By Dennis Leri


“… it is bad in Judo to try for anything with such determination as not to be able to change your mind if necessary…” (M. Feldenkrais, Higher Judo, pg. 94)

“From my perspective, which is of course as a martial artist, in the Feldenkrais Method you take my balance and I have to find a new balance.” Chiba Sensei, 8th Dan Aikido, after receiving an FI lesson from Elizabeth Beringer, 4th Dan.

The questions arise, how to change one’s mind? by what means? in what direction? to what end? We may wonder if a person whose balance is taken is the same person who finds a new balance? Questions which can seem academic in ordinary life become vital in the martial arts where one is thrust into conflict, confrontation and harm’s way. The question of survival possesses us: Whether it is on the mat in the dojo, in the ring, or out on the street or wherever and whenever we find ourselves engaged in a conflict or a struggle from which we dearly want to disengage. Here and now, is it to be life or death? Any study of the martial arts must play itself out against the background question of life or death. Martial (mar– from the Greek god of war and strife Mars) arts training may focus on mortal combat but the struggle with an opponent is secondary to the struggle within one’s self. Winning the inner battle is knowing how to play the game. It is not ‘what’ we do but ‘how’ we do it that matters. “It is correct to say that Judo teaches coordination of quite a different order from any other discipline. It is clearly defined and methodically taught as a concrete thing. The movements are, therefore more or less incidental and determined by a secondary consideration; they are a means of learning the ‘way,’ the correct physiological human way of doing.” (M. Feldenkrais, Higher Judo, pg. 37.)

We all know that Moshe Feldenkrais was an accomplished Judoka, that is, Judo practitioner. We mention it in our brochures. In the second issue of The Feldenkrais Journal one can find an interview I conducted with Moshe in 1977. There, in his own words, he tells how he was swept up into the inner world of Judo. The founder of Judo, Prof. Jigaro Kano, chose Moshe Feldenkrais to be one of the doors through which the East attempts to meet the West. Moshe Feldenkrais, “The Judo way is to action, as the scientific method is to thought. Both are not ‘new,’ not in the sense that our ancestors have never used them, or that they are foreign to the human nervous system, but because they use methodically what was formerly left uncultivated and therefore a matter of chance or luck.” (Higher Judo, pg. 37) Feldenkrais methodology, while not reducible to either Judo or science, is clearly informed and indebted to both the aims of science and of Judo. In previous columns I have pointed to some of what constitutes the aim and the means of science.

How does Judo achieve its aim? What is the aim of Judo? The answers to those questions can be divided into two complementary views: 1) everybody else’s and 2) Moshe’s. Judo means “the gentle way” or “the gentle principle.” Ju– means gentle and –do(Japanese for the Chinese Tao) means way or principle. Koizumi Sensei, 7th Dan Judo, “The principle of Judo is like the nature of water. Water flows to a balanced level. It has no shape of its own but molds itself to the receptacle that contains it. It has existed and will exist as long as time and space. When heated to the state of steam it is invisible, but has enough power to split the earth itself. When frozen it crystallizes into a mighty rock. Its services are boundless and its uses endless. First it turbulent like the mighty Niagara Falls, and then calm like a still pond, fearful like a torrent, and refreshing like a spring on a hot summer’s day. So is the principle of Judo.”(Higher Judo, pg. vii) And, “As an art and a philosophy, the ultimate object of Judo is the attainment of harmonious unity of opposites in tune with life’s realities; in short unity of Man and God or Nature.”(Higher Judo, viii) Koizumi Sensei has this to say about Moshe Feldenkrais, “Dr. Feldenkrais explains how Judo training educates one to be ‘independent of heritage.’ This phrase is the keynote and hallmark of the standard of his treatise. It is universally recognized that Judo practice promotes the sense of balance and self-confidence, cultivates the ability to overcome brute force, inherited weaknesses or shortcomings, but the logical and scientific reasons for these effects were left unexplored. Dr. Feldenkrais … clarifies the interrelation and intermingled working of gravitation, body, bones, muscles, nerves, consciousness, subconscious, and unconsciousness and opens the way for better understanding.”(Higher Judo, viii)

