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The Method

Moshe Feldenkrais took the lessons of judo and his experiences in the Haganah and applied them to a philosophy of movement and self-defense that is long on theory and precise about technique

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Moshe Feldenkrais, at left, being thrown in an undated photo of a judo demonstration. (Courtesy of the International Feldenkrais Foundation Archives)

A couple of weeks ago, an old jiujitsu friend asked if I had heard of Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais. I had not. He mentioned something called the Feldenkrais Method. It didn’t ring a bell either. Then he went on to tell me about a book called Higher Judo, published in French in 1951 then in English in 1952, with a recent reprint appearing in 2010. The book, he said, was sui generis in its scientific explanations of the proper body mechanics of the martial art of judo. He also mentioned a few choice bits of biography: Feldenkrais, then 14 years old, had walked alone from the Ukraine to Palestine. He had helped form the Haganah, the Jewish self-defense force, in Tel Aviv. Later, in Paris, he won the confidence of Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, who oversaw his formal martial-arts education and helped Feldenkrais co-found the first judo club in France.

I am a sucker for stories about tough Jews. So, I special-ordered a copy of Higher Judo from my local bookstore and have since read it twice. The martial-arts genre has long been overpopulated with books heavy on technique and light on theory. The best of them may include a brief history on particular moves or the art itself. But what is almost uniformly missing is a thoughtful discussion on proper body alignment, how a martial art should inform and better our lives, and how to convert intention into successful action. This book has them all.

Feldenkrais’ martial-arts study helped give birth to the Feldenkrais Method, a philosophy of human movement. In Feldenkrais’ first four books on jiujitsu and judo, he began introducing concepts that would reach their apotheosis in Higher Judo. Social constraints, he wrote, have stunted our physical development. We are stuck in an infantile stage in how we use our feet (predominately for upright carriage), how we react to falling (which begs for a “more adult independence of the gravitational force”), and our lack of a more thorough “development of our space adjustment in all directions from the origins of our movable co-ordinate system.” What is the best way to overcome these liabilities? Judo, he argued, the way of gentleness.

Feldenkrais’ introduction to the martial arts is a terrific story. As a 16-year-old, Feldenkrais and 300 other young Jews created the Haganah to protect the settlers of Tel Aviv against attack by neighboring Arabs. A German boy in the group taught him and other members jiujitsu techniques. They began practicing every evening. Three months into their training, their settlement was set upon by Arabs armed with swords and knives. Feldenkrais and others put their jiujitsu to the test, and it failed them miserably. Those who had not studied jiujitsu survived the assault by running and hiding. Those who attempted to use jiujitsu, either with their empty hands or sticks, were routed. Half were either killed or injured.

The experience led Feldenkrais to experiment with more realistic training methods and, eventually, a system that worked off a simple, observable premise. “If I am going to hit you with a knife, what would you do? Put your hand up? Therefore, this is the point to begin,” he wrote. “We will train the people so that the end of their first spontaneous movement is where we must start.”

Feldenkrais set out to make the experiment as realistic as possible. He staged attacks on each member of the group, armed and unarmed, and recorded their reactions on film. From that data he devised and trained the Haganah in techniques that flowed intuitively from their initial distress responses. After training for three months, members were instructed to take a one-year hiatus. Then, Feldenkrais re-tested his students’ reactions to attack. To his delight, most could still effectively reproduce the moves. It took another two or three years to perfect the training regimen, and in 1921, funded by the Haganah, Feldenkrais published a book on his fighting system in Hebrew and distributed it to all the members of the self-defense force.

During the next several years, Feldenkrais worked as a laborer, completed his high-school diploma, and worked for the British survey office as a cartographer. In 1930, he wrote a second book, Autosuggestion, while rehabilitating a knee injury he suffered playing soccer. In 1931 he returned to his first topic and wrote a book on self defense titled Jujitsu. In the meantime, Feldenkrais had relocated to France to study mechanical and electrical engineering.

One day in 1932, his landlord in Paris brought him a newspaper announcing that Jigoro Kano, who at the time was a director in the Japanese Ministry of Education, would be holding a judo demonstration. (Kano had coined the term judo to describe an ethos rather than a system of self defense. Many of the throws and locks of the older Japanese martial art jiujitsu would remain, but broader goals of moral education and self perfection were added.) Feldenkrais knew only that judo was a martial art connected with jiujitsu, but decided to attend.

