An interview with Paul Rubin, ISSE founder, on how he came to meet and study with Dr. Feldenkrais over 40 years ago. Paul recounts an experience that firmed his commitment to pursue his education in the Feldenkrais Method.
Ira Feinstein: When you first heard about “Feldenkrais,” was it the man or the Method?
Paul Rubin: I met the man. I had no idea who he was.
IF: How did you meet Moshe?
PR: In 1973, I was at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. I was 24 years old and was running a school for troubled adolescents on a grant from the government of Canada’s Department of Health and Welfare. Summers were free. My funders offered to pay my way to a four-week residential seminar in Gestalt Therapy.
One night, Moshe Feldenkrais and Ida Rolf came to dinner. Feldenkrais was interested in Gestalt Therapy as something perhaps compatible with the principles of his own thinking as a form of exploration of what he called the “feeling” element of life. We had a conversation in the kitchen and spoke again later when I was asked to drive him to where he was staying. It turned out that he knew of a cousin of my fathers who had long lived in Paris and was well-known in the Jewish community there as an artist, Talmudic scholar, and publisher of a Yiddish newspaper. When I joined my training, he remembered me. He was very generous to me – a very young person – with his time and attention, perhaps because of this.
IF: Did he tell you anything about the Method?
PR: No. After observing the Gestalt session during which I was the subject, he was mostly interested in asking me questions about Gestalt Therapy and about me. He was quite curious. I was impressed by how intently he listened and how open and even eager he was to hear from someone so much his junior. That quality of paying attention alone taught me something.
IF: How did you end up in the training?
PR: In 1975, I moved to San Francisco to begin a Ph.D. in psychology at the Humanistic Psychology Institute. A few months later, it was announced that Feldenkrais was joining our faculty to serve as an advisor to a small group of Ph.D. students and to teach the Feldenkrais training program.
I was sharing a house with two Alexander teachers-in-training at the time. We talked a lot about the Alexander Technique, Gestalt therapy, and other somatically-oriented methods. I’d been considering taking the Alexander training, but when the opportunity to study with Moshe arose I thought, “Well, this guy is alive and Alexander is dead, so I may as well go take a look.”
IF: Do you remember your first impressions of the Method?
PR: I remember very clearly the first ATM lesson and the first time that Feldenkrais lectured. I remember recognizing that something important was in front of me, even if I did not understand it. I remember his initial tentativeness as he seemed to feel his way through the process of training nearly 65 people to be teachers.
I had read enough about him to have respect for hiswork in theory, but I hadn’t ever been a “movement person.” My background was in the arts and psychology. Directing my attention toward sensing movement, towards developing the awareness of theparticular sort that ATM cultivates and requires was very new to me. But I was not in a hurry. I was casting about for a new approach to working with people after a few years’ experience working in a mental hospital for very disturbed children and then taking upon myself the enormous project of creating the school I ran back home.
I wanted and needed more education and direction.
IF: How long were you in the training before you felt like it started to click?
PR: It was just a few days into the first week of the training when Karl Pribram, a neuro-researcher from Stanford University, came to visit. All I knew was that he was a very big deal!
Pribram and Feldenkrais were quite interested in each other. They dialogued. Each asked questions of the other – while we observed like flies on the wall. I was impressed to discover that these two people of very different backgrounds were in agreement on issues of how the brain worked.
Feldenkrais demonstrated a very useful working knowledge of neurological function, of the intricacies of the hierarchical relationships of innate functions and their relationship to learning. All of that came from long self-directed study. Pribram agreed with Feldenkrais’ conclusions and agreed and then agreed again. He answered some of Feldenkrais’ questions and contributed his own.
Each listened carefully and respectfully to the other.
It gave me the idea that there was substance underpinning the compelling and baffling process in which I had been engaged that week and hinted that I just might not be wasting my time!
You have to understand, it was 1975 in San Francisco. I was just 26 years old. The Human Potential Movement was going wild. It seemed that every second house in the city was a half-baked “institute”of some kind or another. There were lots of ideas, but not so much rigorous thinking. The mutual respect and grounding in science shared by Feldenkrais and Pribram was a relief.
