HEALTH

Inside the Healing Craze Sweeping Berlin

HEALTH
Dec 23, 2013 at 12:21 PM ET

I’m in what looks like a medical exam room, sitting on a massage table with the naked soles of my feet a few inches from a woman’s face. She starts getting personal: “Do you have any fears you’re working through?” She draws a diagram of a foot on a piece of paper, scribbles some notes, squeezes one side of my right foot and then begins massaging the left. I feel her fingers drift across a rough spot near my heel. “What makes you feel angry?”

I’d signed up for a session of the Grinberg Method, a New Age healing practice developed by an Israeli man named Avi Grinberg over the last four decades that’s rapidly gaining popularity here in Berlin.

The technique is a mash-up of other disciplines: foot analysis, psychotherapy, massage, reflexology. But its efficacy depends in part on your willingness to buy into the message. I’m told by many that it is about learning a new way of living. Others say it’s a cult run by an imperious Svengali.

“The method teaches a discipline of attention,” Avi Grinberg tells me. “People learn to pay attention to themselves and their surroundings, and through this to control what they want not to continue in their life—be it a chronic pain, the fixation of having to always be the same when a certain situation happens, or the way they deal with a difficulty.”

The Grinberg Method comes with a vocabulary: Massage isn’t called massage, it’s  called touch. There is absolutely no therapy involved. And don’t even think of describing it as spiritual. The rules of engagement are all-encompassing. People refer to practitioners or leaders as being “in the method.” These things, along with the oddities of the founder, have fed allegations that it is a cult. Grinberg, its figurehead, says such things are “ridiculous.”

At 18, during a stint in the Israeli army, Grinberg took a paramedic course that started him on a path that quickly branched out into things like Bedouin folk healing and numerology. In the 1980s he opened the first school for the Grinberg Method and wrote Holistic Reflexology in 1989, then Foot Analysis in 1993.

“Some 40 years ago I realized that I have a gift, and today there is a methodology that doesn’t depend on me,” says Grinberg, a short man with dark eyes and a distinct widow’s peak. “Of course I will go on developing it, but it is by now a methodology that can be taught, learned and practiced by others.”

Grinberg developed the method with his current wife, Ruth Elkana, and his ex-wife, Lilo Grinberg. The three of them live together in Spain and run the growing Grinberg business. The arrangement has raised a few eyebrows. Grinberg says it is really nobody’s business.

“Our private life makes no difference to those who are interested in the method,” he says. “We are good friends and we work well together, and that’s for many years now. There’s nothing more to it in this context.”

Given the transparency expected of its practitioners—students are supposed to live entirely immersed in its philosophy—Grinberg’s attitude seems disingenuous. Last year a Swiss television reported on complaints leveled against leaders of the Grinberg Method, including Grinberg himself. Danièle Muller-Tulli, president of the Swiss Association for the Defense of the Family and the Individual, cited former teachers and a trainer of the method who described losing control of personal matters because of pressure from leaders in the organization. Grinberg was described as the overbearing, Messiah-like figure.

Claudia Glowik, co-founder of the Grinberg Method School in Berlin and president of the International Association of Grinberg Method Practitioners (IAGMP), calls the allegations “lies.” Glowik is a warm woman with a large smile and flowing brown hair that hangs just below her shoulders. She says the disgruntled former teachers and trainer featured in the TV spot were kicked out of the method and were simply striking back with the false claims. Lawsuits regarding the television show are in process, and Grinberg says the report had no affect on how the business functions.

“As you know already,” says Grinberg, “the program was completely wrong in what it presented, and I’m sure that the legal process will soon come to the same conclusion.”

Grinberg says that the various allegations were coming from disgruntled people who were unsuccessful in the method. For instance, that first school in Tel Aviv has since closed, and a Haaretz article earlier this year described former trainers who worked there speaking of “a highly centralist organization that revolves totally around Grinberg” as he “plays power games with the people around him.” But he says it’s not about power games that he says he doesn’t play, it’s about his demand for quality in the method. If the Grinberg Method is some type of cultish pyramid scheme, then it’s not a successful one—Grinberg isn’t getting noticeably rich off this.

Things seemed pretty normal at an event a month ago celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Berlin school. A few hundred people had packed into a hall in the hip Neukölln district in formal wear. Sitting alone in a corner, wrapped tight in a jacket, was Avi Grinberg.

I walked over to chat with him. He was telling me how he was a bit under the weather when two women began to orbit us cautiously. They gave me a curious look, and one grabbed a drink off the table in front of us. The other leaned in and asked, “Who are you?”

