“We act in accordance with our self-image” – Moshe Feldenkrais
In Feldenkrais we aim to cultivate reversibility, the ability to change direction, even in the middle of a complex movement, without having to reposition ourselves first. Although I had known about the Feldenkrais Conference at the University of North Carolina (Asheville) for months, I remained on the fence. Getting to Asheville, which I visited in March, requires more than a hop, skip and a jump. The workshops sounded interesting but didn’t pull me over the fence. My introvert self didn’t relish the prospect of busy days and group meals, even with lovely people. As the date approached, I leaned towards going, then leaned back. As I vacillated, the deadline for campus housing passed. At the last minute, a few Facebook conversations tipped me into attending. I rustled up flights with airline miles, reserved an AirBnB and arranged to borrow a bicycle to get around. By then, many of the workshops had filled, simplifying decision-making.
I enrolled in a half-day class, “Do One Thing Well: Practical Unarmed Combat”, taught by Terence McPartland, a practitioner and Judo instructor. Although I’d dabbled in self-defense classes in my youth, unarmed combat with its potential for pain, bruises and broken bones didn’t fit my self-image. Then I considered: if I wanted to familiarize myself with the myriad influences on Moshe Feldenkrais’s life and method, including hand to hand combat, the workshop might be an ideal way to get a taste. The teacher told us he’d walk us through most of the illustrated maneuvers in Hadaka-jime: The Core Technique for Practical Unarmed Combat, an expanded version of a 1942 book by Feldenkrais (Hadaka-jime translates as “naked strangle”). First he said, to much laughter, “Choking is like kissing. You’ve got to get close.”
He suggested we find a person of similar size to practice choking, the “one thing” we’d learn to do well. Until that moment I’d been chatting with Dwight Pargee who, in addition to being an experienced practitioner and assistant trainer, is considerably larger than I am. I decided it would be more realistic and challenging to try to choke him rather than the delicate white haired woman to my left. He agreed to be my partner. While he sat cross legged on the floor, I followed the instructions to choke him from behind. That meant identifying the “cutting edge” of my right wrist bone, placing it near his trachea, and securing my right hand with my left to get control of his head. From there, we leaned backwards to destabilize our opponent. At first, daintiness and squeamishness kept me from getting close enough. Eventually, with pointers from my savvy partner and the teacher, I got the hang of choking from that direction.
“Choke with love and compassion,” said Terence to those of us in self-defense mode. To the others he said, “Tap your partner twice if you’ve had enough.”
We took turns and then applied the choke hold while squatting and standing. Next, the instructor handed out “knives” (laser cut particle board) for us to practice disabling an attack to the neck or abdomen. The fake weapon added sufficient realism to trigger my fight-or-flight reflex and unleash a surge of adrenaline. Suddenly I was on fire and having more fun than I’d expected. Still, my excitement surpassed my skill and the teacher (also considerably larger than me) invited me to practice on him in front of the class. While I succeeded in deflecting the knife and placing the “cutting edge” of my wrist around his neck, the knife remained in his right hand and, because I hadn’t immobilized his arm, he could maneuver the weapon to stab my right leg. Thanks to my Feldenkrais training, my “failure” in front of a group didn’t bother me as it would have years ago, when I was more interested in looking good than learning.
After putting the knives away, we took up “bayonets” in the form of billiard cues. We took turns placing the end of the cue in our partner’s back and marching them forward. Terence showed the “prisoners” how to use the subtle, natural rotation of the hips to eventually pivot to the right, use the right hand to push the bayonet away and move toward the captor to immobilize if not disarm him (or her!) with the choke hold. Terence pointed out that a person who is holding a knife or a bayonet has their attention focused on the weapon and will probably continue to grasp it rather than release it when someone tries to disarm them. A person whose attention is free, and therefore not freaked out, can therefore immobilize an armed opponent. Having been disturbed if not traumatized as a child by images of Jews and others being herded or marched at gunpoint, my brief stint as prisoner turned out to be unexpectedly healing. Having a supportive space in which to step into the role of captive and simulate a different ending loosened some subconscious shackles. While I would need more practice to disarm an actual knife-wielding nutcase, I marveled that what I had originally resisted offered a dose of fun, potent medicine that expanded my self-image.
The next day I attended “Forever Young: Improving Stability and Balance”, a workshop offered by Moti Nativ, a retired Israeli Defense Force colonel, the leader of the Bujinkan Dojo in Tel Aviv and a practitioner (who brought Hadaka-Jime to life). The workshop title didn’t excite me, neither did the description and preview video of learning how to help the elderly get out of chairs. Still, I was curious about Mr. Nativ, now 66, as I imagined he’d be a colorful character. I was not mistaken. Defying his doctor’s advice to not travel internationally just six weeks after heart surgery, the savvy Sabra warrior surprised us by incorporating self-defense into his workshop. He had us start innocently enough, lying on the floor, extending our arms to the sides, gently rolling our fists up and down and then rolling each fist in opposite directions. Next we stood on our knees, extended our arms and rolled our fists, eventually bringing one arm in front and the other to the rear. In this position, we mimicked kneeling fencers. We then took the movement to standing, lunging as we extended and rotated an arm. I recognized parts of this lesson (known as “Errol Flynn”) from my training. When Moti told us to grab a wooden stick or cane and use it as if were a sword, the movements came alive.
He taught us other tricks with sticks. He mentioned Bedouin shepherds who play with their staffs and create beautiful, organic connections with them and invited us to move our wrists so the sticks would create a figure eight. We learned how to transition from holding the sticks as walking aids to using them to define and protect personal space. Eventually, he showed us how to maneuver the stick to deflect attacks to the throat and abdomen and to (in theory) whack the assailant. At one point a woman in the group asked if he were going to show us how to help people get in and out of chairs, as advertised in the conference materials.
“This is what I teach to my students,” he said, explaining that their average age is 80. He said he tries to distract them from their aches and pains by having them focus on what they can do and challenging them to do a bit more. “I know I’ve succeeded if they say oy. Even better is oy vey.” I imagined his longtime students as a posse of perpetually kvetchy elders who, revitalized after class, patrol the streets of Tel Aviv with their canes.
Without apology, he mentioned that some people in the Feldenkrais community shy away from self-defense so he felt he had to sneak it into the workshop. For Nativ, a self-described “politically incorrect Feldenkrais freak”, the method is about survival. Period. As if to prove it, he showed us slides of a young Moshe Feldenkrais in a judo roll juxtaposed with pictures of a cherubic baby rolling on its back; indeed, their positions corresponded closely. Rolling is both a developmental milestone and, at times, a survival skill (it’s also fun!). Since I hadn’t cared for the ostensible subject of his workshop, I cheered his chutzpah and found his bluntness refreshing. Moreover, his badass example expanded the image of what teaching the elderly could look like.
There are those for whom the phrase “cutting edge” represents science’s acknowledgement of the brain’s neuroplasticity as described in Norman Doidge’s The Brain’s Way of Healing. Moshe Feldenkrais is widely seen as being ahead of his time for having figured that out. Still, some of the influences on this method involve a literal “cutting edge”. These edges belong to the same whole, something that’s easy to forget if one’s attention is fixated on either. If one’s attention is free, and the mind flexible, it’s possible to embrace both.