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.