Because of the government dignitaries present, including the Japanese ambassador, security was tight, and Feldenkrais was refused admittance. Undeterred, he returned home, collected the self-defense book he had published in Hebrew, and tried again. He wrote his plea on a card, attached it to his book, and asked a doorman to deliver it to Kano. After waiting for 15 minutes, he was escorted to a seat where he could watch the demonstration. When the demonstration finished, someone approached Feldenkrais and asked whether he would be willing to join Kano for dinner.

The dinner was also a demonstration. Kano had taken an interest in a particular knife-disarming technique in Feldenkrais’ book and asked him to perform it using a real knife. Feldenkrais performed it successfully several times, leading Kano to say he’d consider it for the judo curriculum. He was, however, critical of other moves and Feldenkrais’ book in general, calling it “not very good, but interesting.” Two days later Kano invited Feldenkrais to join him for lunch. This time he extended an offer, as Feldenkrais relates in Embodied Wisdom, of a collection of his writings. “Look, I think you’re the kind of man who will succeed in bringing judo to Europe. We have tried three or four times and it was a failure. I believe that you have the stuff, but you can’t go on teaching that junk you have in your book. You have to learn proper judo. We will see to it so you have the time you need. We will send you an expert from Japan who’ll teach you judo.”

Dr. Feldenkrais in Tel AvivFeldenkrais in Tel Aviv.
Courtesy of the International Feldenkrais Foundation Archive

In his collected writings, Mind Over Muscle, Kano gives a somewhat different account of his meeting with Feldenkrais. According to Kano, it was Feldenkrais who approached him to arrange a meeting. Kano also makes no mention of the knife-disarming technique that Feldenkrais described, instead recalling how he himself demonstrated a choke on Feldenkrais to illustrate the concept of seiryoku zenyo, or maximum efficiency.

Feldenkrais would continue to study, teach, and write about judo and jiujitsu throughout the 1930s, receiving his black belt in judo in 1936. In 1935 he published a French version of his jiujitsu book titled La Defense du Faible Contre L’Agresseur, or the Defense of the Weak Against the Aggressor, and in 1938 published the ABC du Judo, all while studying for a doctorate in engineering, working as a research assistant under Frederic Joliet-Curie at the Radium Institute, conducting atomic fission experiments at the Arcueil-Cachan laboratories, and doing research on magnetics and ultrasound.

In 1940, when the Germans took Paris, Feldenkrais fled to England. There, too, he plied his skills in science and the martial arts, conducting anti-submarine research in the British Admiralty as well as publishing a self-defense manual Hadaka-Jime: The Core Technique for Practical Unarmed Combat in 1942, to be used by the British military.

After the war, Feldenkrais began to turn his attention to what would become his Method. His years of walking on submarine decks had taken a toll on an old knee injury, and, in an effort to heal himself, he devoted more of his study to anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and biology as they related to movement. His last book on the martial arts, Higher Judo, would overlap with his work on the Feldenkrais Method, much to the merit of his Method.

Higher Judo’s scientific descriptions of judo’s underlying principles do not make it dull and bloodless. They make it sing. Feldenkrais’ prose is elegant and mantra-like: “You have more direct control over your own body than your opponent’s. Make good use of it.” “‘Immobilization’ and ‘holding’ do not describe the actual state of affairs—they convey the idea of finality and fixity that do not exist in action. An immobilization is dynamic and constantly changing all the time.”

The bulk of Higher Judo is given to ground-grappling techniques, and that, too, sets it apart. Most judo instruction gives short shrift to groundwork, favoring instead the high amplitude throws that can earn instant victory. Even Kodokan Judo, a book by the sport’s official sanctioning body, gives a scant 21 pages to groundwork. The complexity and variety of groundwork cannot be captured in a single text, and Feldenkrais acknowledges that. He trains his focus more on the most common positions and a series of attacks and counters that flow from each. Some will be familiar to anyone with a background in the grappling arts. Others are fresh. And a great many, including leg locks and neck locks, have all but disappeared from modern-day judo because of their danger in training and prohibition in competition, or, as Feldenkrais surmised, a lack of qualified instructors to teach them.

As Feldenkrais devoted himself more fully to his method, he also became more critical of the trend he saw in modern judo practice. It is an age-old lament: The traditional way is better; the new way, with its promiscuous awarding of black belts, its imposition of weight classes, and its reliance on strength over efficiency, has made a mockery of the art. And he was right. The most striking thing about judo, and its most alluring aspect as a martial art, is that it “ignores inheritance as a factor of importance. We do not find that size, weight, strength or form have much connection with what a man can learn so long as it is within the limit of his intelligence.”

