If I think of achievement principally, I find that some part of myself is always left out. – Moshe Feldenkrais, Amherst Training
If Moshe Feldenkrais hadn’t nearly destroyed his knee in a soccer match as a young man, or if he had chosen risky surgery to repair it, he wouldn’t have developed his groundbreaking method that allowed him to walk without pain. And I wouldn’t have had his thinking as a reference while watching my niece’s soccer team compete in the Massachusetts State Tournament quarter finals earlier this month. At the beginning of the season, her Jewish school had played other private religious academies, but on a bright fall day on an astroturf field, their opponents hailed from Manchester-Essex, a public school. As much as my Feldenkrais training is teaching me to observe with neutrality, it was hard to avoid noticing that this team looked like it had stepped out of the sports edition of a J. Crew catalogue. The athletes from the coastal enclave north of Boston appeared to be of similar height, with smooth and shiny ponytails, snugly fitting jerseys and shorts, and even matching movements. My niece’s team included young women ranging from twiggy to thickset, short to tall, with assorted hair styles and eclectic ways of being in their bodies. Their t-shirts and shorts flapped and billowed in the breeze.
For the quarter finals, played on a Sunday, the spectator section was far larger than it had been for midweek games. My niece’s entourage alone included one of her grandmothers, her parents, two aunts, one uncle, two cousins and one Bernese Mountain dog. Her classmates’ families had gathered on the brick colored track that surrounded the field. Women with cotton headscarves and long or loose fitting skirts sat, shoulders rounded, in low portable chairs. Boys wearing kippot and tzitzit, whose intricately knotted fringes dangled from underneath their shirts, ran around. Some of the fathers paced back and forth, perhaps unsure what to do with themselves. The Manchester-Essex fans, like the players, seemed to have emerged from a glossy magazine, with hair that looked great in the breeze, jeans that fit just so and photogenic stances, as if prepared to be immortalized on camera at any moment.
Do not try to forget the past; it is impossible to forget the past without forgetting oneself at the same time. – Moshe Feldenkrais (The Potent Self)
When I was just a few years older than my niece, home on winter break from Bryn Mawr College, my father walked by as I sat in our dining room and pored over a J. Crew catalogue. He watched as I slowly flipped through the pages, my eyes locking onto images of Planet Cool, whose inhabitants wore perfectly assembled outfits for every scenario, environment and weather condition.
“Do you want to buy something?” he asked.
I grunted noncommittally or uttered some other indeterminate introvert expression to indicate I had heard him but wanted to be left alone. Ours was a frugal and not a fashion forward family; my physicist father’s idea of casual dressing included a loosely knotted bathrobe around the house and to check the mail, or a maroon track suit for longer stints outdoors. The pants, sweaters and dresses in these catalogues bore lofty prices considering they’d soon be out of style. Although I envied girls with the means to refresh their wardrobes and the savoir faire to assemble unique looks, I didn’t see myself as a fad-follower. Still, either that day or soon after, my father handed me a check for $500 and told me to get whatever I wanted. I had never considered spending that much money on clothing in an entire year, let alone all at once. The number seemed so extravagant as to be obscene, the gesture so unprecedented as to arouse my suspicion. Was he trying to buy my affection?
The Manchester-Essex team’s assault on the field was as well-coordinated as their outfits and hair. They passed the ball seamlessly as they ran up and down the springy field, ponytails bouncing, backs straight, legs nearly in lock-step, scoring goal after goal after goal. Watching the massacre, a family member remarked that the opposing team epitomized “gentile health”. It’s not a phrase I would have used, but I knew what this person meant. Their confidence, adroitness and skill came off as inevitable, even if it had been hard won, cultivated from a young age. At half-time, while the girls huddled with their respective teams and coaches, a bunch of Manchester-Essex dads hopped on the field and kicked the ball around, hinting that their children might have had an epigenetic advantage.
In my Feldenkrais training, we’re careful to talk about “health” differently than in the mainstream. A healthy person, wrote Dr. Feldenkrais, is someone who can “live fully his unavowed dreams”. When he taught his method in Amherst, MA, Moshe Feldenkrais cited the example of Milton Erickson, who struggled with polio as a child and spent part of his life in a wheelchair yet fathered eight children and left a powerful legacy. Contrary to popular ideas, virility was not synonymous with physique. Dr. Feldenkrais also insisted that our notions of ideal posture, of maintaining an upright spine, are less helpful than considering acture, an ability to organize ourselves for whatever action we wish to take. To stand straight by tensing the back, locking the knees or tightening the buttocks might look good but will take a toll if a person compulsively adjusts himself into a “correct” position. Slumping and slouching are appropriate in certain circumstances. My niece and her soccer mates, despite their diverse builds and less choreographed plays, still scored many goals and won several games.
Don’t allow the objective to become more important than the way of doing it. – Moshe Feldenkrais, Amherst
While my niece’s team never stopped trying, I stopped keeping score during the trounce. I recoiled at another family member’s intense disappointment that our side lost and would not advance. That these (mostly) first generation soccer players had gotten as far as they had was cause enough for celebration. To be too focused on victory can instill in a person a sense that they are “not enough”. Excessive striving can become compulsive, the exhilaration of winning an addiction, to be achieved at any cost. Overlooking what’s been learned, or dismissing incremental progress in favor of a big win can breed chronic dissatisfaction and, in my case, depression. Having watched several of my niece’s games, I was struck by how much her team had improved over the season, even though back-to-back religious holidays early in the term had interrupted their practice schedule.
My father, who shares Moshe Feldenkrais’ Hassidic roots, once told me that I didn’t have to be the best. His comment, delivered in a gentle voice, challenged the competitive, perfectionist beliefs that circulated in my hometown’s psyche like the fluoride that coursed through the water supply. These attitudes, like the chemical compound, were intended to better people’s lives, but occasionally had distorting if not tragic consequences. More than one of his peers died of heart attacks in their 50s, perhaps due to the stress of unchecked ambition and work. My father’s was a lone, largely unsupported voice in a culture that valued achievement, prestige and tangible success above all. While I heard his words, and knew he was correct, I wasn’t able to take them in completely.
I also didn’t take that $500 check. Not that time. I returned it to him, in an encounter that was awkward for me and probably baffling if not painful for him. Despite being a fool in many ways, I knew that catalogue fashions would not give me the feelings of acceptance, belonging and of being understood, by him and others, that I craved. Those couldn’t be bought.
As the teams completed their post game rituals, I wondered about the emotional lives of the girls on both sides. Despite the stark score (was it 7-0?), perhaps their internal realities resembled shades of grey. Did the Manchester-Essex girls play soccer for the love of the game, to fulfill expectations or a combination of both? Was their nearly flawless appearance and footwork a source of pleasure or a standard they felt compelled to live up to? Did the Jewish girls wish they could devote more time to sports, rather than to religious observance? Was soccer an antidote to academic pressure and therefore worthwhile, regardless of victory? Did some of them experience the end of the season as a relief?
Eventually my niece came towards us, blue and white water jug in hand, gear bags slung across her chest and shoulders. She seemed to be in good spirits. Perhaps she already knew, in her bones, that she only had to try her best and not be the best. I certainly hoped so. As for me, I still struggle with valuing results over the process, with letting lofty goals dwarf incremental progress. The beauty, if not miracle, of the Feldenkrais Method is that after doing a lesson, after moving slowly with awareness while lying on the floor, I feel more comfortable in my own skin. It’s as if my body is telling me I am enough, that I don’t have to be the best. Slowly, I’m beginning to listen.