefit from his book, even young, healthy people.
“Our life is like a book — every day a page is gone. If you don’t use your pages correctly there comes a certain time when you say, did I really live life or did I suffer life? The suffering becomes chronic. You don’t have to be a diseased or sick person to know Gyro-Kinetics. You have to sense your body and listen to your body.”