Pilates and Alexander: The Men, Their Discoveries, and Their Legacies

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Pilates and Me
by Robert Rickover

I've been a teacher of the Alexander Technique for well over twenty years. The Technique is an educational process designed to show people how they can learn to improve their physical functioning - how they can perform whatever activities they engage in more efficiently, with a minimum of harmful tension. Alexander Technique teachers are not generally concerned with what their students do, but rather with how they do things. In line with this approach, most teachers of the Technique do not recommend specific exercises for their students - although they generally do not discourage their students from exercising.

I was a little surprised a few years ago when several of my students reported that what they were learning in their lessons matched closely what they had learned with Pilates training. I knew very little of Pilates other than it was the new fitness craze, that it emphasized "core strength" and that it involved a very specific program of exercises.

At first I paid little attention to this "intrusion" of Pilates into my life, but eventually it became impossible to ignore. I had a new student who was actually a Pilates instructor - and at around the same time, a Pilates studio opened up just a few blocks from my home! I decided it was time to do some investigating for myself.

So for about two years, I had weekly private Pilates sessions with a highly-qualified instructor. In addition, I spent about fifteen minutes a day doing "matwork" at home. There were definitely some immediate effects - and after only a few weeks, several people said they noticed a difference in my appearance. And I certainly felt a general strengthening of my abdominal muscles.

But despite regular classes and "homework," not a lot seemed to change after the first few months. And while I liked my instructor, I absolutely hated the hour of Pilates exercises. I used to joke with her that the worst fifteen minutes of my life each week was walking to class, anticipating what was about to come, and that the best fifteen minutes was walking home, knowing it would be a full week until I had to endure the process again! During the class I was constantly peeking at my watch so see how much more I had to endure.

After a couple of years of this, I was ready to quit. Fortunately, at that very moment a friend and colleague, John Macy, became interested in Pilates. John is an Alexander Technique teacher and a physical therapist and has recently become a certified Pilates matwork teacher. When I described my Pilates experience to him, he offered to work with me in a different, more "Alexander Technique oriented," way.

What I learned from John was a very different approach to Pilates, one that emphasized above all paying attention to just how the exercises were done. He stressed the importance of being mentally present and self-directing and, at the same time, limiting the number of repetitions.

I've been following this regimen for several months now and I'm convinced it's doing a lot more good for me. Best of all, I actually enjoy doing the exercises!

At John's suggestion, I decided to read what Pilates himself wrote about his method. A fairly easy project, as it turned out, since Pilates wrote two short books, Return to Life Through Contrology and Your Health.

Reading them, I was at once struck by a number of parallels to the writings of F. Matthias Alexander, the developer of the Alexander Technique contained it his four (much longer!) books. It was also apparent that there were some major differences.

Alexander is considered by many to be the "grandfather" of somatic education and as such has had a profound influence on how we think about mind, body and movement. Pilates' work has, in the past few years, had a huge impact on our thinking about fitness. It is my belief that exploring those parallels and differences in their thinking is a wonderful way to help clarify the ideas developed by these two men.

In subsequent articles, I will explore some of these similarities and differences.

Robert Rickover is a teacher of the Alexander Technique living in Lincoln, Nebraska. He also teaches regularly in Toronto, Canada. He is the author of Fitness Without Stress - A Guide to the Alexander Technique. Click here to visit his website. Contact Robert by Email.

For more information about the Alexander Technique visit: The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique

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