Moshe Feldenkrais and Modern Judo:

The Strange Forgotten Tale of a Physicist who Learned Judo

In Palestine after the First World War, times were hard.  For a young Ukrainian immigrant named Moshe Feldenkrais, it meant being ready to fight for your life at any moment. Knowing how to fight was not a sport or an exercise fad, it meant survival.

Young Feldenkrais had a scientific mind that sought sound, testable skills he and his neighbors could use to defend themselves.  Japanese jujitsu had exploded as an international phenomenon in the early 1900s. Feldenkrais and his peers worked to learn jujitsu techniques for real life application in the street.  He published a book on Jujitsu that was based on what he had learned fighting and teaching others and was intended as a training tool for the Haganah, or Jewish defense forces . Much of his work was incorporated into the system that became known as Krav Maga today.

Feldenkrais left Palestine to study engineering and physics in Paris. There he met Judo’s founder, Jigoro Kano, in 1933. Kano encouraged him is study Judo. Feldenkrais learned Judo from Mikonosuke Kawaishi earning his Shodan in 1936 and a Nidan in 1938. He published several books on Judo including his most important Judo work: Higher Judo (Groundwork).

Feldenkrais and Kawaishi Shimewaza

Feldenkrais (right) and Kawaishi practicing shime waza (choking techniques)

Feldenkrais and Kawaishi founded the Jujitsu Club de France in 1936. This organization eventually became the Federation Francaise de Judo et Jujitsu (FFJJ) in 1946. The FFJJ was instrumental in the creation of the International Judo Federation which oversees sport Judo throughout the world. Paul Bonét-Maury, first IJF Secretary-General, was one of Feldenkrais’ students. Relatively few have heard of Feldenkrais, but his impact on Judo has been large and significant.

Feldenkrais brought together his engineering background, his own process of learning Judo and his experience of real fighting on the streets of Palestine  to develop new methods of teaching Judo.  He used the analytical skills of a physicist to break down techniques into a series of discrete movements that could be easily explained and practiced slowly while building proficiency.  Feldenkrais worked with Kawaishi on teaching Judo to Westerners. Kawaishi documented this approach in  My Method of Judo (Kawaishi 1955) which became a standard of instruction and promotion for European Judo in the post-World War Two period. Modern sport Judo owes much to Feldenkrais’s work to organize, promote, and teach Judo.

So why don’t we hear more about Moshe Feldenkrais in Judo?

Forward Roll Sequence - Feldenkrais 1930s

In this picture from a French Magazine in the mid-1930s, Feldenkrais shows four positions in the forward roll (zenpo kaiten)

A Radical Direction: From Judo to the Feldenkrais Method:
How Feldenkrais took the lessons of Judo and turned them into a landmark process of self education

Feldenkrais began in the 1940s to see Judo in a new way with potential benefits far beyond self-defense, sport, or fitness.  He wrote:

The essential aim of Judo is to teach, help, and forward adult maturity, which is an ideal state rarely reached, where a person is capable of dealing with the immediate present task before him without being hindered by earlier formed habits of thought or attitude.  Many Judoka find it difficult, at first sight, to see any connection between their practice and this abstract statement, (Higher Judo: Groundwork  pp. xii-xiii)

He saw this concept of “adult maturity” as central to the benefits received from practicing Judo. The Judo movements were a means to achieve a specific end like throwing the opponent, but also a means to develop a freedom of action that he considered a human birthright. The freedom to do what one wishes and to know what and how one does it is a learned ability. Judo provided the means to practice and develop this ability in addition to its other benefits.

Learning to move effectively means overcoming the obstacles to that movement. Judo provides an objective test of the effectiveness of movement. Judo practice is a means of achieving the adult maturity and relative freedom that Feldenkrais saw as its higher aim.

What do we do in Judo that is so different from other disciplines?

