Moshé Feldenkrais Biography

First Chapter

1 | Headstand in Zion

One morning in the month of September 1957, the journalist Tikvah Weinstock and a photographer are at the beach in the seaside resort Herzliya, hoping for a scoop.  Their job is to get a shot of David Ben-Gurion, the 70-year-old founder of the state and prime minister of Israel.  It’s going to be something special because their paper, Maariv, has found out that the famously non-sporty Ben-Gurion has developed a new habit: doing a headstand on the beach outside the Hotel Ha-Sharon.  At 9.30am, after lying in wait for 2 hours, the journalists spot the stout, white haired figure of the Ben-Gurion, and two bodyguards, leaving the hotel.  The prime minister is in light cotton clothing and it is obvious that he doesn’t plan on going to the beach just now.  First, he’s off for a brisk morning walk.  Dropping in to a nearby restaurant, the journalists gather that Ben-Gurion won't be at the beach till mid-day.  Later, the prime minister returns to the hotel and, shortly after, at around 12 o'clock, his wife Pola comes out and heads down to the beach in her bathing costume.  The journalists take a chance and approach her.  They are in luck: Pola is clearly in a holiday mood and uncharacteristically talkative. 


"This whole headstand thing is very unusual,” she says,  


the idea is that standing on one’s head improves the circulation in the heart and lungs.  This is according to a method that comes from Dr. Feldenkrais.  He is a specialist in the relationship between body and mind.  He says that you can move each of your muscles by using your brain.  Ben-Gurion is convinced that Feldenkrais has really helped him.  Personally, I don't do headstands.  My head is too small.  I'm happy just to be able to stand on my own legs.


In November the preceding year, her response would have been completely different.  As a trained nurse, Pola was adamant that Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, whom she nicknamed "Mr Hocus-Pocus", was clogging up the valuable time of her extremely busy and yet pain stricken husband.  As a young man Ben-Gurion had suffered from backache, but for some years his lumbago attacks were occurring at ever-shorter intervals.  It got so bad that he took to his bed.  As if being bed bound wasn't enough for Ben-Gurion, by 1955 he sometimes couldn’t get out of bed at all without coming over all dizzy.  When he wasn’t dizzy, he would struggle to climb in and out of his car. Worst of all, in public view, he could be seen straining to get up from his seat in parliament.  During his overseas trips he was kept on his feet with a regimen of pain killing injections, along with a corset, which was the best his doctors could manage in the absence of any long-term solution.  The situation was serious in 1956 when he had to retreat to bed with a further bout of lumbago: the Israeli army was advancing towards the Suez Canal to secure the Straits of Tiran for Israeli shipping, and at the same time having to deal with attacks from Gaza which were killing Israelis almost on a weekly basis.  Although the Suez offensive had been planned with Great Britain and France, the United States had other ideas and forced Israel to draw back.  Simultaneously, the Soviet Union threatened to engage in the Near East and potentially bomb Paris and London.  With the political tension reaching boiling point, Ben-Gurion found himself incapable of getting out of his own front door, incapacitated as he was with back pain and, just for good measure, a lung infection. 


When a friend, Professor Aharon Katzir, visited Ben-Gurion at home in Keren-Hakayemet Boulevard, he suggested that he seek the help of a certain 'Dr. Feldenkrais'. Ben-Gurion recalled having heard the name once before:  at some time in the past he had received a letter from a member of the public concerned for his health, beseeching him to seek out ‘Dr. Feldenkrais’.  At the time he had paid no attention.  Now however he was hearing the same name from Professor Katzir, one of Israel’s most respected scientists, and someone who claimed to be a believer in Feldenkrais.  Katzir related how Feldenkrais had once flown in from London for the sole purpose of treating, successfully as it turned out, the ‘incurable’ brother of an acquaintance.  He learned also that Aharon Meskin and Chanah Rovinah, two of Israel's most famous actors, were long-term students of Feldenkrais, along with Katzir. 


Confronted with the factual proof that orthodox medicine had failed to deal with his situation, Ben-Gurion was left with little choice.  Therefore, in spite of Pola’s and his doctors’ warnings, Ben-Gurion told Katzir that, perhaps, he was ready to give this man, a qualified doctor of engineering, a chance to prove his worth. 


A few days later, Katzir returned to Ben-Gurion's Tel Aviv residence.  With him was a man of medium build, wide shoulders, a broad, friendly face, and the large, powerful hands of a manual worker.  It was clear that this was not just a man of intellect, but also of action.  The stranger spoke perfect Hebrew with what Ben-Gurion instantly recognised as the accent of an east European Jew like himself. 


Ben-Gurion was not the type to mince his words: "I have absolute confidence in Aharon, but how can you convince me that your method will work?"  Moshe Feldenkrais could hear his scepticism, but answered calmly, "I can give you a long list of people whom you know and who have learnt from me.  Take your pick who to ask for a reference.  Or if you prefer, I can show you the letters of thanks and recommendation I have received from a number of other equally well-known personalities.  Or perhaps you would prefer to read my books.  If you don’t wish to do that, you can simply start lessons right now with me."