Judo practice and its pedagogical analogies when scrutinized by Moshe provide us with the “logical and scientific reasons” for Judo’s effectiveness. Let’s look at how. The Higher Judo book provides guidance for Judo practice when both practitioners are on the ground. The person on top, “top dog,” or the person on bottom, “underdog,” has no advantage as far as winning the contest. The great difference between them is in the “attitude and control of the body.” If one is in the down position lying on the back only two movements are possible: rolling forward and backwards or from side to side. The position that is assumed to accomplish the rolling is one familiar to all Feldenkrais practitioners: knees to elbows, head off the floor. “For this position the body is very nearly a spherical cap lying on a flat surface. To keep the body motionless by pressing on it, pressure must be normally applied vertically downwards, just above the point of contact with the floor. If we press at any other point, the cap will roll or rock, so as to bring the point of contact with the ground vertically below the point of pressure. Were there no friction, the cap would shoot out, away from the pressed spot. Another way of holding down such a cap, is to spread over it, so as to produce pressure at the centre by the bulk of our weight, and to use the four members as props preventing the cap from rocking in any direction.

“The mechanical analogy presented is very useful in figuring out correct action, whether we are on top of the opponent or under him. Another mental picture, … used by Kano, is to regard the person on the ground as a thick wooden board, roughly the shape of the human body, floated on the water. Here too, there are only two ways of holding the board motionless when pressing it under the water. Firstly, to press down vertically, just in the centre, and secondly, to spread the body squarely over it, with the four members in water and throw it over yourself most of the time.

“These analogies are not perfect, for in reality there is friction in the first and no buoyancy in the second. Their usefulness lies in that they provide a general principle for action of the combatants on the ground: the one attempting the immobilization should behave as if the opponent on the ground were a frictionless spherical cap or a floated wooden object. The one immobilized should behave so as to reduce friction between himself and the ground, moving away from the point where pressure is exerted, transforming sliding friction into rolling; or he should attempt to produce conditions as near as possible to buoyancy, by lifting off the ground the hips or one corner of the body. During the short period of lowering back to the ground, conditions that can be regarded as buoyancy prevail, and frictionless ‘sidestepping’ is nearly ideally achieved.

“The most important principle is to move your own body before attempting to move the opponent. There is almost always a solution to any situation, whereby swiveling, rolling, moving out of the way, etc., achieves easily, rapidly and effectively, what can be performed only with great effort and slowly by moving the opponent primarily. When in doubt what to do, the analogies suggesting movement to ‘remove’ oneself in the direction where there is no restraint will generally solve your problem.

“… One should always remember that the words ‘immobilization’ and ‘holding’ do not describe a 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 opponent generally frees himself as soon as you stop forestalling and checking his next move.” Higher Judo, pgs. 54-55

The quote above illustrates how Moshe derives a general principle of action from a dual “reading” of Judo practice, that is a reading employing Eastern metaphor and Western scientific explanation. Judo practice is not diminished by being drawn into a dual exposition. Moshe’s characterization of being locked in a struggle on the ground clarifies the situation as well as elucidating the means of escape or of capture. We have more rather than less to actually aid us in the realization of our intentions. Moshe does not offer his insights in lieu of experience but rather as guide to more fully experience. To perceive differently one must act differently and to act differently one must know how to do so, that is, one needs principles. Moshe’s ‘principle of no principles’ so often misunderstood as an admonition to eschew principles is rather, as Larry Goldfarb has pointed out, one principle amongst many to invoke when needed. As cited above, the task of immobilizing an opponent or of freeing oneself, is given a richer presentation by playing scientific insight off naturalistic analogies. It is left up to the person to find for herself or himself how to actually realize their ends. The image and the explanation offer not a picture of the end result but more of a “quick graph” of the means. The result is not either a merging with an image or the construction of a scientific theory, but rather progress along the path of Judo practice.

In the second part of the article I will examine Judo’s orientation to the development of a person who can live “independent of heritage.” I will show that the Feldenkrais Method is a continuation and generalization of Judo practice. Furthermore, it will be seen that surprising consequences for the practice of our method can be drawn from examining how one goes from learning Judo to learning how to learn.

Part Two: Independent of Heritage

“Dr. Feldenkrais explains how Judo training educates one to be ‘independent of heritage’.” (G. Koizumi, Higher Judo, viii)

To be ‘independent of heritage’ means that for at least one moment we can know life in a way not dependent upon our size, weight, strength, form, age, gender, personal history, ethnic or religious background. Strictly speaking, Feldenkrais seemed to say that through proper training and education we can create an identity not founded on activity, passivity or indifference. For Feldenkrais the basis for such a training was Judo, the Gentle Way.

