Better Judo is a series of 5 articles, published from January 1948 until January 1949, which Dr. Feldenkrais wrote for the quarterly bulletin of the Judo Budokwai Club.
“A true secret is still a secret even when it is revealed to all.” – Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, Preface to The Thirteen Petalled Rose1
Judo concepts and techniques had a significant impact on Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais’ development of the Feldenkrais Method for improving a person’s abilities in action. We can see the results in many Awareness Through Movement (ATM) lessons, although the judo component may not always be obvious to those without the proper background.
(Moshe Feldenkrais teaches Judo – Paris 1938, Notre-Dame view from the Dojo’s window)Feldenkrais became involved with judo when he met its founder Professor Jigoro Kano, in Paris, September 1933. This was not merely a meeting between two giants, it was an event that would lead to a dramatic change in the direction and trajectory of Feldenkrais’ thinking. In his famous 1981 interview about martial arts, Moshe recalled that Kano had said to him that judo is “the efficient use of the mind over the body.” At the time, Moshe had thought that this was a funny way to describe a martial art. During their initial meeting, Moshe was introduced to the concept of seiryoku zenyo (minimum effort, maximum efficiency). Kano challenged Moshe with a judo choking technique. Moshe attempted to free himself using the technique that had always worked for him, but this time it did not help him.
(Moshe Feldenkrais releasing himself from a chokehold).As Kano described in his diary, “I grabbed him in a tight reverse cross with both hands and said, “Try to get out of this!” He pushed my throat with his fist with all his might. He was quite strong, so my throat was in some pain, but I pressed on his carotid arteries on both sides with both hands so the blood could not get to his head, and he gave up”2. Imagine a small Japanese man, at the age of 75, subduing a strong, young man of 29. This incident impressed Feldenkrais and changed his approach to the use of his own body. Feldenkrais began to study judo and in a relatively short time was promoted to black belt. Feldenkrais became more than a skillful practitioner of the art; he proved to be a unique judo teacher of the highest quality. Kano had a great deal of faith in Moshe3. Supported by Kano’s authority and through his own considerable abilities, Moshe became the leading judo teacher in France. Moshe’s influence on the development of the martial art in France was extraordinary, earning him the title “Pionnier du Judo en France”4. As Moshe became more expert at Judo, he learned from and cooperated with the Judo master Mikinosuke Kawaishi. This partnership gave Feldenkrais the background to later write two Judo books. He wrote in the forward of Higher Judo, “I wish to express my gratitude to my friend and teacher of many years, Mr. Mikinosuke Kawaishi, 7th Dan. The figures in the illustrations in this book represent him and myself”. After escaping Paris during the Second World War, Moshe served five years in the British Admiralty. He continued to teach judo and also trained the soldiers on his base (Unarmed Practical Combat, 1942). After retiring from the service (1945) he moved to London and joined the Budokwai Judo club where he studied judo there under the great master G. Koizumi5. Moshe admired Koizumi’s skill. He often mentioned Koizumi in later years while teaching Awareness Through Movement. Moshe was in turn recognized as a judo expert by top judokas and researchers who knew him well, including Koizumi6, Leggett7, and Brousse8. In my research on Moshe during the years 1920-1950, I did a detailed study of his judo9 and self-defense books10. As a martial artist, my study was not just theoretical. It involved experiencing the techniques myself and teaching them to others. Through this study of Moshe’s work, I believe that I better understand his way of thinking about self-preservation and how this relates to an understanding of the Feldenkrais Method in general. Recently, with the help of Dr. Mike Callan11, I managed to obtain a series of five articles, titled Better Judo, which Feldenkrais wrote for the quarterly bulletin of the Judo Budokwai club12 in 1948–1949. In this essay, I will share my thoughts and insights on those articles. I refer to these years as the “turning point”13. During this period Feldenkrais labored on writing Higher Judo (1952) concurrently with Body and Mature Behavior (1949) and The Potent Self (published posthumously in 1985). It can be clearly seen that Feldenkrais was already carrying, in his mind and body, his Awareness Through Movement method, which did not yet have a name. In this period, Feldenkrais was at his peak as an experienced judoka. From then on Moshe decreased his activity as a judoka, as he applied his experience and knowledge of judo to lay the foundations of the Feldenkrais Method. In Better Judo he reveals his thoughts about Judo, digging deep into the means of mastering judo. Moshe goes through a complex process, applying his ingenuity and skilled body, which already understood the foundations of the Feldenkrais Method. Before the discussion of Better Judo, it would be helpful to remind readers about meaningful milestones of Moshe’s unique approach to judo. The first milestone, relevant to this article, is Moshe’s work in Tel Aviv at age 16, as a member of the Baranovichi group. At this time (1920) the Haganah, a paramilitary organization in British mandated Palestine, was established. At that time Moshe helped protect the properties of the Jewish pioneers and was engaged in real fights for survival, fights in which some of his friends were injured or even killed. Although the Haganah fighters were trained in jiujitsu, they were not always able to make practical use of it in actual combat. Moshe was troubled by the results of these fights. He wondered why his friends could not use their skills to effectively protect themselves. From this point, we can clearly follow Moshe pressing on with his fighting spirit and intelligence toward the next important milestone. Feldenkrais published the first Hebrew self-defense book, Jiu-Jitsu and Self Defense (1930). He based this work on a behavioral study of human beings that gave rise to the concept of using unconscious or instinctive responses for self-preservation. In other words, he wanted to design a self-defense system for the Haganah, based on “a movement someone would do without thinking” that would protect them. Feldenkrais mentioned this concept in his translation of Autosuggestion by Emil Coué (1929). He used this idea to promote efficient learning of self-defense techniques, thus building the ability to retain a skill no matter how long ago it had been learned14. Feldenkrais’ background as a survivor gave him a unique perspective on judo, or rather on another dimension of judo, the practical use of judo in an emergency situation, outside the dojo. At that time, he was one of the first judokas who thought about the use of judo for self-defense15. He applied the same attitude towards survival in the development of the Feldenkrais Method and this approach manifested itself in his teaching. As he said years later “The most drastic test of a movement is self-preservation”16. On the other hand, we can discern Feldenkrais’ innovative thoughts from Better Judo “In those days judo/jujutsu was an art of self-defense. Thanks to Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais it gained a scientific and more sophisticated facet. The Japanese art was then seen as a science of combat practiced by intellectuals, university students, scholars…Moshe played a pivotal role in this evolution from a utilitarian practice to a scientific one.” (Dr. Michel Brousse) Returning to Better Judo – the editor of the Budokwai Bulletin invited Dr. Feldenkrais to compare the judo practiced in their club to the judo practiced elsewhere. Moshe started his writing by saying “I do not think that such criticism would serve any useful purpose. Criticism leading to no improvement is wasted effort and as such is contrary to the spirit of judo. I prefer, therefore, to present to you another way of looking at things you already know…” (As we Feldenkrais practitioners would say about his choice of words, “This is Feldenkrais”.) Reading Moshe’s writings, I find them sophisticated and not easy to follow. At the time of their publication, others must have felt the same. We should remember that Moshe wrote Better Judo for the judo community, so the judoka must have understood the judo terminology he used, but we Feldenkrais Practitioners might get lost. I will try to present his chain of thought. At the same time, I will highlight points that provide basic knowledge about judo and martial arts.