The most striking thing is, that Judo ignores inheritance as a factor of importance. We do not find that size, weight, strength or form have much connection with what a man can learn to do so long as it is within the limit of his intelligence. By admitting frankly the physical shortcomings, we are capable of turning them into advantages in due course! What a man can do is mostly determined by his personal experience, the habits of thought, feeling, and action that he has formed.

Usually 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.
(Higher Judo: Groundwork p.17)

In 1948, Feldenkrais published Body and Mature Behavior. This event marked the beginning of a move to generalize the principles and benefits of Judo for Judoka and non-Judoka alike. Over the next nearly forty years, he would research, practice, and teach what came to be known as the Feldenkrais Method® of Somatic Education. Judo took a back seat to his work to extend the principles of “maximum efficiency with minimum effort” to everyone.

He developed two modes of sharing what he learned. Functional Integration® provides a learning experience guided by the touch of the teacher. Awareness Through Movement® or ATM lessons focus on verbal instructions and are suitable for individuals or groups. Both methods utilize slow, careful movements performed with precise attention.  Students often report clear changes in balance, stability, mobility, and flexibility as well as better energy and improved capacity to think, learn and be creative. The basic concept is simple: know exactly what you are doing and doing exactly what you think you are doing.

The Feldenkrais Method® now has certified teachers around the world.  Today practitioners apply the Method with children, adults and the aged, with athletes, ordinary folks, and the disabled in a wide range of modes that might appear quite far from its roots in Judo. Modern brain research in neuro-plasticity tends to confirm Feldenkrais’s observations about how the brain organizes itself and how much can be accomplished though the careful and attentive learning, unlearning, and relearning of movements.

Full Circle: The Return of the Feldenkrais Method® to the Martial Arts

Interest in martial arts in general, and Judo in particular, continues to rise in the US. Many people train in Judo, Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Muay Thai, Brazilian JuJitsu (BJJ), Kempo and a range of other arts large and small. “Mixed Martial Arts” or MMA has become a phenomenon and a craze for both participants and spectators.

Martial arts schools and teachers abound, and many teachers are able share their love of a discipline and their experience in competition. Both love and experience are very valuable resources, but neither can help overcome a student’s inherited physical and mental habits alone. Teachers can’t love someone into overcoming a fear of falling, nor can a teacher directly transmit their own hard won experience. Students must at some point undertake a path of self-discovery to learn how to make their art their own. The love of the game and the technical knowledge of the teacher can take students up to the level of the students own awareness.

In the old days, wise elders lead martial arts schools. These teachers had the passion for their art, the technical experience and a third capacity — deep awareness of their own body and its movements. The ancient schools could use long years of training to develop superlative awareness. Feldenkrais developed a means to grow this awareness directly through specific, challenging movements and to make that awareness practically accessible without decades of martial arts training. This awareness  is not a mystical or mysterious quality but the result of a careful practice of attention, test, and verification that you are doing what you think you are doing.

What is really required to help martial artists increase their awareness and excel beyond their limitations?

  • a deep understanding of the body and the patterns of movement and what might be holding a student back
  • an organized way to assess and address those limitations to set free joyful, superlative performance
  • a means to accelerate the martial artists learning about themselves, their body, and their art to streamline execution

These factors are exactly what the Feldenkrais Method® brings to martial artists today. Through the lessons and methods of this approach, both competitive and recreational martial artists can make improvements in their range and ease of motion that make techniques faster, smoother, and more confident.

By Terence McPartland September 2012
Terence is an Awareness Through Movement™ teacher and a student of the Feldenkrais Method. He is a Sandan (3rd Degree Black Belt) in Judo and teaches at DC Judo in Washington DC. If you enjoyed this article on Judo and the Feldenkrais Method, please support our GoToTheMat compaign that supports Judo, Jujitsu, and Feldenkrais Method education in time for our May 15th goal.

This article was inspired by the groundbreaking research into The Roots of the Feldenkrais Method in the Martial Arts by Moti Nativ. You can find more about Moti’s work here.


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