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Some eight weeks ago, a seven-month-old infant died in the south of Israel. The infant had been diagnosed as suffering from a serious brain defect at birth. Several months before his death, his parents publicized a plea on the Internet in an effort to raise tens of thousands of dollars to pay for the treatments their son needed. One of the treatments the donations were meant to fund was that of "an international expert from Russia, Igor Charkovsky, who has proved himself in similar treatments in Israel and internationally."

Charkovsky was the last person that treated the baby. According to the father, Charkovsky worked with the infant for three successive days in water, his sphere of expertise, without a doctor. Unfortunately, the infant, who was in critical condition even before encountering Charkovsky, died the day after the last treatment. Charkovsky was summoned to the house and tried to revive the baby - unsuccessfully, the father reports.

"I asked him at the begining where he had studied," the father says, "and he replied that he had been born with the knowledge and discovered it over time. In retrospect, I am still happy and thankful that Igor was brought to work with our son. It was a type of energetic leap that made it possible for him to leave his body and die."

Charkovsky was committed to the task at hand, the father insists, and even visited the family during the shiva (traditional week of mourning). "My son was in a very bad state, and I felt I had nothing to lose. I do not regret inviting Charkovsky to work with him."

The parents did not want an autopsy performed on their child and asked for an immediate burial. No report was made to the Health Ministry about the death. It was not until about three weeks ago, in the wake of a request made to the ministry, that the case was referred to the police. In a subsequent conversation, the father sought to blur the connection between the infant's death and Charkovsky's treatments. The baby, he says, might have died from the effects of a medicine he was given against epilepsy. In the absence of an autopsy, the cause of the infant's death may remain a mystery.

The infant from the south was not the first to be treated by Charkovsky in Israel. In recent years the 71-year-old Russian has come here on short, unpublicized visits people hear about by word of mouth. He works with healthy and sick infants, mothers and pregnant women, using a water treatment method he developed in Russia decades ago. Charkovsky, who has a doctoral degree but lacks medical training, is considered one of the progenitors of childbirth-in-water and of a "baby yoga" method used in and out of water. He is described as a pioneer in his field, a somewhat strange-looking guru, who has worked since the 1970s and has acquired followers and practitioners in the United States, Europe and Australia; in Israel his popularity is growing with each visit. Parents who work with Charkovsky call him a veritable miracle worker; medical authorities and organizations boycott him.

Ten hours in the water

One day earlier this month, at the pool in Nofit, near Haifa, Charkovsky is holding a seven-month-old baby girl in a twisted position and repeatedly pushing her head under the water. The goal: to make her breathe through the nose, "because breathing through the mouth is solely for survival," explains a young man named Shaya, who with his wife, Tlalit, serves as a sort of agent, organizing some of the encounters with Charkovsky. They take a fee of NIS 180 for a three-hour session. Charkovsky, by the way, cannot legally work in Israel, because he does not have a work permit.

The baby's eyes are closed and she is pale and in a meditative state or "trance," as her mother puts it. The mother is Charkovsky's interpreter: He doesn't speak Hebrew or English, and generally doesn't say much. "All her channels are being opened," the mother explains. "She is entering a unified state. This heals her from trauma, cleanses the karmas and strengthens her. Igor worked with her like this for three-four hours when she was just three days old." According to the mother, the baby was in the water six hours this time, plunging, sleeping and breast-feeding in the chlorinated pool. "Igor says they have to be in the water 10 hours every day," she explains.

When the infant emerges from the "trance" state, she is placed in a sling that is connected to elastic cables, and is hurled from side to side, the water splashing her face; sometimes she is submerged. She is then removed from the sling, and Charkovsky and her mother hold one of the baby's hands and rotate her in the air in a 360-degree circle, forward and backward. Charkovsky also throws her with one hand high into the air, for a 360-degree somersault, and then for a dive into the water. He ends the exercise with more deep immersions. On another sling is an infant who suffers from developmental retardation. For three hours she is dunked into the water, wailing much of the time.

Simultaneously, a four-month-old baby is for the second time in her life being submerged. With the baby crying and looking miserable, Shaya the agent takes the mother aside and thrusts her under the water as well, "so that she will breathe during the immersion and not project her fears on to her daughter." At the end of the exercise the mother breast-feeds the baby in the pool. When the infant again starts crying, Charkovsky splashes water on her face.