"How long will it take?"


"Well, as you are no longer young, and clearly your health is not all that good, you would need 70 lessons.  However, if you don't intend to see them through right to the very end, I would advise you not to start at all.  That said, you may be too old to change."


Feldenkrais believed that any one could learn and improve no matter their age, which means that this remark was a deliberate provocation.  Maybe he sensed what really worried Ben-Gurion: the natural and irresistible descent of old age towards physical and mental decay; that there was so much still to do; the comparison of the enormity of the task with the scarcity of time left.  Feldenkrais himself was already 52 and yet was only at the start of his own pioneering work, in spite of his many successes so far.  He too may have perceived that the sands of time were running too fast as he dreamed of bringing his own project to fruition. 


One question was whether taking on Ben-Gurion as his student would be a kick start for his ambitions.  He wouldn’t have had any doubt about the simple fact of whether he could actually help Ben-Gurion to help himself.  It would also be an honour to count Ben-Gurion as one of his students.  Although many Israelis moaned about "the old man" and criticised his politics, it was the white haired Ben-Gurion who had made the impossible possible in founding a Jewish state.  He was a socialist messiah in khaki shorts. A father to rebel against, but a father all the same.


Ben-Gurion agreed to give it a try and proposed an appointment of one hour each day.  Moshe protested, uncertain that he would be able to free up an hour every single day for the next two months, yet Ben-Gurion dismissed this objection: "I can make time each day, and I am just as busy as you!"


Feldenkrais was still excited about these events years later.


Improvement takes time.  With no mastery of time there can be no knowledge, no love, and no improvement in ability.  The very first thing that really surprised me when we first met was how much time Ben-Gurion freed up for himself.  After all, this was a man who had a lot on his plate, and yet found time every day to learn and to read.  […] His ability to lay work to one side and instantly turn to something else was extraordinary. It had to be seen to be believed.


A few days after their first meeting, Feldenkrais got to experience Ben-Gurion’s confident and nonchalant attitude to time for himself.  Moshe arrived for their scheduled lesson and found Levi Eshkol and other government ministers in the living room waiting for a call from the American president Eisenhower.  Ben-Gurion and his teacher went upstairs for his ‘Feldenkrais lesson’.  The call was not expected to yield any surprises:  the American president had already refused to sell arms to Israel and would once more demand an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories in Egypt.  Of course Eisenhower rang during the lesson; and, of course, Ben-Gurion continued with his lesson.  Only after the lesson was over did Ben-Gurion ask what the US President had said, after which he shared the news with his ministers


Ben-Gurion's absolute belief in Feldenkrais' ability was confirmed some time later when, to the horror of Pola and the doctors, Feldenkrais proposed that they break a fever by means of certain movements – an approach which worked.  In spite of Ben-Gurion's enthusiasm and the trust he placed in Feldenkrais, after two months of daily lessons he still didn’t seem to understand the purpose of these slow and precise movements.  As he wrote in his diary on 1st January 1957, "Feldenkrais was here today for a stretching session."


In any case, with Moshe Feldenkrais’ help, the 'Old Man' was soon liberated from his back pain.  He was also freed from a chronic hoarseness caused by over-exerting his voice.  The Prime Minister would soon become 'addicted to the Feldenkrais lessons'.  In part, this may have been due to the fact that Ben-Gurion started to realise that the lessons were less about a flexible body than they were about a flexible mind.  "Ben-Gurion was very upset about the deterioration of his memory", recalled Zeev Zachor.  "His memory was a powerful political weapon.  He had always had the ability to recall what people had said, verbatim.  In his seventies he felt himself losing this faculty, so he began to read about brain function and memory.  He became quite an expert."


At the start of the treatment, Feldenkrais promised Ben-Gurion that with the help of his method, he would find "joy not just in Zionism, but also in his own body".  Freedom from pain was absolutely critical for this, but Moshe wanted more.  For a long time now he had held the conviction that one could only be healthy if one managed to realise one’s dreams.  At some point Feldenkrais discovered that Ben-Gurion had always dreamed of being able to stand on his head.  This was perhaps stimulated by an interest in Buddhism and a close friendship with the Burmese prime minister U Nu.  Yet, having achieved the distinction of being the founder of Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel, the first Jewish state to exist after 2000 years of exile, something as simple as doing a head stand was beyond him.  Physically, he lacked the confidence to even jump down from a stool.


David Ben-Gurion had a very limited sense of his own physical capacity.  Although as a child he had not shied away from fights, he had never excelled physically.  When Ben-Gurion arrived in Eretz Israel in 1906, he had done heavy physical labour, but he soon gave it up due to malaria and hunger.  A job offer to write for the left-leaning daily paper Achdut probably saved his life.  Thus after 1910 he worked with his head, leaving the rest of his body to get by somehow by itself.  It was little wonder then that by the age of seventy, what with his age and decades without physical activity, he couldn’t begin to imagine what he could and could not do. 


