Celebrating Moshe Feldenkrais’s 100th Birthday: Conversations with Ruthy Alon and Mark Reese
Reminiscing: A Visit with Ruth Alon
Ruthy Alon participated in the first Feldenkrais training. Now in her seventies, Ruthy is considered one of those most creative practitioners in the field. Ruthy has developed her own work, which she calls Bones for Lifeä. Her work is rich in invention. I had the opportunity to visit with Ruthy via e-mail this January while she was teaching in New Zealand.
NGW: Do you remember your first impression of Moshe Feldenkrais?
RA: I came to Alexander Yanai Street, into a huge hall in a basement where a Yemenite dance group used to rehearse. I saw many people on mats hardly doing anything. A voice came from the ceiling (a reel-to-reel tape recorder). Moshe was sitting on the side, but I did not know who he was. In fact, I stayed there a long time until I realized he was the teacher. He would stop the tape and ask somebody to demonstrate. Moshe had a good time finding an engineer and roasting him for not knowing his right from his left. I think at least two years passed before I first would speak to him personally. At that time he must have been in his sixties, which to me seemed very ancient.
NGW: How did Moshe Feldenkrais happen to enter your life?
RA: I was a mother of two children, going to an evening class in the kibbutz where I lived near Haifa. Our gymnastic teacher was studying with Moshe’s early groups, and I kept hearing the name “Feldenkrais” again and again. “Feldenkrais” said this and “Feldenkrais” said that. After I finished the mature exams, I felt that actually I had not learned anything that attracted my heart. When I returned home with my family near Tel Aviv, I began to look for this “Feldenkrais”—just an intuitive urge. It took me a long time because the local teacher for women’s gymnastics, who studied with him, told me it was just for gymnastic teachers. I did not give up and found him in the phone book. He sounded extremely important and not too warmly agreed that I could come to his class.
At that time no one could imagine that this would be a profession that other people could learn to do. I asked myself many times, how did I know to hold on to that? I realized I had the luck to be in the right place at the right time, but I also sensed without clear words the real value of those movements on the floor. I would return home a nicer person, more patient and open.
NGW: I remember you telling me that it took you a while to “get it.” How would you describe this process of “getting it”? Was it an “aha” moment, or more of a slow fire?
RA: I started to “get it” when I was in the training, although the training brought more questions than clarity. I started to get it even more when I was teaching. I started a month-long Awareness Though Movement (ATM) workshop in Boulder, Colorado, with 50 people. Many of them are trainers today.
I had to figure it out myself from the beginning and then I got my orientation and perspective. This is what I tell my students: the method is not just information that passes on. You need to pass it through your system like a bee digests nectar and makes it into honey. “Getting it” is when you make your own honey. And Moshe told it to us very explicitly, “Each one of you will write it in your own handwriting.” It makes me sad how we interpret the method in one training format and have lost the learning of mastery.
NGW: Do you have a favorite story about Moshe that involves your connection to his work?
RA: I came to Moshe after coming first to America. He showed me a pack of letters and said people complimented him for having taught me to teach his method. I told him people wanted to record the lessons. I asked him if it was okay with him. He asked me to bring him a demonstration.
When I came back with the tape he listened for a half a minute and said, “This is not English.” So I went home and had it all written and edited by an expert and came back. It was a great experience to be in Moshe’s home; he was extremely kind and soft.
He read a few lines where I talked about holding breath as an emergency mechanism, which is parasitic when a situation is less threatening. He stopped and said, “This is not true; when the lion roars, the gazelle holds its breath so it can tune up itself together and be able to run quickly.” So I went home and corrected my mistake. I brought him the corrected version. He read it and said, “No, when the lion is roaring the gazelle freezes so the lion will have something to eat.”
Moshe did give me permission to do the tapes. Somebody in the San Francisco training confronted him about it, asking, “Why do you let Ruthy do your work in her voice?” He answered, “I want my students to be independent.”
NGW: What would make him proud if he was alive today?