Following their conversation, we trouped to another room. We were introduced to a woman in her 30’s. She had hemorrhaged badly during a home birth delivery. Then, she had a stroke resulting in a serious loss of motor function on one side of herself. Previously, she had been a skilled athlete, a gymnast. Feldenkrais proceeded to demonstrate a Functional Integration lesson, mainly for Pribram. Until that moment, I was unaware that FI existed.
Observing the lesson, it was clear that Feldenkrais was thinking, exploring, investigating. He sometimes touched and sometimes moved her. He worked with one side and then the other. The deliberate, gentle, respectful, and relational qualities of what he was doing were clear to me. It was evident that there was a deeper logic - though I did not know what it was. Eventually, he gently touched the tip of the woman’s nose with grandfatherly affection communicating clearly that he was done and was satisfied with her and with himself. As dutiful students, some of us applauded gently. The woman picked up both her unaffected arm and the one that had been quite contracted, and that she had not been able to extend, and clapped as well.
Hearing the applause, Feldenkrais seized the moment, leaping up and wagging his finger at us, “You know, I could pitch a tent and become a faith healer because of the effectiveness of what I do, but it's not G-d that's moving through me. I know what I'm doing… and I can teach you to do it.” That moment my life changed. Though I had had some days of feeling real change in myself, I could not account for it. Then, hearing two people of learning and experience agree on the underpinnings of Feldenkrais’ ideas AND seeing that session, well, I went into the corridor, lit up a cigarette, and wrote a tuition check. I was in.
I recognized an opportunity to learn something extraordinary from an extraordinary source and just grabbed it.
IF: What did you do after the training ended?
PR: I supported my family by working as Clinic Director for an outfit called Commonweal in Bolinas, California where I lived. They sponsored my immigration from Canada, allowing me to remain in the U.S.
And I faced the fact that I had to learn how to earn a living in this completely unknown Method.There were fewer than eighty Feldenkrais Teachers in the world and, until the day my cohort of about 65 graduated, none in North America. So, I had no one to rely on but myself. Things had to proceed on the basis of whether or not my work worked. I realized that I had to be persistent. I took every advantage of every opportunity and learned to create opportunities to get people onto my table - both to develop and practice my skills and also to get people referring others. I had good fortune, too, in eventually meeting people with other kinds of busy practices who appreciated my work and were willing to refer. None of them knew what Feldenkrais was. It was always the changes they felt from the work that created their interest and support, never talk about theory.
I ended up in association with three very well-known physicians in the San Francisco Bay Area – two of them acupuncturists - and a couple of quite busy psychotherapists. All of us practiced on a houseboat on the Sausalito waterfront. I also lived aboard. It was a case of relentless work paying off in good fortune.
IF: Do you think that there was a certain receptivity to the Method in San Francisco that you might not have found elsewhere?
PR: Perhaps. Some people were receptive in San Francisco - but they weren't beating a path to my door. I had to take advantage of every single opportunity I could find to give samples of and insight into the Method. Many of my eforts bore no fruit at all. But, as they say these days, “still I persisted!” I gave a lot of talks. I spoke at luncheons, old folks homes, and parents’ support groups where nobody understood a word of what I was saying. One person in one hundred cared. I used those opportunities to practice my public speaking skills and was happy to meet that one person. If there was anybody I thought might be helpful in building my practice, I offered them free lessons. People who needed the work and who couldn't afford my fees, even as low as they were, I gave them free lessons.
I just did everything to spread, well not so much the word, but the sensation! There was nobody then for a new practitioner to rely on other than themselves -- and there isn't now. I realize that I was lucky to have the chutzpah, determination- and no small measure of desperation! – and that not everyone has those.
Actually, this is why I am very careful when promoting my training programs. I don’t promise an easy road to building a practice and, in fact, I caution people about how hard it can be. It takes enormous persistence – no honest person can make guarantees. Some of the troubles we have in our Feldenkrais world comes from people who were made promises that should not have been made and who, accordingly, have every right to be upset.
IF: When you told your parents you were pursuing the Feldenkrais Method, what did they say? Were they worried for you?
