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Unorthodox Russian 'Guru' Behind Notorious Baby Yoga Video

Jan 21, 2011 – 2:30 PM
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Dana Kennedy

Dana Kennedy Contributor

The man behind the viral video showing a woman swinging a baby is a 74-year-old Russian with radical ideas about extreme water training, yoga and gymnastics for infants and children.

Igor Charkovsky, called a "world-famous guru" by media outlets in the Middle East and Russia, has no formal medical training but told AOL News this week that his methods strengthen infants and lead to what he has called "super babies." In turn, he says, they become strong and fearless children and adults.

Charkovsky, who was born in Siberia, trained Lena Fokina, a 50-year-old Russian mother of five featured in a now-notorious YouTube "baby yoga" video in which she twists and tosses a 2-week old infant in the air for five minutes.

Some of Charkovsky's practices stem from a little-known, underground extreme health movement -- including ancient Slavic pagan practices like ice-bathing -- begun in the Soviet Union more than 50 years ago. He believes in water births and teaching newborns to swim.

His supporters, who have spread to Europe, the U.S. and Australia, say Charkovsky's system has healed many sick children; his detractors, which include medical professionals, say his methods can be dangerous.

"His results are amazing," said Susanna Napierala, a pioneer in water-birth midwifery from California who studied with Charkovsky in Moscow. "It's true that some people distance themselves from him. But I've seen what's happened to the babies he's worked with. They become physically remarkable human beings. They're like little tanks."

But Charkovsky has been the subject of at least one highly critical newspaper expose in Israel, where parents regularly fly him in to work with their children. The Ha'aretz article detailed his practice of dunking crying babies into ice-cold water, keeping infants and young children in the water up to 10 hours a day and swinging infants in the air.

Ha'aretz also reported that Charkovsky had been the subject of a probe by prosecutors in Siberia after the deaths of two little girls he worked on and that he was also investigated in the United Kingdom.

The Lena Fokina baby-swinging video, which was taken down from YouTube because people thought it abusive, was first thought to be hoax. But Fokina, who is originally from the Urals, was located in Dahab, Egypt, earlier this week by the parenting blog Dadwagon and confirmed the video was real.

Fokina defended her work, saying she directs courses in "extreme developmental gymnastics" as well as her so-called "baby yoga" in Dahab.

"The more people find out about this, the calmer and healthier they'll become," Fokina said. She claimed that the baby's limbs and brain do not become injured as a result of the extreme swinging as long as the mother is properly trained.

"If parents go slowly about the baby yoga and water training, if they learn to listen to their baby and trust him, it's perfectly safe," Charkovsky told AOL News. "It's a source of great joy to both sides."

Charkovsky helped Fokina give birth in the sea four times, he said, adding proudly that once the water temperature was only about 46 degrees Fahrenheit. He also trained two of her now-adult daughters, Alexandra and Tatyana, who he said were both sky-diving champions in Russia.

"This is a huge culture, not just an isolated nut case," said Charkovsky, who has led trips to the Black Sea for years for group water births and said he has worked with thousands of people all over the world for the past 40 years.

He said criticism of Fokina was unfair and said people ought to investigate his methods before they write him off as crazy or cruel to children. Charkovsky is especially critical of how Americans give birth to their children and how they raise them.

"Cutting women open in maternity wards, cutting the cord of the newborns and selling the placentas for a big buck, vaccinating babies with lethal diseases, feeding them all kinds of chemicals from day 1, keeping them obese, sickly and dumb?" Charkovsky said. "This sounds more like cruel, but where are the protesting voices of American taxpayers?"

AOL News interviewed Charkovsky from India on Thursday over Skype with the aid of his bilingual assistant and former student, Larisa Privalskaya, 37. Charkovsky said he helped a Moscow woman give birth in the Indian Ocean this week.

"One of the greatest popular misconceptions championed by the official medicine is that a baby is a different species from the rest of the humans and should not be treated like a person," Charkovsky said. "The doctors want the baby immobilized and on medication from day one. Yes, and preferably fed by a formula. These babies have trouble sleeping, eating, evacuating."

In contrast, the babies Charkovsky treats with exercise in the water and on dry land never get sick, are regular and often develop more quickly, he said.

Privalskaya, who is Russian but lived in the U.S. for many years, said she was a seriously ill 8-year-old who spent years in hospitals with a congenital kidney infection when Charkovsky began treating her in Moscow.

Privalskaya's parents, as well as Charkovsky, were part of the "Healthy Family Club," a 1980s-era Moscow group that believed in nutrition and vigorous outdoor exercise -- including swimming outdoors in the winter.

Privalskaya recalled that members of the club cut a large hole in the ice with axes, and she and other children, some sick and some healthy, swam in the icy water. She said the experience was "fun" and "fascinating," adding that the ice water and Charkovsky's other methods cured her of her kidney disease.

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"You go under ice and come back," she recalled. "The air temperature is minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit, ... so it's like a burning sensation. Waves of heat go up and down your whole body, and really don't want to reach for your towel and get dressed."

Susanna Napierala, who was not aware of the Fokina baby-swinging video when contacted Friday by AOL News, admitted that she was first "taken aback" when she saw Charkovsky-trained mothers in Moscow doing the baby yoga with their infants.

"I never heard of any negative results from it," she said. "I just saw that the older kids who were trained like that were like little Olympic stars. I'm just afraid, though, that parents will see the video online and try it without any training. I think that could be very dangerous."
Filed under: World, Weird News, Health
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