RA: Moshe had a vision to teach the whole planet from a satellite. He knew there is no one in the world that does not need it. He said it could be applied to any other human learning, not just movement. I personally feel good to carry his principles into my Bones for Life work, where I explore springy pressure in the vertical. I think we need to think of more explanations, use the enthusiasm of the teachers to share and make it easier for them to become trainers. It seems we are held by fear and do not move as we could and as we teach.
NGW: As a teacher, you have had a crucial role in imparting the work to the next generation of practitioners. What’s on your mind during the first day of a training?
RA: The first day is the hardest. People are coming to the unknown—a big commitment at a time of ignorance. I talk a little, but very early I want them to feel this alchemy of their organism changing its perception and upgrading its performance. I have many small five-minute mini-processes that are so convincing. The whole atmosphere lightens and people are inspired. I also warn them that changing old, reliable habits can bring up many resistances similar to the patterns we resist in life. So they know when it happens to them to not feel bad about themselves or blame the movement or the teacher.
NGW: What would you be doing if you had not met Moshe Feldenkrais?
RA: If there was not this unique person Feldenkrais, we would all be struggling in the level of yoga, Pilates, and the rest. I personally would be a housewife, a little frustrated, looking for something satisfying. I knitted some dresses that went in a fashion show with all the major Israeli designers all over Europe and in the U.S. I remember being in San Francisco at my first ongoing workshop in the city, in which Frank Wildman and Denis Leri first encountered Feldenkrais. The fashion show organizer called me to come to the Fairmont Hotel. When my handmade dress appeared on the line, they stopped the music and asked me to get up and speak. I asked the organizer if I should explain what I was really doing in San Francisco, but she said, “No, no, just speak about the dress.”
Once in Israel my wedding dress was on television and my entire neighborhood was so impressed, and I had already been teaching Feldenkrais for years unnoticed. This is our main task—to change the public criteria of what is really important in life.
NGW: You have been so prolific in developing new work, and now your Bones for Life program has taken you in a new direction. How does the legacy of the work give permission for us to forge our own paths and carve our own contributions?
RA: Moshe said, “If you know what you do, you can do what you want.”
So the main thing is to do what you want and the awareness of knowing the how is the instrument. I give the example of extending the arm to point to the moon. But some people keep their eyes on the hand, and you cannot move their eyes from the finger to the moon; only they can do that. For me, Moshe taught us the dynamics of awakening creativity and not just the different ideas.
NGW: You have developed work with your own creative stamp on it—Bones for Life. How do you see the relationship between traditional Feldenkrais Method and Bones for Life?
RA: Moshe started from judo, the ultimate efficiency in real time and vertical reality with an unpredictable partner. He created for us a laboratory for improving coordination for the purpose of learning to become more of our potential. His passion was to lead the people in the West so the ATM process would channel them to perfect themselves rather than endlessly imitating the master without understanding the clues. The context for the Feldenkrais bodily insight to happen is lying on the floor free of gravity and social judgment, with permission to follow one’s own individual pace and range. Now when I come to apply the learning principles of Feldenkrais to Bones For Life, there is a crucial need to interact with gravity in rhythmical, springy pressure. I needed to revise a different greenhouse condition for learning. I use the wall for support and alignment, like the floor supports and aligns. I add a harness (seven yards of material) as a loan of integration. This is what we are doing in Functional Integration (FI), giving the people a taste of the more ideal model.
I am amazed how well Bones for Life works. I use a self-touch, like putting the knuckle of the index finger bent between the teeth to pull forward and resisting it with the neck, which withdraws backwards, aligning the head over the backbone. When we add to that position integral movement, like walking in place, the alignment of the neck is reinforced. This is a kind of shortcut to better posture that is crucial for performing strength-demanding functions. The proof is in the pudding. Measurements of bone density of a group in Tel Aviv, studying once a week for 3 1/2 hours for 4 months, showed unexpected improvement.
