Olympic Feldenkrais?

olympic-ringsWhether you are a rabid sports enthusiast or strictly a fair-weather fan, all agree that there is something extraordinary and engrossing about the Olympics. The combination of youth, beauty, perseverance, and the pursuit of one’s personal best, all wrapped in a tricky balance of national pride with admiration for the whole human family – makes for captivating viewing and a positive focus of attention for a couple of weeks.

We have watched thrilling achievements by Houston-area athletes Simone Biles and Simone Manuel. Rumors abound (satirical ones, of course) that Michael Phelps and Katie Ladecky are actually the spawn of dolphins. MIchelle Carter in shot put, Ibtihaj Muhammad in fencing, and Anthony Irvin in swimming, have captured the attention and wonder of the world. Additionally, the rugby team from Fiji, Jamaican dominance in track, and countless other inspirations expand our goodwill and admiration beyond our national borders and sensibilities. The Olympics provide an opportunity to indulge the noble human impulse to be genuinely happy for others when they do well.

Yet, it’s not all pretty. The latest is that US Swimmer Ryan Lochte and friends were robbed at gunpoint while returning to the Olympic Village from a party. [See update below.] Several athletes have been seriously injured. The political and economic woes of the host country are well-documented. Doping scandals dog the usual suspects. Snarky internet memes cast the public’s fickle interest in “niche-y” individual sports and scratch the itch of cynicism. Sexist and ageist comments and interviews by the NBC team have added a time-warp quality to the proceedings. Zika Zika Zika. And, in spite of those obstacles, athletes make the journey for the Gold, and seem to understand that their experience is extraordinary by any measure.

Whenever Feldenkrais people get together, eventually there will be a joke about the Feldenkrais Olympics. It’s a comical oxymoron. The notions of competition, team unity, and speed-strength-power are outside of the intentions on the mat. A gold medal in team tumbleweed rolls? HI. LAR. I. OUS. The most “in” of in-jokes! And yet, there is more than a slender thread of connection. Most forget, or are unaware, that Moshe Feldenkrais wrote a book on “Practical Unarmed Combat.” He was a street fighter who caught the eye and the respect of JIgaro Kano, the founder of modern judo. He earned a black belt and remains a respected figure in the martial arts. As one practices the Method, one learns that it is about much more than lying on the floor and relaxing.

Our amazing Olympians all possess an unusual degree of physical self-awareness. Their intentions manifest in action. They know what they are doing. They focus their attention on the present moment, while simultaneously playing the long game through years of training and aspiration. These aspects of the “inner game” are available to anyone who wants to improve in any aspect of life. You can develop them quite effectively in Feldenkrais classes.

I’m inspired by the older athletes, who have persisted and endured, one for a record seven Olympic games. What’s her secret of sustainability and peak performance, I wonder? I’ve heard many “comeback” stories from athletes who overcame diseases, injuries, and even childbirth to reclaim their elite Olympic status, and then excel again. How do you find that internal combustion engine that keeps the fires of ambition burning? As I hear 35-year-old athletes field interview questions about “retirement” (and don’t know whether to laugh or cry), I see an opportunity for a massive reality check. It’s not just about ageing. The question is: is there life after a personal best? And if so, who gets to define that? How can we develop the resilience to survive success?

I love watching these elegant movers who make everything look so damned easy. The most successful ones seem to pursue progress, rather than perfection. They are engaged in a process, expressed by Feldenkrais the elite athlete: “To make the impossible, possible; the possible, easy; and the easy, elegant.” Anyone who follows that process will improve. The process translates from pool or mat or field to living a full life, well. Go for it!

UPDATE 8/18/2016: The Police Say Ryan Lochte Lied About Gunpoint Assault (New York Times). Most disappointing, to say the least.

Olympic Moments


This is not the week to decide to cut back on time spent in front of the TV.

Along with several billion people around the world, I’m hooked on watching the Olympics. I’m not in total Couch Potato mode, but the TV stays on. As I go about my business, passing through the living room to catch a look at the screen, sometimes I just have to sit down and watch for awhile. It really doesn’t matter what’s on. Swimming, cycling, beach volleyball, and basketball this weekend have all been inspiring and plain good fun.

The highlight for me is always the Opening Ceremonies. Even when they are bad, or incomprehensible (what WERE they thinking in Athens?), they are still fascinating. The opening ceremonies last Friday evening were amazing. Two-thousand-and-eight dancers, 2,008 drummers, 2008 boxes — the choreography extended to the magnificent fireworks, coordinated all over town, all with exquisite and astonishing precision. That many people, moving in perfect unison, as if with one mind, as one organism, struck deep emotional and symbolic chords throughout the world, and across cultures.

The theme that has me captivated is Attention to Detail. From an engineering and technology perspective, think of all the LED screens, the cables, the switches, the computer networks employed to create the special effects and coordinate the entire operation, from the performance to the broadcast. From an artistic perspective, each performer had to be totally committed to the creative director’s vision, executing it as if he (or she) were a soloist. All the participants were in agreement for the embodiment — the manifestation — of ideas into action, into an artistic, philosophical, political, athletic, musical, mathematical, technological marvel. Right down to the start time: 8:08 PM, on 08/08/2008. Auspicious indeed.

If you’ve ever been in a marching band, then you know how hard it is to get a bunch of people all doing the same thing. Band members are not dancers: they play instruments and walk, or march, all together. If your legs are long, and you’re standing next to someone whose legs are short, you both have to adjust your stride so that each step, from each person, is exactly the same length, every time. Then, you have to play the music correctly too, probably from memory. The Olympic Opening Ceremonies were the marching band phenomenon, increased in complexity by several exponential levels. The “bird’s eye view” from high atop the Bird’s Nest Stadium offered a vista of perfect spacing, perfect coordination, perfect memory of the routine, and perfect technical support. It was beautiful, and inspiring, a blend of ancient and modern, the past and the future meeting in each detail. I think of the level of self-awareness of each performer, able to do his best, and also adapt the size and scope of each movement so as to fit into the Big Picture.

When you think of “Olympic Qualities,” what comes to mind? Is it strength, endurance, agility, speed, power, persistence, or skill? Surely, it’s all of these. I’d like to think that awareness is also an essential ingredient in the making of a champion. How much of any element is too much, too little, just right? How do you get perfect balance, perfect velocity, perfect timing, a perfect landing? How do you win the audience? Awareness of self is the first step toward improvement, or excellence, in anything you attempt. Moshe Feldenkrais knew that awareness of self also leads to awareness of others, and one’s surroundings — the environment in which you find yourself. Awareness, commitment, and harmony lead to a good outcome for all.

Awareness can help you to be a champion, even in the little corner of the world where you are. What details are asking for your attention?