Grinberg introduced them as co-founders—rather than as his wife and ex-wife. The two of them stood close as Grinberg and I talked about his plans for getting the word out via the Internet. He wants to film instructional videos and expand in the United States.

The business today consists of two schools (one in Berlin and one in Vienna), 16 licensed teachers and trainers, 114 qualified practitioners and an estimated 28,000 clients. The practitioners teach individual clients, and the teachers mostly teach practitioners. Practitioners are not required to make any kind of royalty payments to Grinberg, but teachers pay a 20 percent royalty to him, as do the schools in Berlin and Vienna, for the use of the name. The schooling costs $4,992 per year during a three-year process to become a certified practitioner.

A group of practitioners started the International Association of Grinberg Method Practitioners in 2011 to formalize an organization that has a code of ethics and written rules of professional conduct. Grinberg is still the founder, but he is not involved otherwise in the organization, though he retains the loyalty of teachers, trainers and practitioners.

“I know Avi still has much to teach me,” says Vered Manasse, co-director of the Berlin chapter, along with Glowik. “I’m not in awe of Avi, though I can’t say there weren’t phases when that was true.”

“There is no organization that circles around me,” says Grinberg. “Practitioners are independent professionals. Being the method’s founder, I naturally have a professional role among those who practice it, but to mix that with an organization that is highly centralized is simply wrong, I do not have this sort of control in any organization.”

*

In addition to being a journalist, I play guitar and write songs, and after 20 minutes or so with the Grinberg practitioner, she zeroed in on my stage fright. She asked me about it, and I explained that I experience shortness of breath, tightness in my chest, a generally shaky feeling. “Do you want me to show you a little more of what Grinberg can offer you?” she asked. I nodded. “Take off your shirt and lie down on your back.”

The Grinberg Method hasn’t yet undergone the true rigors of scientific review. A trial in Milan tested its effectiveness in dealing with pain after surgery; another at a Tel Aviv hospital looked at how the method can help those suffering from lower back pain. Those conducting the exercises received positive reports from patients in terms of things like raising quality of life and getting relief from pain. However, the trials were not done with sizeable control groups and didn’t meet the protocols necessary for a scientifically significant finding. Plus they were partially funded by the Grinberg Method.

After the Swiss television show came out, the Internet was also a painful for those practicing the method and many practitioners lost business in Switzerland. However, they are also realizing the internet can be a tool for growth. They have released videos of success stories, like one of a woman who was helped to recover from the effects of Polio, and another showing musicians who were helped to overcome difficulties performing. There are others detailing how Grinberg practitioners go to work on patients’ feet.

“The methodology is largely based on the concept that when given the right conditions, the body can recuperate and unlearn habits that weaken the person today,” Grinberg says. “These conditions are mostly affected by the way we deal with fear and pain. So it is a process of learning, which typically starts with regaining our body or having the experience that we are a body, which is not separated from our mind. Humans don’t live in a vacuum ,and we are all affected in different ways by what surrounds us today or that was here before our time. You ask me to compare the method to others, and I see no value in doing that. Why is it important if it is unique for me? I told you what it is and what you can learn and gain through it. If you decided to try it and it works for you, use it. If not, try something else.”

*

The practitioner places her hands on my chest and tells me to take deep breaths. After 20 or so inhalations and exhalations, she begins massaging my upper shoulders, zeroing in on an area just below my shoulder. “Hey, that hurts,” I say. But she continues. It hurts more than I’m letting on. Eventually, she takes the pressure off and swipes her hands down my arm, swooshing away the pain. She goes to work on the other side. My arms go tingly, then numb.

“The art of this method is to touch peoples lives. A person feels they have been touched in a painful place,” Manasse says. “It’s ‘Someone noticed my pain and it’s wonderful.’”

Glowik emphasizes the same theory. During my interview with her she reached out and starting pressing on my shoulder. She felt around and found the spot. She pushed in deep, and it was like a red laser of death was penetrating into my chest. “That hurts,” I told her.

She seems to believe this is the point. “I use the pain here as an indicator of somewhere you can pay attention to,” she says. “I don’t inflict pain. I use the touch to teach the person to bring their attention to places that are already in pain.”

My attention was certainly focused, as Glowik’s fingers pierced more deeply into the presumptive trouble spot. But then again, if someone punched me in the face every time I tensed my shoulders, I’d probably break the habit at least as quickly as I would under threat of a Grinberg Method massage. And it would be free of charge.