It will be a while until our culture will have measurable criteria for quality and harmony. At least bones can be easily measured. Of course, with any ATM we enhance the potential of dynamic moving, but bones need this style of moving on a regular basis for the actual mechanical feeding of the bones. The revolutionary new pattern we get in ATM needs to be repetitively applied in the vertical to make a difference.
NGW: You are in the midst of writing a book on Bones for Life. How is coming along?
RA: The book will outline each process in detail with a brief introduction for the functional perspective. There will be three booklets for each Bones for Life segment. In my training in Italy we transcribe the training as part of the course and trainees get the book of every segment. There will be over 100 processes described. I have enough material for the first book in English. When I return home from New Zealand and Australia, I will finish it.
NGW: If you could redo your Feldenkrais life again, would you do anything differently?
RA: One day when I visited him in his home, he asked me to climb the ladder and bring down a pack of yellow pages. He asked me to read. This was the manuscript of The Potent Self. I was reading and admiring and impulsively said, “Why don’t you publish it?” and he said because he had not completed the last chapter. I continued to urge him but he came up with all kinds of excuses and I realized I just frustrated him, so I let it go. But I will always remember those typed yellow pages of 40 years ago.
When the San Francisco training graduated there was a great dinner at a big hotel organized by Bill Callison. At this dinner were all the leaders from the psychology conference and Jane Houston talked and said, “Moshe, you are our yoga of the West.” I was sitting at Moshe’s table. On one side, Werner Erhard, the founder of EST, and on the other side the Israeli consul in San Francisco.
I thought it would be the right moment for me to acknowledge Moshe for having those advanced ideas 40 years ago. I got up and told how Moshe had all these ideas 40 years ago. People were laughing. I was as standing behind Moshe and his presence was overwhelming. I sat down and then realized I had not said the main thing about the yellow pages book. I felt terrible. The next day the conference started.
Jean Houston talked about the third centennial of the U.S. with all the new messages of the new age methods, counting them one by one, never mentioning Feldenkrais. I knew he was in the audience and could imagine how he felt and then I understood what had happened to me the night before.
When I came back to Israel I went to his FI place in Nachmany Street and told him how I had intended to acknowledge him, but he probably reiterated his attitude of not trusting that the world would recognize him, and strong as his presence was, it hypnotized the people to not be able to express it. Maybe that’s what happened to Jane Houston, too.
It was the first time that I had told something to Moshe that he did not challenge immediately, and he just got to thinking. I wish I could get the message through to him that now the world recognizes him more and more as the universal best quality learning of what is most important to any person—how their body supports them to be what they want to be.
NGW: If you had to distill the Feldenkrais work into one sentence down to its barebones essence, what would you say?
RA: For me, Feldenkrais is about awakening the organism to use its resourcefulness, to not compromise and instead invent solutions of improvement. The awareness, the evolutionary models, the variations, the non-habitual approach are all instruments to awaken the core, which has the power.
NGW: When I look at the picture of you jumping, I am instantly reminded of your lightness and depth. Ruthy, thank you for visiting with me, you’ve provided a wealth of wisdom, knowledge, and history. As always, you are a joy to spend time with and I appreciate your kindness in sharing your many experiences with the somatic community. I wish you well in completing your book and on your next creative adventure, whatever it is!
A Conversation with Mark Reese
Mark Reese has taken on a project of a lifetime—the first comprehensive biography of Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais. He has traipsed the globe investigating, interviewing, and researching the details of Feldenkrais’s complex and colorful life. In May of 2005, the fruits of his dedication will be in our hands when Feldenkrais: An Illustrated Biography and Resource will be published. The majority of practitioners practicing today never had the opportunity to work directly with Feldenkrais. The contribution of this biography is colossal to the future of the Feldenkrais work. Mark graduated from the San Francisco Training in 1977, went on to study with Moshe Feldenkrais in Israel, and is currently one of the leading Feldenkrais trainers working in the field today. Mark took the time to bring me up-to-date on his project that has been years in the making. I had the opportunity to speak with Mark while he was in the thick of his writing process.