The Judo Path, as Feldenkrais describes it, differs from other disciplines in a number of ways. “What a man can do now is mostly determined by his personal experience, the habits of thought, feeling and action that he has formed…. Incapacity to do is produced by fear, imagination and otherwise distorted appreciation of the outside world. We teach an unemotional, objective activity which has nothing to do with what the person is or feels and we show that the result depends entirely on when, what and how a thing is done, and on nothing else. The result is that a small, sometimes insignificant physical body, of sixty years of age or over can control a powerful youth as if the latter has no will of his own. This is possible only by the impersonal, unemotional and purely mechanistic habits of thought and action inculcated by Judo practice.” (My emphasis – DL, Higher Judo 17-18) In Judo practice nothing is or should be taken on faith. Judo evolved a specific regimen to fulfill the goals of Judo practice.

According to Feldenkrais, Judo employs distinctive means to transform someone. First, Judo is practiced with bare feet. Immature development of the use of one’s feet means “one is capable of only pre-selected acts resulting in arrested development, decreased vitality, and withdrawal from attempting many activities with a corresponding effect on behavior.” Second, Feldenkrais discusses why Judo develops the art of falling: “With great perseverance it is possible to achieve…the state where one works not from necessity but enjoys the pleasure of creative work…. (The state) is never achieved before adult independence from gravitation.” (Higher Judo, 20-21)

Third, from his first lesson the pupil is taught a fundamentally different way of using his body. “Our way of action is formed in a society where organized security and the belief that inherited personal qualities are things to be proud of and defects to be ashamed of and hidden. Habits of thought and action formed this way are of little avail when we are confronted with tasks in which our social standing cannot influence the outcome of the act. The proper activity is such that the aim set to ourselves can be achieved in most circumstances. This demands flexibility of attitude of mind and body quite beyond that which we form in the present social environment…. In Judo we teach a functional stability, precarious for any other purpose or for any length of time, but solving the immediate problem in front of us or the act to be performed. We seek to mobilize on the present situation all we have, throwing away all that is useless for the immediate purpose…. If you examine Fig. 1 you will see that the person who has produced the throw is himself on the brink of falling. The falling body is the only thing that provides the balancing force and maintains the thrower in the upright position. The two bodies are balanced on one big toe. The thrower has learned to dispense with all rigid ideas of stability, security and force. He uses all the properties of his body to the finest degree of perfection and to the limit of independence from gravitation to achieve his aim… Dynamic stability is stability acquired through movement, such as that of a top or bicycle. A top or bicycle is so shaped that it is impossible to make them stand unsupported, but once set moving, there is little difficulty in maintaining their centre of gravity above the point of contact with the ground. In Fig. 1 the man balancing on one big toe is neither quite motionless nor quite moving. Before a movement is completely arrested, there is obviously an instant where the stability passes from dynamic to static stability. The figure is taken a fraction of a second before that instant; this position could not be maintained for any but a transitory instant.” (Higher Judo,18-28, my emphasis – DL)

The static and the dynamic to be lived in and through ecstasy. “The performance of any act while we are in motion is exhilarating…. The thrilling feeling is quite common in most methods imparting body skills…. In Judo it is the essence of the training; training is not complete until the pupils can produce these states at will and in spite of the opponent’s resistance… The Judoka is free to attend to the act he is performing, while the untrained man has his attention burdened with the business of keeping balance on two feet — a laborious and slow task…. Adult erect standing is therefore not derived from static principles. It is essentially a continuous regaining of unstable equilibrium from which the centre of gravity is constantly drifting away, even while standing still.” (Higher Judo, 18-28)

Fourth, adjustment to and of space is considered. “All the organs through which we control our relations to space, are located in the head. Space can, therefore, be viewed conveniently as a sphere, the centre of which is carried in the head…. Our space function is made through individual experience and is…a learning process having infantile, childish, adolescent and adult stages like most of our functions…. The scientist would say that we carry with us the origin of co-ordinates, and that we gradually learn to control our activity in different parts of the system…. We may picture space in front of us…as a cone with its apex in our head. Gradually, we acquire independence in one cone after another until we have covered the entire solid angle of all the cones that compose it…. The infantile stage is present so long as we cannot move the origin of our space co-ordinate system…. Judo furthers the development of our space adjustment in all directions from the origin of our moveable co-ordinate system, and it stands alone in that it teaches orientation in all possible positions of rotation and displacement of that centre itself.” Gradually, through increased refinement the center of one’s self is located in the lower torso in the abdomen. From there all actions are originated.