In addition to the sling contraption, Charkovsky binds the infants to a kind of wooden frame to create the twist position in which the infants are supposed to be submerged. Sometimes a plastic device is placed on their head - also in order to keep them immobile and in the right position for dunking.

The father of an infant who first saw Charkovsky at work in a different pool in Israel this month relates, "Charkovsky arrived at the pool accompanied by a crew of female assistants or fans, some of whom held their infants only by the wrists as they swung them in every direction. Afterward a boy of five at the most was made to enter the water despite loud and heartrending protests. Charkovsky grabbed him by the ankles, threw him up high and thrust him deep into the water. He just picked him up like an object, without any preparation, without any empathy, gentleness or attentiveness to the boy's terrified screams. This went on for at least 40 minutes. The boy screamed, 'No, no, I don't want it, Mommy! Enough!' and it didn't stop. After 15 minutes his strength seemed to wane and the screams turned to gurgles. When Charkovsky took a short break we saw the boy vomiting up the water he had swallowed during the screams.

"I looked at my wife in shock. One of the women who works with Charkovsky came over to us and said, 'If you want to watch the work - only with loving eyes. I know it might look bad, but this boy is suffering from a serious birth trauma, because his mother was completely opened up, and if he is not released from the trauma he is liable to grow up to become a criminal or a drug dealer."

"Igor is an astonishing person," Shaya said in a phone call. "He is a healer and is responsible for important knowledge at global levels. You have to be prepared for his work, because it is a transformation. The infants are taken through a journey, and it is not pleasant. But he strengthens them physically, purifies their soul and enables them to live an easier life."

Learning from dolphins

Igor Charkovsky was born in Siberia in 1936. In the 1960s, according to his official Internet site, he devised the water-birth method, as well as the healing of infants and sick or weak children by means of swimming or lengthy dunkings in the water. According to the site he graduated from the Moscow State Central University for Physical Education. He also claims to have a certificate from another university as a "doctor for humanity" (again, he is not a medical doctor).

His resume states that he has engaged in psychotherapy, physiology and scientific experiments "which have shed new light on previously unresearched human capabilities and have found practical ways to improve the infant's nervous system and brain." His experiments, according to other sources, included efforts to induce female beavers to adopt and feed hares, and thus teach them how to swim and live in the water. He also tried to teach cats, rabbits and pigs to give birth in water and has tried to teach chickens to swim. From the study of animals he moved to the development of the water-birth method, preparing women for childbirth and, later, to treatment of infants and toddlers.

One of his best-known experiments was conducted in 1992. A boy of one year and nine months, who was trained by Charkovsky, succeeded in swimming 33 kilometers in a pool in the course of 15 hours, 2 minutes and 28 seconds - nonstop. For Charkovsky, this achievement proved that "human beings can live in water, can eat and sleep while swimming." Charkovsky's interpreter adds that the toddler performed this feat with his hands tied behind his back.

In his research, Charkovsky found that in the case of dolphins, the mother's stomach is transparent and they can see the fetus and communicate with it via a sonar-based system. The dolphin thus communicates its knowledge about the sea to the fetus, ensuring that it will have no fear of water. For years Charkovsky delivered babies in the Black Sea in the presence of dolphins, and the infants thus born continued to swim and dive in the sea when they were just a few hours or a few days old. In some cases Charkovsky organized "birth camps," involving group births and immersion after birth.

In Charkovsky's view, as long as the umbilical cord has not been severed, the infant does not have to breathe through his lungs and can swim freely in the water. Afterward, too, when the infant is a few hours or days old, he should continue to be in the water as much as possible. In contrast to other methods that advocate the use of warm water to alleviate labor pain, in Charkovsky's method, water is used to strengthen tolerance and endurance. Indeed, his method stipulates a preference for ice water, which will eventually make the infant a stronger and healthier person and strengthen the whole race.