Though Ben-Gurion had full confindence in Feldenkrais’s abilities to teach him to stand on his head, it remained to be seen whether he would live to celebrate the achievement.  This was not just conjecture; when it became apparent that the Feldenkrais lessons were working towards standing the head of government on his head, the medical establishment went ballistic.  Leading doctors warned Ben-Gurion that with his chronic high blood pressure, performing a headstand would lead to his certain death, and the Feldenkrais lessons suddenly became a question of national security, even a question of the future of the state of Israel.  When Ben-Gurion asked his friend what he thought about the doctors' warnings, Feldenkrais replied:


I could tell you that the risk is greater for me than for you.  If you were to die in my class, what would you care about what happens afterwards? I wouldn’t be the one who died, but I would suffer the shame till my dying day.  People would say, ‘Look, there's the man who killed Ben-Gurion’.  And I’d end up in prison since we’d both been warned.


Feldenkrais explained to Ben-Gurion why standing on his head was so important for him.  "You tell people what to do.  You’ve managed to build a nation.  But ever since childhood you haven't grown up properly because you have never done anything with your feet or hands, nothing that has brought you pleasure."  Ben-Gurion might be brilliant than anyone else, Feldenkrais conceded, but not on the inside.  This was his chance to become an even bigger, even more brilliant version of himself.


“That much I want to give you. So, go! Do it!"  The prime minister's answer was unequivocal: "Ani ma amin lecha. I believe you."  Faith alone was not good enough for Feldenkrais.  If Ben-Gurion couldn't grasp the concept and then do it, then he would have to execute it, and wait till afterwards to understand what he was doing.


It says a lot about Feldenkrais that he didn't deny the risks involved.  Decades later, he said that he took two years to teach Ben-Gurion carefully and step by step to do the head stand.  This was a slight exaggeration, as on 4th July 1957, Ben-Gurion already wrote in his diary: "Today we took our first step towards learning how to do a headstand."


Ben-Gurion had been practicing his headstand for two months by the time he got to Herzliya with Pola and ‘Mr Hocus Pocus’, to continue his rejuvenation and health program at the Hotel Ha-Sharon.  The strict diet that he chose for himself was not to his teacher’s liking at all.  Feldenkrais had no truck with diets.  In the same way, he had no intention of giving up smoking.  He had never let himself be constrained by principles.  It was inconceivable for a man of his convictions to stick to principles whilst simultaneously remaining a free spirit.  Indeed, his sole principle was to have no principles.  "Whoever lives their life according to principles ruins the lives of others."  It was a contradiction that Moshe could live with, and moreover, work with. 


On 15th September, 1957 Ben-Gurion wrote to his daughter Ranana:


I go swimming daily, and the soft sand is ideal for a headstand.  Feldenkrais has departed for London for six weeks.  The last exercises we did were for the headstand.  Whilst he was here I didn't really master it.  I have only understood the secret now, here: because I no longer fear to fall, I don't fall.  And I did it.  I have even done it in the hotel room, without fear either of falling or tipping.


Thus is was that on this day in September the journalist Tikvah Weinstock stood a good chance of getting the prized photo of Ben-Gurion.  Ben-Gurion finally came down to the beach at a quarter past twelve, dressed in his black swimming trunks and bronzed by the sun, with his sandals and towel in his hand.  He splashed into the water and began swimming on his back.  The lifeguard looked on in appreciation.  "He can swim very well, seeing as he he hasn't swum for years."  Twenty minutes later Ben-Gurion headed back to shore and took a long walk along the beach with his bodyguard.  Eventually he returned, and then what the journalist had so eagerly awaited finally happened: Ben-Gurion got down on his hands and knees, placed his hands and head on the soft sand, and stood – at his second attempt – quite easily and simply on his head.  The bodyguards looked on in fascination: "We tried too, but we couldn’t do it."  As Ben-Gurion and Pola walked with the bodyguards back up to the hotel, someone said that the 'Old Man' was looking great.  Pola turned around and said: "The 'Old Man'?  What old man?"


Unsurprisingly, David Ben-Gurion was bursting with pride.  When his wife quipped that he should open a circus (at least he would earn more than as prime minister), his joy in his newfound abilities was not diminished in the slightest.  He was full of praise for Feldenkrais. “I feel the full benefit of his ability and his knowledge, in both my body and my mind.  My back pain is completely gone.  And I don’t think it’s ever coming back.”


The photos by Ben-Gurion’s favourite photographer of the ‘Old Man’ doing a headstand went global.  Feldenkrais read about it in the press in London. From now on be known as ‘the man who stood Ben-Gurion on his head.’ Whilst it made Feldenkrais famous, there was a secondary effect, a misconception that is sometimes encountered today: the Feldenkrais Method is about learning to do a headstand.  Feldenkrais gave many interviews after his return form London, but he couldn’t dislodge this view. All of Israel wanted to know who it was who not only freed Ben-Gurion from his back pain, but also made him grow seemingly younger. How was it that Feldenkrais could help the Prime Minister where doctors had failed? What was the secret of his method?  Who was ‘Mr Hocus Pocus’? Who was Moshe Feldenkrais?

Translated by Ben Parsons, who works as a Feldenkrais-Teacher in Germany.