PR: [Laughs] My parents never knew what was going to happen next with me from an early age. I didn’t get into trouble, but my own curiosity always controlled what I paid attention to. I wasn't a good student except in areas that interested me. I think they watched me fashion my own world with fearful, hopeful, helpless fascination. I was very fortunate that they had faith in me, too. When I visited Canada, I would give them lessons. They could feel that it was good work. But, yes, they were worried. I have adult children now, so I know that’s what a parent needs to do: worry and have faith! As I built a practice, they were much relieved and then proud. That was nice.
IF: That is nice.
What was your path to becoming a trainer? Was there even a path when you started?
PR: While some in my cohort forged ahead into training programs, I had small children at home. To work as a trainer in those days meant a lot of travel. I was not interested. Also, I did not feel ready to teach something to others that I had not yet practiced to an appropriate level of experience to my own satisfaction.
But, yes, eventually pathways toward certification as assistant trainer and trainer emerged.
Someone who was organizing a training in a faraway place called me up and asked if I’d come work as an assistant trainer. When I learned there was good scuba diving there, I applied for assistant’s certification.
Julie Casson Rubin and I began our first training program in 1992 after we each had seventeen years of practice. I don't even know how many we’ve taught since—16 or 17. Overall, I've been very, very, lucky. We have trained teachers all over the world with programs in Europe, Australia, North America, and Asia. It has been a great education for me and a real privilege.
IF: It sounds like you have been pretty lucky! And having such a profound turning moment at 26, knowing what you wanted to do—
PR: --you know, I've trained about 700 people now, and the most common response I hear when asking the question, "Why did you want to become a Feldenkrais teacher?" is “I had to.” So, yeah, I did have that kind of clarity, but maybe I should have listened to my grandmother and gone to law school or become an engineer! My financial life would have been a lot easier!
But even if done foolishly, I made what turned out to be just the right choice.
IF: And yet it doesn't sound like you wavered once you committed yourself.
PR: I have remained committed to the Method as a stimulus and a vehicle for my own curiosity and whatever creativity I may have. The Method affords me that. And I respect it for what it is at its root: the work of Dr. Feldenkrais. I remain committed to preserving the work as his work as much as I can. And I am interested in teaching others who are similarly attracted. Every vocation like ours has to be its own satisfaction.
In the early days, I had plenty of anxiety, but also enough faith in myself that if I failed at Feldenkrais I would find another way to live, somehow. I will say that I find it disturbing that our work is being transformed in some quarters into a business based model, in which what works in the marketplace, what will “sell,” comes to be most important and in turn shapes how the Method is taught and passed on.
To me, the Method remains a practice of inquiry into the dynamics of human nature using sensation as the path and movement as the means to understanding how to improve our lives in so many different ways.
Feldenkrais warned of such a decline. In a conversation, he told me about what he saw as the decline of a higher form of studying Judo into “mere wrestling,” a form that was easy to understand.
He said, “It will happen to our work, too.”
IF: What do you think it was about Moshe that lead him to develop the Method?
PR: I believe that it was Feldenkrais’ own inherently self-reliant nature, stimulated by a problem that no one else could help him with. He had enough faith in his ability to learn and to follow his own path of experimentation and learning, to break away from the thinking of his day and to follow his own evolving questions where they took him.
He had the capacity to become an extraordinary autodidact. Of course, that takes a lot of courage, too.
Once his injury was more or less under control, the larger questions of why he had injured himself, why people are at the effect of their compulsions, came to the fore. Even a casual reading of his books show that epistemology, psychology, and the development of what he called “maturity” and “potency” were his topics much more than mere movement. I believe he needed, in some very strong way, to develop and understand aspects of human nature and function that he did not find elsewhere.
But, in a word, his curiosity made him do it!
To me, his mind was fascinating. I never met a person with of such independence and capacity.
It was captivating to watch him think, to put complex layers of thinking together. It’s odd really. I have four adult children and now three grandchildren. I loved and love to watch them learn in intricate small steps followed by big leaps. They don’t have a choice. They explore and the consequence of that is that they learn. Moshe Feldenkrais – and this is the odd thing – kept alive that kind of open fascination for how things work. Supported by his intellect, his rigor, and his honesty and by many, many years of application, his “Method” emerged.
Over the years that I knew him, I saw him change and evolve more than any other adult I have ever observed. His only equals at learning and growing have been the children.