Feldenkrais and Judo

©1997 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.