My friend and mentor, Moti Nativ, has often said, “The Feldenkrais Method is a martial art.” I’ll go one step further and say, “The Feldenkrais Method® is an extreme sport.”
I admit this observation might not sound very logical at first. What could the careful, attentive practice of the Feldenkrais Method have to do with extreme sports? How can one reconcile “do less” and “go slow” with the kinds of movement we expect from extreme sports?
I have practiced Judo since 1971, so I know a little about extreme sports. Sport Judo has dramatic, spectacular, explosive motions that join two bodies, twist them about in the air, and finishes with one of those bodies taking a hard fall. Both winners and losers fall – and fall often – in a typical Judo class or match. While many people hesitate to fall on their own, Judo players get thrown and often have to contend with someone landing on top of them too. I’ve broken a leg, a rib, twenty one fingers and sixteen toes, and had uncountable bruises over the years because, well, mistakes happen. Despite the way it sounds, it is actually a lot of fun.
In 2008, my Judo teaching partner and I moved our fledgling Judo school into a CrossFit box (gym) that offered an extensive Parkour training program. Judo practitioners are called judoka. Parkour practitioners have the equally exotic name of traceurs. Their typical practice involves jumping, twisting and leaping over obstacles along with wonderfully impossible feats like running up vertical walls or leaping between buildings. For several years, we trained traceurs to do Judo and learned a thing or two from them also. We trained next to and with our Parkour brethren. We practiced with competitors on the American Ninja Warrior TV show. I saw lots of broken fingers and toes, ribs, and an arm or leg or two. It reminded me a lot of Judo. They seemed to have a lot of fun.
So what makes these sports so compelling and interesting that people return to practice them again and again when they risk getting hurt? Two simple but elusive qualities: bodily presence and organizational catharsis.
By bodily presence, I refer to the sensation of inhabiting one’s body and being aware of that habitation. Many things can evoke the sense of bodily presence: the taste of a fine dish or an excellent wine, a walk in the mountains or a swim in the sea, yoga, dancing, lovemaking, even hard physical labor. However brought about, the taste of bodily presence is unmistakable. Here I am now in this body.
Arguably any engaging physical activity could bring about the experience of bodily presence. Sadly, many people spend time in un-engaging physical activities or even in a kind of physical torpor. Bodily presence may not be part of the warp and weft of everyday life and instead only an occasional taste. Strangely, commercial gyms increasingly work against this experience of presence by offering music and videos to keep exercisers from the perceived boredom of being with their bodies. (If you are bored by your exercise routine, forget cable and try some Judo!)
Extreme sports offer a radical alternative. When I bow on the mat or into a match, I am gesturing to my body that it is time to tune in. I need my full attention because I am operating in an environment of risk. I can fall down. I can get thrown down. I can get hurt. Better pay attention. Right here, right now. Extreme sports create an external demand for bodily presence with every practice, every feat, every event. For those who have had the taste of bodily presence and enjoyed it, these sports provide a dependable means of arriving at that taste. That taste alone is worth a lot of bruises.
Judo offers something more: the chance to do the impossible. The classic Judo meme has the smaller, weaker player throw the larger, stronger player using skillful application of technique. The small player achieves the apparently impossible through the skillful organization of the body and the appropriate application of force. Does this idea sound familiar?
The Judo student confronts an exciting possibility. Seeing a throw, she says I want to do that. Learning requires confronting what can be done and what cannot yet be done. The student’s self-organization is challenged. Bodily presence is the starting point for this learning as it demands the awareness to perceive what one is actually doing. Presence is not an end but a means to something even more interesting.
This week at practice, a 145lb female student threw a 260lb male student so cleanly that she broke into tears. No one was hurt. They were tears of joy at having discovered how to organize herself to throw so cleanly. The unmistakable taste of doing with ease something that was once impossible created an organizational catharsis for her. She could neither think her way nor force her way to throw. It required a new whole body reorganization to break through to the new possibility. Her practice confronted her with an organizational challenge that resulted in the satisfaction of her cathartic experience. That tastes really good.
People do extreme sports for the reliable experience of bodily presence and the possibility of achieving a joyful organizational catharsis. People do the Feldenkrais Method for the same reasons. That’s why it is an extreme sport.
The Feldenkrais Method creates a reliable experience of bodily presence. Lessons start with awareness. The role of the practitioner is to serve as the external demand for bodily presence and a guide to a fuller experience. By calling the student’s attention and awareness to the body, the practitioner helps create the container for presence. The most ordinary Awareness Through Movement® (ATM) or Functional Integration® (FI) lesson reliably invokes that experience of bodily presence.
The Feldenkrais Method offers the possibility of achieving organizational catharsis. I suspect every practitioner experiences at least one moment like the Tearful Judoka, where he experiences an organizational catharsis. Sometimes this experience can be dramatic, like finally managing a headstand. Sometimes it can sneak up as the organizational change reveals itself suddenly. For me, it was the simple realization that I could sit on the floor for hours without discomfort. That was impossible for me at the beginning of my training.
Non-practitioner students experience that catharsis too, of course. Students who do experience such a catharsis seem to value the Method a great deal. Perhaps they return to the next lesson for the possibility of achieving such an organizational catharsis again, just like the judoka returns to the mat or the traceur to his jam.
Every extreme sport offers particular opportunities and challenges. The great opportunity afforded by the Feldenkrais Method is the possibility of awareness without risk. Risk helps focus awareness in extreme sports, but in our practice the guidance of the lesson and the practitioner serve the same function. The challenge lies in the absence of a clear and concrete feat to attract the student’s attention in the first place. Few people watch an ATM® lesson and say I want to do that; they may well say that about a throw or a jump or feat they see on YouTube.
The Feldenkrais Method offers experience that many seek through extreme sports. It offers much the same experiential value proposition. By reliably bringing students into an experience of bodily presence and offering the possibility of an organizational catharsis, the Method acts like an extreme sport.
Terence McPartland teaches Judo and the Feldenkrais Method in Washington DC. He leads DC Judo and holds a third degree black belt. He is a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitionercm with a background in sacred dance, theatre and circus arts.