From the evolutionary point of view, Charkovsky maintains, man's origins are in the water, like all living creatures. He says that humans were unfortunately pushed onto the land by "sea monsters" and thus imprinted with hydrophobia. The shattering of the physical taboos embodied in Charkovsky's method is intended to invoke primeval memories and instill people with superhuman spiritual, physical and intellectual capabilities.

Water births, according to him, are meant to make a significant contribution to human evolution - or, as he puts it, to create a "new race" of human beings. Furthermore, in the view of Charkovsky and his followers, infants who are born in hospitals are limited, even if they are described as being healthy.

The blue babies

Igor Charkovsky's little charges did not always achieve physical and spiritual empowerment after being with him. In 1999, The Moscow News reported that an investigation was under way into cases of death among infants with whom Charkovsky worked. The district prosecutor of Omsk, Siberia, the paper reported, had conducted a lengthy probe into the clinical death of two little girls, Anastasia and Aliya.

Anastasia, a two-year-old, fell asleep after about an hour of work with Charkovsky. Her skin turned blue, but she received no medical assistance other than being warmed in a sauna. She started to vomit and lost consciousness, but the facilitators assured her father that this was natural. Only when she started to choke was an ambulance summoned. Aliya, an 11-month-old, also started to feel ill after three hours of work with Charkovsky in the water. Her lips turned blue and she stopped breathing. Both children were rushed in a state of clinical death to an intensive-care unit, where they were eventually revived, but Anastasia remained in a coma. The diagnosis: "drowning."

Despite these tragic events, the girls' parents did not cooperate with the investigation and expressed total confidence in their guru. They said the investigation against him should be dropped. In light of this, the prosecutor said he doubted that Charkovsky could be placed on trial. Charkovsky has not responded to the allegations of his responsibility for the harm done to the two girls.

In Britain, the daily Independent reported that various medical bodies, along with the police and the House of Commons, addressed Charkovsky's activity in the country. In the late 1980s, a Labor MP, Audrey Wise, tried to get his activity barred throughout the United Kingdom. A reporter for The Independent described observing Charkovsky grasp the ankles of a naked baby and submerge him deep into a container of ice water, as whales swam nearby, then pull him out to breathe before plunging him back in repeatedly, with the infant continually screaming. This activity, Charkovsky explained at the time, was intended to strengthen the infant mentally and bodily, and also to help him communicate with whales.

The deep immersions in ice water can be bolstered by dousings with pails of cold water. The emphasis is not on loving communication, but on endurance and tolerance of pain. Mothers spoil their children and don't know what's good for them, Charkovsky argues. Women must not be allowed to be responsible for developing their children's potential. The training of a "super baby" is based on breaking his will without yielding to his crying, and on cultivating discipline in the face of protests.

This is not Charkovsky's only comment concerning women's wimpiness. In the past he has defined women as "sheep who must obey their shepherds; women are incapable of thinking and do not want to understand anything." According to him, they "do not even know why they cannot grasp simple things, and this is why the man has to prepare everything for them in advance."

'We are not fish'

According to reports, Charkovsky has many followers in Russia, but is boycotted by the medical authorities and even by some organizations that advocate water births. One of his supporters in Israel is Shimon Eyal, the coordinator of infant and rehabilitative swimming programs at the Tel Aviv University sports center. According to Eyal, this May Charkovsky will be the focus of a large-scale national conference for rehabilitative therapists and swimming instructors, where he will explain his doctrine. Eyal emphasizes that his own methods are far gentler than Charkovsky's, but adds that "there is still a great deal to learn from him."

In contrast, Tuvia Stuchiner, chairman of the Israeli Hydrotherapy Association and a member of the directorate of the local organization of swimming instructors for infants, objects to Charkovsky's visits.

"I met him in the United States 10 years ago at an international conference of hydrotherapists," explains Stuchiner, who is also a lecturer at Beit Issie Shapiro, which engages in hydrotherapy for the disabled, and at Sapir College in the Negev. "He did not lecture at the conference, but it was important for him to show me personally a video documenting his work with infants - which shocked me deeply. A child neurologist who was with me said he ought to be arrested. During his [recent] visit he showed his work at the pool on Kibbutz Givat Haim, and afterward our organization received numerous complaints. I could not ignore the calls and letters I received, or my own information, and all the material was passed on to the Health Ministry.