In 1951, Feldenkrais returned to Israel and made it his permanent home until his death in 1984. The land, like Feldenkrais, had gone through many changes in the 30 years he had been away, but Feldenkrais found continuity. He resettled in Tel Aviv and taught his method in the apartment where his mother and brother once lived, traveling to Europe and North America to spread his Method. But in Israel, instead of teaching other young Jews how to defend their settlements, he was content to teach Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion how to stand on his head.

Robert Slatkin, a consultant to the Japanese Ministry of Finance, holds a black belt in Brazilian jiujitsu.

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don-eduardo says:

The Feldenkrais method has been a stable of a large number of “alternative medicine-based” physical therapists in the USA for a very long time. Nearly 20 years ago, after suffering a further back injury (after a spinal fusion and laminectomy) my physical therapist in Southern California taught me Feldenkrais-based exercises to strengthen my stomach/back muscles in order to relieve pain, etc.

I was told at the time, that Feldenkrais’s techniques had been used very effectively to rehabilitate dancers who had sustained career threatening injuries. The martial arts aspects of his background were unknown to me until reading this article. However it makes sense that his study of human movement would have developed in that context based on his life experience. And yet I would say that most people I’ve met who were aware of Moshe Feldenkrais, knew of him as an innovator in the healing arts and not as one of the founders of a Zionist terrorist (oops, liberation) organization.

Thank you for this very informative article. I learned Feldenkrais from my mentor and friend, Miriam Gotlib, who was trained in the method by Moshe Feldenkrais. I knew of his experience with Judo, but not his personal Israeli experience. He was a very remarkable character.

This reminds me of a yoga class in Berkeley several years ago. The instructor, a very lovely, mellow and Aryan-looking woman, told us all about the method developed by “Mo-SHAY Feldenchrist.”

frenchy says:

TR: Mo-SHAY is how he pronounced it, he did live in france and speak french after all.

jzsnake says:

He was an extraordinary human being.

That is the most lively description of Moshe’s life and work I have ever read. Thank you. We have a tendency to make him much less colorful or dynamic in the official Feldenkrais Method world although we are passionate about the brilliance of his legacy and the incredible difference it makes in people’s lives.

John Coffin says:

As usual, no mention of Feldenkrais’ debt to F.M. Alexander, or his decades of study of the Alexander Technique, both in England and Israel.

Susan says:

One thing the article didn’t point out was that Feldenkrais owed a lot to the work of F. Matthias Alexander, developer of the Alexander Technique. In the late 1940s, Feldenkrais had lessons with one of Alexander’s students, Walter Carrington and that work deeply influenced Feldenkrais’ later work.

Lisa Block says:

Here’s an interesting interview with a Feldenkrais Practitioner and Alexander Technique teacher about these two methods:
http://bodylearningcast.com/feldenkrais/

rsty says:

Interesting article. Leave it to some jerkoff (don-eduardo) to manage to morph this into an attack on zionism…classic.

reuven ofir (robbie) says:

Robert Slatkin: Very nice Article. One correction, the book you mentioned that Moshe wrote “Coue”, was a translation of the book “Coue…” written by Harry Brooks which had been published in 1922. Moshe tranlated that book into Hebrew and added over 20 fascinating pages of commentary to it. He published his translation and commentary in 1929.
That commenatry has now been tranlated into English and will soon see publication.

As for comments re Alexander Method, As far as I know,(all second hand knowledge, I admit and as such not necessarily absolutely correct..) Moshe had two sessions with Alexander, and these he had after he had published his own seminal work completely independent of Mathias Alexander. Moshe had a lot of respect for Alexander who he said, had the best hands he had experienced, but that Alexanders’ work was incomplete.
Robbie