Fifth, “Outstanding excellency in any activity is impossible without generalized co-ordinated control…. Those men that we incorrectly call ‘great’ are simply better co-ordinated in most of their being…. Perhaps the most important feature of co-ordinated movement, as we teach it, is that in the correct act there is no muscle of the body which is contracted with greater intensity than the rest…. Where change of position, or rate of motion masses is involved, force is, by definition of the word, the cause. The sensation of effortless action…is because we teach to perform voluntary acts by such attitudes and in a manner similar to the reflex movements of the body. This sensation of lack of resistance is pleasant, as are all acts where the voluntary control only directs the involuntary functions but does not contradict any of the lower nervous centres. When co-ordination is achieved…the breath is even and unhampered throughout any act…. Evenness of breath is one of the means by which the master judges whether the pupil complies with his instructions or not.” (Higher Judo, 32-36)

Finally, there arises the question of motivation. “There can be no smooth co-ordinated action of the executive organs without smooth mental processes, i.e. motivation…. The expert Judo teacher can detect very slight deviations from the correct procedure, because he has a very delicate gauge — the minimum energy principle. He eliminates all components in any movement that do not actively cooperate towards the purpose at hand. He is concerned with the ‘way’ the purpose is achieved perhaps more than with the act…. To train motivation control, we have to train the resolution of emotions and habits. The strongest emotions arise in connection with security and self-preservation…. It is enough to see what (people) do when…their security is threatened, or when other strong emotions are set up in them, to see that there is room for further growth and development. Many seem to believe, with gratuitous assurance, that the control of emotions on a verbal plane or that intellectual understanding is emotional control in fact. There is no such thing as emotion without a body, a body without a nervous system, or a mind without a brain. There can, therefore be no training of the body without mental training, or training of emotional control without arousing emotions in the body.” (Higher Judo, 43-45, my emphasis – DL)

Feldenkrais acknowledged the necessity and the effects of familial and cultural conditioning. But his experience as a Judo teacher proved to him that one can diminish to zero their burden upon us. Poor education in general, and in particular haphazard somatic education, has given us less than optimal behavioral dynamics. More to the point it has also formed our habits of attention which are really habits of inattention. Employing the means of Judo one can unlearn limiting habits while learning the principles enabling full and mature use of one’s self. Judo is fundamentally educational in nature; its founder Jigaro Kano was Minister of Education for the Japanese government. We, of course, see its traces in the aims, style and content of the Feldenkrais Method. I would argue that our method is a more general approach to learning than is Judo. Judo uses the vehicle of trial by fire, the warrior’s way. The Feldenkrais Method recognizes that while one need not be a warrior, everyone desires to fulfill themselves.

In creating the Feldenkrais Method Moshe did something that we should never overlook. He did not ask us to imitate him or to enact his particular saga. Rather, out of his extensive experience working with himself and others he abstracted the impersonal, general structure of learning. He invented accessible lesson schemas in the form of ATM and FI lessons. Being impersonal, we find in the lessons plenty of room for our personal experiences. And that is so by design. Each of us locates ourselves differently relative to those lessons. If we are to do Feldenkrais work it is not enough to hold onto our personal experiences. We too must forge general schemas accessible to any number of people like or unlike ourselves. The products of our labors may or may not look like what we have to recognize as the Feldenkrais Method. In creating lessons we establish a context as well as provide the means for a person to realize and rearrange the particulars of their life.

In doing the Feldenkrais Method we must be careful not to bow to what’s culturally trendy and fashionable or pander to the cult of victimization. If we for an instant realize that our lives could be different and if we further realize the means to make it so, then we know it can be so for others also. Make no mistake about it, to achieve even a brief independence from our heritage is to realize the fruits of learning how to learn. Even a fleeting severance of ourselves from our conditioning can mark a stunning passage from ungrounded delusion or drowsy disillusionment to one of unadorned worldly engagement. “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make ’em drink.” In leading a horse to water one needs to know how to lead and how to recognize water. Our Feldenkrais heritage, dedicated as it is to providing for independence of heritage, can with clarity of intention both recognize water and lead one to it.


These articles are written by Dennis Leri and appeared in the newsletter of the Feldenkrais Guild, In Touch. Reprinted with permission of the author. This HTML document was created by and is copyright © 2004 by Neil Ohlenkamp, All rights reserved.