"I received a report," Stuchiner continues, "that he treated a baby girl who screamed in protest, and in response he clamped his hand over her mouth and splashed water on her. She turned blue, but that didn't bother him. After that activity she was left in the water for another two hours. In our view, the shaking he does, the many hours that the infants are in the water and the aggressiveness of his activity are contrary to all the principles of hydrotherapy. We don't want an infant crying in protest; we don't want his mouth to be shut. That is cruelty. The approach in Israel is that the infant should first of all enjoy being in the water. Even a stricken infant deserves enjoyment."

Charkovsky believes that infants have to spend hours in the water every day.

Stuchiner: "We are not fish. I wrote an article stating that an infant less than a year old should not be kept in the water for more than half an hour. Physiological changes occur in the water, which affect the kidneys, for example, and cause a loss of minerals. An infant's body cannot always cope with such changes, and this can be extremely dangerous."

He also maintains that the ideal time to work with an infant in cold water is precisely when the infant is sick with a cold, high fever, a bad cough - even pneumonia is a possibility.

"A sick infant must not enter water under any circumstances. If his fever goes above 38 degrees Celsius, there is no reason for him to be taken to a pool."

Opposition to water births

Prof. Francis Mimouni, the chairman of the Israel Pediatrics Society, also objects to Charkovsky's activity, as it is described. "The tossing around and shaking of the kind this person is said to engage in bear a great resemblance to the phenomenon of the shaken baby syndrome. American pediatric experts view such activity as violence against a child. Basically, swinging and shaking can cause serious brain damage and even death. I am not familiar with any physiological or spiritual theories that justify such activity with infants and children."

Prof. Eliezer Shalev, chairman of the Israeli organization of midwives and gynecologists, opposes water birth, especially in the sea. "I am surprised that enlightened adults go to the sea to give birth," he says. "If complications occur, there is no way to solve the problem. There are no means for monitoring, no connection to a hospital. As chairman of the organization and as an obstetrician for more than 30 years, I tell you unequivocally that it is not safe. A hospital is safe. A woman can give birth on a bus or in the jungle, but if complications develop during the birth, only a hospital can deal with it. Not dolphins."

"Delivery of children by people without the training we demand is very, very, very dangerous," warns Dr. Shoshana Riba, the head nurse of the State of Israel and director of the Health Ministry's nursing division, in which capacity she is in charge of midwives. According to the Health Ministry's records, Riba explains, Charkovsky has no authority to deliver babies in Israel, "and therefore, if he is doing so, the mothers should know that this is a violation of the law."

Nevertheless, Charkovsky's fans believe in his doctrine totally. Soon, they hope, he will immigrate to Israel with his wife and two children, and will thus be able to expand his activity here.

"I see him doing wonderful things with afflicted children," his interpreter relates. "Only people who have worked with him can understand. The parents are grateful to him. I saw him throw a two-week-old baby into the air. He absolutely flew every which way. I think he must have done four somersaults. That has an excellent effect on the energy flow in the body and the brain. I have been working closely with him for almost two months, and he told me that I, too, can and should start giving hydrotherapy lessons. I am very drawn to it and believe in it. For sure this is what I did in one of my previous incarnations."

As of press time, no response from Igor Charkovsky had been received. Shaya, who organized his visit to Israel, declined to give his surname or to pass on questions to Charkovsky. "You can cause as much damage as you like, but take responsibility for it," Shaya reprimanded me. "You don't understand that you are dealing with gentle souls, with hurt people and with tender children who are trying to get help. The work here is based on energy, and every type of energy that interferes does so powerfully. Think carefully. People here are making tremendous efforts and doing sacred work to rehabilitate their children. And Igor is doing sacred work. It's not easy for everyone to see this from the side."

The information we have is generating great anxiety.

Shaya: "If you are stressed out by the information, then breathe."

He doesn't even have a permit to work in Israel.

"He is not working here."

Yes he is. You take money for the meetings with him and some of it goes to him.

"He is not working, he is helping people. We are making it possible for those who want help to get help, and that's the end of the story. I am not familiar with the information in your possession, and it has nothing to do with us." W

Esti Ahronovitz contributed to this article