It is true Feldenkrais was influenced by Alexander, his lessons with Charles Neil gave him the idea for table work, prior to that he did his hands’ on work on the ground as in Shiatsu; but the group work/classes ‘Awareness Through Movement’ owed nothing to Alexander and everything to Judo and the laws of gravity. To John Coffin, and others, it is not surprising that Moshe was chary about crediting Alexander; out of respect, he asked Alexander to write an introduction to his own seminal book “Body and Mature Behaviour: A Study of Anxiety, Sex, Gravitation, & Learning” and Alexander threw him out saying he had ‘copied’ all his ideas, and he would have nothing to do with Feldenkrais. This accusation was patently not the case–if one realizes Feldenkrais received both electrical and structural engineering and physics degrees(Newtonian and Einstein’s new special theory of relativity,et al.)from the Sorbonne the equivalent of Masters and Doctoral under such teachers as Marie Curie and assisted Joliot-Curie in his laboratory in the pioneering days of nuclear fission and later worked for the British Admiralty seeking to find a way to fuel submarines through nuclear energy…His Method evolved from hundreds of sources, and continues to evolve from current trainers and practitioners informed by the new information from nuero-science about the neuro-plasticity of the brain. This is not to negate Alexander’s own astute self observation and brilliant application to improving upright posture–the technique he developed is profound,(I have had over 500 Alexander Lessons in my life!) but just to say, why would anyone make the association with Alexander when Alexander himself repudiated Feldenkrais??

Feldenkrais took his acquired knowledge that the brain demands novelty as much as habitual sameness and developed thousands of ‘lessons’ designed to increase the repertoire, vocabulary and efficiency of movement. These can improve any human functioning through variety and spontaneous appropriate employment of our reflexes; highly honed in Judo, just as highly honed by Feldenkrais for ‘ordinary people’ once they are able to fully absorb new movement patterns into daily movement/mental habits. Alexander is excellent as far as it goes, but is lacking in the variety and excitement of the ‘aha’ discoveries of Feldenkrais work imho…
Full disclosure, I studied with Carrington’s students as well as Patrick McDonald the ‘other’ inheritor of the Alexander mantle, but when told by Patrick that I could become an Alexander Teacher, but because of my scoliosis I could never ‘look like’ an Alexander Teacher(!) I decided to work with the living master of the Feldenkrais Method. He didn’t care what I ‘looked like’ as long as I was happy and fulfilled doing his work! He also was able to help me understand how my mental attitude kept me in my habitual patterns, kindly telling me “You will never lose your scoliosis as long as you keep your ‘victim mentality’”. His words made a profound impression and gave me a lifetime of working on myself, which probably saved me from a life of depression and physical pain. Alexander ‘perfectionism’ only made me more discouraged that I could never achieve what my teacher was trying to convey; Feldenkrais’ learning is organic–based on developmental learning, not rote ‘drill learning’ based on repetitive (boring)postures. This was well understood by Prof. Kano who wanted Judo principles to permeate education(he was the head of a teacher’s college in Japan) and I like to think the similar ‘Feldenkrais principles’ eventually will seep into the fabric of modern life, holding hope for equipoise for our world leaders and peaceful living for humankind. DEL

Lisa Block says:

Deborah, I appreciate what you’re saying, but I’d like to make 2 comments:
First, the reason why people “make the association with Alexander” is that there was some sort of connection between the two, the full truth/extent of which we’re not likely to ever know. Plus, in the popular mind, the 2 methods are often mentioned together. And of course both deal with the quality of our physical functioning. (I do suggest listening to the podcast I liked to above. Michael trained with Moshe and is an AT teacher)

Second, you write “I studied with Carrington’s students as well as Patrick McDonald the ‘other’ inheritor of the Alexander mantle” Actually Walter Carrington and Patrick McDonald were just 2 of several “inheritors” and had you, for example, encountered another “inheritor” like Marjorie Barstow ( http://marjoriebarstow.com – where you can see lots of videos of her teaching) I suspect you’d have quite a different take on the Alexander Technique.

Fascinating piece (thanks Robert) and some great comments (thanks Deborah and the folks who provoked her comments). It’s interested that another great health system came from someone with a martial arts background, namely Pilates. Joseph Pilates boxed and wrestled as a young man. The physics of movement is a fascination shared by a lot of martial artists. Obviously, many athletes would feel the same, but there’s something about close quarter combat that intensify the focus there.

Wondering whether Russian creators of Systema and Sambo may have followed Feldankrais. These two fighting systems were 20th century creations of the Soviet Union – actually created under orders from Stalin. They certainly took a lot from judo. And a great Sambo teacher (Alex Barakov – who spent time in NYC but is now back in St. Petersburg), told me many stories how the styles were systematically created using film and very careful study of actual close quarter fighting.

Off subject, but I wonder if anyone else who has studied either martial arts or Feldankrais has found similar fascination with things like kite boarding or surfing – where you are playing with gravity and physics and the human body. Weird as it sounds, kite boarding especially reminds me of martial arts, where you’re playing with the wind, the ocean, and your own sense of balance. Just a thought.