NGW: Tell me about the initiation of the biography project. Did the leadership of the Feldenkrais community get together and decide that a biography should be written and you volunteered for this project? Did you initiate the project?
MR: Yes, I initiated the project. I became interested in the idea during my training when Feldenkrais said that his life story would make a fascinating book. And I was always trying to re-trace the steps of his thinking in order to understand his approach better.
NGW: What’s most important to you about having a biography of Moshe Feldenkrais?
MR: It seems to me that knowing more about Feldenkrais’s life, the context where his work evolved, is essential for the public and for practitioners to fully understand the Feldenkrais method and to appreciate its depth, breadth, and originality.
NGW: Have you ever felt that if you didn’t write the biography, there wouldn’t be one?
MR: I’ve wondered. If I didn’t start when I did, I wouldn’t have been able to reach the number of people that I did. Sure, another biography could be written, but I’ve tried to make this biography as comprehensive, detailed, and accurate as anybody could possibly do.
NGW: Did people come out of the woodwork to tell you Moshe Feldenkrais stories?
MR: Many people that I spoke with were quite elderly. They were very grateful that someone was interested in their stories. And people would appear out of nowhere with letters, or tapes, or information about somebody to contact.
NGW: Telling “Moshe stories” is part of the culture of Feldenkrais training. Without an accurate biography, were you concerned about the erosion of the facts?
MR: That has been one of my biggest concerns. People need to understand Feldenkrais’s story to appreciate what the method has to offer. This is even truer for people studying to become practitioners. By not having contact with the man, the work can be skewed in a particular way. The stories people tell have a bias, and sometimes are just untrue. Even the videotapes, even though they show the man, they give a very limited picture and often somehow create a distorted view of him. I’ve tried to represent the man as accurately and fully dimensionally as possible. I hope that everyone who is seriously interested in the method will read the biography. I hope that the Feldenkrais community will have some common appreciation for who the man was and where the method came from.
NGW: You have traveled far and wide to get interviews from people that knew Moshe Feldenkrais. What has been your most interesting adventure so far?
MR: I have nearly 400 pages of transcribed interviews with someone who was a student of Feldenkrais from 1963 to1983. He’s a wonderful person with a brilliant mind, and incredibly articulate. The way he was able to capture in such vivid detail the lessons he had with Feldenkrais over 20 years was very exciting. Another thing is that because they worked for such a long period of his life, starting from when he was 13, it becomes so clear how aware Feldenkrais was of developmental issues, how important it was for him to help move someone along through their stages of life.
NGW: Are there times from Moshe’s life that you were not able to investigate? Are there any missing pieces?
MR: There are certainly gaps—over the course of the research the gaps have become smaller. I would like to know more about his life in Palestine during the 1920s. There is a period in the post-WWII period in London where I would like to have more information. Just before I started, Feldenkrais’s former wife, Yona, died. She would have been a wonderful source of information for his Parisian period during the 1930s. As I work on the book, though, I realize I really do have enough information to put a very full story down on paper.
NGW: You knew Moshe early in your career. What have you found out in your investigations about Moshe that surprised you?
MR: There were many surprises. Many of the ideas of the method came to him by the 1920s, more than twenty years before what people think of as the method. He was studying jujitsu and the autosuggestion work of Coué. At an early age he had a gut feeling of where he wanted to go and the kind of information he needed.
Another surprise was that many people knew him as an extremely fun-loving and clownish kind of guy. He liked to play, he liked to have a good time, and he liked physical humor. It seems there was kind of lightness and good humor to him in his early life. When he became successful and busy it took a toll on him. He became increasingly serious. Mia Segal told me about that. Many other people reinforced this opinion.
Also, in the early stages of practicing, Feldenkrais used to spend very long periods of time with individuals. I have been able to interview some of them and see how deeply he changed their lives. The amount of time he was able to spend with each person grew smaller as he had a larger practice.
NGW: When you gave your lecture at the San Francisco Conference, you mentioned that there were some discrepancies in opinions of Feldenkrais from one person to the next.
