Thursday, February 19, 2009

Feldenkrais's recipe for genius

Moshe Feldenkrais was a physicist and pioneering judo black belt (under Kawaishi) who invented what later became known as the Feldenkrais Method of movement education to fix his knees -- which he had wrecked playing soccer -- in the days before reliable reconstructive surgery.

His books are fascinating and at times perplexing, but always thought provoking.  Many of his students have written more accessible derivative works -- e.g. Hegge's "Running with the whole body" and Hanna's "Somatics" -- but for sheer depth it's hard to go past Feldenkrais himself.  I recommend "Awareness through Movement" as the most accessible. 

Ruthy Alon shows what it's all about:

Here's a quote that I have been puzzling over for a few years:
"Find your true weakness and surrender to it. Therein lies the path to genius. Most people spend their lives using their strengths to overcome or cover up their weaknesses. Those few who use their strengths to incorporate their weaknesses, who don't divide themselves, those people are very rare. In any generation there are a few and they lead their generation."
Recently it occurred to me that Feldenkrais was in-part referring to something that I have believed for a long time, but attaching a greater significance: 

By finding something that you are weak in, but keen on, you can embark on a great journey -- from weakness to acquired strength -- not merely a path to competence, but also one of learning, insight, and challenges.  By taking such a path not only will you gain personally, but also be in a position to help others on their journeys, far more so than if you had merely stuck to your strengths.

In my case, it is the things that I am passionate about, had to work hard at to get somewhere, that I not only value a little more than the things that came easily, but also which I feel best equipped to teach. 

This applies to my experience of martial arts as a whole, but at other levels too.  For example: As a beginner I struggled to learn our 2nd hip throw -- kubi nage (neck throw) -- and yet today it is one of my favorite techniques.  Furthermore:  My students seem to acquire its nuances quite quickly -- certainly much faster than I did -- presumably because having struggled with it in so many ways over such a long period, I am now well-equipped to teach it.  

Taking this example further, I am happier with how I execute kubi nage today than I am with other throws that came to me more easily: Weakness has overtaken strength; the tortoise has outraced the hare.  Now the challenge is to integrate what I have learned in struggling with kubi nage to improve in other areas.

There's still more to Feldenkrais's recipe -- including "finding your true weakness": How do you do that?  How do you verify it?  More food for thought ...

P.S. Feldenkrais's judo books are also great, but largely out of print.  Happily, Irene Gutteridge has pointed out that Higher Judo: Groundwork is available from

P.P.S. The classical judo that I practice comes via Mikonosuke Kawaishi,  who was dispatched by Judo founder Jigoro Kano to spread Judo to the Europeans after Kano met (and throttled!) a then young Feldenkrais in Paris.  Who was the first European black belt in Judo? Feldrenkrais.  His teacher?  Kawaishi. 


Irene Gutteridge said...

YOu can purchase Higher Judo through the guild
go to the resources link, then books by Moshe...there are 900 in stock!

Anonymous said...

There may be some truth in that quote (in the sense that it pays to devote time to improve upon your weaknesses, at least aslong the improvement could complement your strong suits without ignoring development in other area’s) but in my view it’s fairly idealistic in that it seems to deny the fact that there are limits to what you can achieve as an individual and that those limits are largely predetermined by factors you have little or no control over. If I don’t have what it takes in terms of genetics and build I can train my ass off for as long as I want but I’ll never be an Olympic athlete, if my IQ is average I’ll never become a master thinker or world class scientist. Part of growing up is becoming realistic: through experience you learn who you are (how you respond to certain situations) and what you’re good at. In the struggle for life and happiness it would make sense to make the most out of the strengths you have than to try to become good at something you clearly don’t have a knack for and waste your resources.

Case in point: I’ve always wanted to become an officer in the army but due to the fact I’m bad at math (in high school I took the lightest course and still failed half of the time although I’m certainly not stupid) and the requirements for said education I know this will never be a realistic option, instead what I’m doing is focusing on my strong suits (intellectual pursuits in the humanities) and try to get as good as I possibly can in those area’s. I’d rather be great at something through a combination of talent and effort than mediocre by effort alone (let alone failing completely because I foolishly ignored reality). Mediocrity rules the world and you’d have to compete with large masses of people: how on earth do you think you’ll ever achieve anything that way?

Do try to improve upon your weaknesses but be realistic at the same time: if it’s clear the potential gains aren’t worth the effort it’s better to abstain and devote your energy to a worthier cause. Too many people wasted their most productive years because they focused on the wrong area’s and went around chasing dreams without anything substantial to show for their effort: if you’re good at languages pursue a career in that, if you’re good at working with your hands by all means go for that but for god’s sake don’t think you’re good at everything (delusions of grandeur) or that effort alone will help you prevail over everything (valuable as it may be). As for the martial arts: clearly for about 99% of practioners they’re a hobby and it doesn’t really matter what you do in your spare time as long as it somewhat gratifying, even then it pays to pick something you seem to have a knack for and use it as a base to start from. Once you’ve become good at something it might be a good idea to start looking for disciplines that complement your skills, not to become a master at them per se but to learn enough to a) have more options that can help you prevail against someone in your own style (if you’re a kickboxer sparring with another kickboxer he’ll be highly surprised if you suddenly take him down and finish him on the ground: you won, even though he may have been better at stand-up than you and would have probably defeated you if you had stuck to the kickboxing routine) and b) know what their tricks are and help you develop effective defenses against them so you can utilize your main skills to win while preventing your opponent from capitalizing on his.

Only a very small percentage of people are so talented they shine at many things: if you’re one of those geniuses and gifted individuals count your blessings and by all means do pursue many paths and goals but for most people it’s just not realistic to try to become accomplished at things that just aren’t for them and end up frustrated and unhappy and at the cost of missed opportunities in area’s they could have been great at.

Dan Prager said...

Hi Anon

Another interesting personal essay.

As a counterpoint, it's really hard to tell what people's true potential in most areas is. Accordingly, I advocate pursuing areas that you are passionate about, finding outstanding instruction, and putting in the hard work.

To learn something that doesn't come easily requires patience, diligence and enthusiasm from the student. From the teacher, it requires patience, skill, encouragement, and insight.

My recent articles on Mindset and Coach Wooden are also pertinent.