I wish people would stop comparing Alexander to Feldenkrais because when they do so they’re making some statement for and against one of the other , which bores me. Usually they don’t know what they are talking about

I studied the alexander techNique for 3 years, which was somewhere sandwiched in between Gindler und Feldenkrais, in the seventies.

I foUnd SADLY FOR THE ALEXANDER TEChNIQUE THAT MANY OF THE NEW YORK YOUNGER ALEXANDER TEACHERS SEEMED TO HAVE STIFF BACKS AND NECKS. IN ALEXANDER THERE IS THE CONCEPT OF ‘DIRECTION’. UND ZEN THE NATURAL PLACE OF THE HEAD ist UP. NO STIFFENING OR SCREWING UP OF SPINE OR NECK AND HEAD. SCREW UPWARDS DEFEATS THE PURPOSE. BUT IN THE SEVENTIES THERE WERE A LOT OF SCREWED UP ALEXANDER TEAVHERS. WHERE DID THIS FORCING COME FROM? MAYBE FROM ALEXANDER HIMSELF BECAUSE HE HIMSELF HAD AN FORCED UP AND TENSE HEAD AND NECK. WERE THE NEWER ALEXANDER TEACHHERS UNCONSCIOUSLY IMITATING MR. ALEXANDER?GOES TO SHOW YOU HOW DESTRUCTIVE FOLLOWERS CAN BE. ONE HAS TO BE CAREFUL OF ONE’S FOLLOWERS… SO WORD GOT AROUND THAT ALEXANDER PEOPLE HAD LONG STIFF POKERS UP THEIR ARSES.. FIGURATIVELY, IT WERE TRUE. I WISH ON THE 0THER HAND SOME OF THE ALEXANDER DETRACTORS COULD HAVE STUDIED UNDER THE LATE GREAT JUDY LEIBOWITZ. STILL I DON’T MEAN TO DAMN THE TECHNIQUE. WHERE I STUDIED THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE ONE ONLY IMAGINED the HEAD’s BEING UP. SO IF YOU ARE CONFRONTED BY SOME ONE WITH MEAN AND SIGNIFYING LOOKS JUST IMAGINE YOUR HEAD BEING UP BUT RELAXED, NOT STIFF, THEN STARE RIGHT BACK AT THE SIGNIFYER, AND HE 0R SHE WILL SLINK AWAY.

A DECADE OR TWO LATER.. I DON’T SEE THEM STIFF TEACHERS AROUND ANY MORE AND THERE REMAINS BEAUTIFUL THINGS IN THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE.
I GUESS IT’S NATURAL THERE WILL ALWAYS BE THE LILLU-PUTIONARY BIG ENDERS AND THE LTTLE ENDERS, AND THEY WILL FIGHT TO THE DEATH OVER THE SILLIEST THANGS.

SO THE QUESTION IS : HOW DO WE LIKE OUR BOILED EGGS. CAN’T WE LIKE THEM BOTH WAYS?

of COURSE…YOU ARE GOING TO DAMN ME FOR

Sanford says:

I applaud what he did. I, however, believe in the power of the mind and the strength of one’s will. I am a survivor of many things that should have ended my life; broken back, broken neck, three heart attacks, two near fatal car accidents (I was hit), hyperthyroidism, and cancer. I rejected what the doctors’ said and willed myself to overcome all of them. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and having the will to continue on is my mantra!

The mind is the most powerful ally you have. You have to tap into this inner strength and learn how to use it for your own benefit. Meditation helps you connect to this power, as does belief in your ability to harness it. The road is not always easy, but the results can be rewarding.

Robert,

Thank you for the review of Higher Judo. It’s not often a reviewer can say something so eloquent and meaningful about both the book and it’s author. While studying with Feldenkrais in Israel he said to me that nothing made him happier than practicing and teaching Judo. In the end of an interview I did with him that is published in Embodied Wisdom I remark that Feldenkrais at age 73 or 74 through me with such deftness that I shall remember it always.

Dennis Leri

Of course I meant “threw me” not “through me.” DL

Robert Slatkin says:

Dennis, Thank you very much for the kind words. I’m indebted to you for your excellent essays and interviews with Feldenkrais. I don’t doubt for a second that he still had it at 73.

Robert Slatkin

Your never to old to begin your Martial Arts Training, then again you do have to keep in mind at our age our bodies takes longer to recover.

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The Method

Moshe Feldenkrais took the lessons of judo and his experiences in the Haganah and applied them to a philosophy of movement and self-defense that is long on theory and precise about technique

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