After a series of unsuccessful surgeries during his childhood failed to fix his severe cataracts, doctors told Meir Schneider that he would need to learn to live without the use of his eyes.
And yet, today, Schneider can see. He even has a driver's license and may very well be driving himself to Mountain View at the end of next week to give a series of talks on his method of "self-healing," which he says he has used to overcome his blindness and maintain his vision.
"An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure," Schneider says. "People can improve their vision and improve their lives, and the way to do it is the natural way."
On Sept. 9 and 10, Schneider will explain just what he means when he says "natural way," in a series of talks and a workshop at the East West Bookstore on Castro Street. There Schneider will talk about improving vision and overcoming pain with exercises, all of which he has outlined in his book, "Movement for Self-Healing."
Schneider, who now holds a Ph.D. in massage therapy, is not arguing for an abandonment of Western medicine. There is certainly a place for drugs, medical procedures and surgery, he says. His "big idea" has to do with his belief "that our potential for getting better (through self-healing) is much larger than what most people experience."
The Russian-born Israeli national has dedicated his life to helping others learn to manage and improve their chronic conditions and pain through self-healing exercises, because he has had great success himself using similar methods.
While in a school for children with impaired vision, Schneider met a boy named Isaac, who introduced him to the Bates method -- a protocol developed by eye-care physician William Horatio Bates, who believed that people with poor eyesight could fix themselves through exercises alone, without the use of glasses.
He says that he performed eye exercises 13 hours each day, until about four months later he saw his first Hebrew letter. All of a sudden the world was clear," Schneider recalls. He began seeing shapes and recognizing people's faces.
It was enough to encourage him to pursue the Bates method, which he credits for bringing his vision from 1 percent up to the 55 percent visibility he has today. Some of the exercises included moving his eyes from side to side with his eyelids closed while visualizing a swinging letter; covering his eyes with his hands and closing his eyelids, bringing complete darkness (and thus, relaxation) to the eyes; and closing his eyes while alternatively facing and turning away from the sun or another bright source of light, which, according to Schneider, causes the pupil to expand and contract and become stronger as a result.
Schneider has expanded on what he learned from the Bates method at his clinic, the non-profit School for Self-Healing in San Francisco. In a long, narrow two-story house in San Francisco's Sunset District he now treats those with impaired vision by having them play catch while wearing an eye patch covering their dominant eye or jumping on a trampoline with special glasses which block their peripheral vision. The idea behind such activities is to strengthen areas of vision that have atrophied by forcing patients to use them.
Schneider applies the same principles he uses to strengthen his patients' sight to other bodily ailments. He now treats individuals with muscular dystrophy, osteoporosis and other painful conditions with massage sessions and by having them exercise muscles that often do not get used in an average day by walking backwards on the beach and backwards up stairs.
"It really makes a big difference for the body," Schneider says of simply walking backwards instead of forwards to exercise underused muscles. "We have 600 muscles, and most people only use 50 of them."
Kit Wisdom, a 72-year-old Vermont woman, recently came out for her second series of sessions with Schneider, and she is convinced she is better for it. "He's gotten more of me released than I realized was tight," says Wisdom, who says she was in a car accident when she was younger that threw her whole body out of alignment. Since coming to the School for Self-Healing, Wisdom says she has been "rebalanced mentally and physically."
"It releases your mind," she says. "It relaxes your mind," and once that starts, according to Wisdom, "the rest of you starts to say, 'Ahhh! Thank you."
Diana de Vegh, a 73-year-old woman from New York City, says she has been happy with what Schneider has helped her accomplish. She heard about Schneider from a friend and says that she came to his school because "the idea that we can engage our own inner faculties in order to heal ourselves was very attractive to me."
de Vegh, who has glaucoma and has worn glasses since she was 5 years old, says that her peripheral vision has gotten better since coming to the School for Self-Healing. "I certainly feel a lot better," she says.
It is testimony like that which Schneider says drives him to continue his work.
"The main thing," he says, "is you start to feel better about yourself and your body." From there, "If I help you improve what's wrong with you, whether small or big, you will be able to help someone who is worse off than you" -- just as Isaac, the boy in Schneider's class, helped him all those years ago.