MR: One student said he was the worst teacher he ever had and another said he was the best teacher he ever had. Some people emphasized his generosity while others talked about his stinginess. Some said he was lazy, and others were impressed by how hardworking he was. It was as if people were talking about completely different people. My responsibility as a biographer is to show enough of his dimensions so the readers can form their own conclusions.
NGW: How has working on this book changed your work as a Feldenkrais practitioner?
MR: I find my teaching is enriched by whatever chapter I am working on presently or what interviews I have done recently. One example is that while I was writing about his ideas about Coué, I realized how many of Coué’s ideas show up in Awareness through Movement. It changed my teaching emphasis.
NGW: I am curious about switching gears from Feldenkrais trainer to biographer. How did you prepare to be a biographer? Were there certain biographies that influenced you? Were you attracted to a certain style of biography?
MR: I always had been drawn to the biographies of scientists. I’ve read many biographies of Freud and Darwin. The combination of an intellectual biography together with a more personal approach appealed to me. Dave Thelen, Esther Thelen’s husband, a historian at Indiana University, spoke with me on how ideas of historical writing have evolved and the importance of including the biographer’s perspective, and not trying to be invisible.
NGW: Talk about the process of actually writing the book. There is the gathering stage and the writing stage. Where was the fun for you? Where was the difficulty?
MR: It’s all been fun. I’ve loved doing the interviews. I have learned so much. My own process is probably not the most efficient way, but it’s my own way. What I tend to do is write the story based on the information I have. As I gather more information I continue to re-write as a clearer picture has come into my mind. My writing has always been intermixed with the research gathering. I have learned to see the value of my own method.
NGW: How did you manage the time while teaching full time?
MR: I would go back and forth between more intensive periods of teaching in trainings and private practice, and working on the book. I also tried to do a little bit each day, an interview or an hour or so of writing. Recently I have moved into high gear since I’ve gotten funding from a private foundation. I have let go of a lot of teaching commitments and my private practice so that I can work 4-6 hours a day.
NGW: What is your hope for this book? Will Feldenkrais finally get the recognition he deserves?
MR: My hope is that this book will help us all evolve in our work. If I am able to realize my vision, I have two books in mind. The first book, which I am in the process of completing now, is an illustrated biography and resource. This book is intended for Feldenkrais practitioners or anyone who already knows about the method and is seriously interested in knowing more. For the larger public I am working on a distilled version. The second book will convey to the public that Feldenkrais was a fascinating man. I hope it’s going to be a good read. Readers will realize that Feldenkrais, both the man and the method, are really original, and worth knowing about.
NGW: When will the books be out?
MR: The book for book for devotees will be out in May, 2005, and the book for the general public will follow right on its heels.
NGW: Any last thoughts on the process so far?
MR: I was amazed by how all the different careers and life experiences Feldenkrais had born fruit in the method that was to be: his childhood, his experiences as a tutor, his work doing mathematics in a survey office, his work with autohypnosis, his jujitsu, his engineering in the Curie laboratory, his physics, the work he did with sonar, his work as an inventor. All these things weren’t just phases that he went through. It’s clear he was able to synthesize knowledge from all the areas of his life. It’s increased my respect for him and also helped me understand the broadness of the foundation of the method.
As all this became clearer to me, I got a new vision for the biography, one that was less strictly chronological. I’m finding a way to describe the entire method, in a sense, or at least a feeling for the whole, in each chapter, as I work chronologically through his life. It’s as if the whole method were there by the time he was 14 and about to leave Russia; it was there already in Palestine in the twenties, and Paris in the thirties, and London and Scotland in the forties. Each period of his life shows the work through a different lens, depending on his circumstances and influences at the time.
NGW: Mark, thank you for your time and generosity in speaking with me. I know the Feldenkrais community joins me in wishing you success on your journey in completing this important work. It sounds like it’s been an enormously profound process and we will all benefit from your scholarship and dedication.
These interviews originally appeared in Somatics.