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

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Pilates, Alexander, Animals and Fitness
by Robert Rickover

"Do you ever hear of animals gratifying their desire or need for artificial exercising at a gymnasium?" asks Joseph H. Pilates, developer of the Pilates Method, in his book Your Health.

When I first read this I imagined my dog Wendy saying, "Of course not! How boring! Why would anyone want to spend hours on a treadmill or lifting weights when they can chase squirrels or jump and catch the sticks my master so kindly tosses in the air or even grab the bizarre rubber 'doggie toy' my mistress rolls across the kitchen floor."

As a child, Pilates was a keen observer of animals and his observations about the ways in which they moved played a key role in the development of his ideas about efficient human functioning. As he wrote, "If you have studied animal life at all, you will have been impressed by the fact that so far as physical actions and movements are concerned, animals are men and men are animals...Both animals and men move their bodies in every and all possible directions. Freedom of bodily action is paramount."

It's interesting that F. Matthias Alexander, another pioneer in the field of somatic education whose ideas and procedures are today known as the Alexander Technique, was also influenced by his close observations of animals. Alexander always had a particular interest in horses and horse racing. He regularly visited racetracks and spent time closely watching horses as they were being ridden before each race to see just how well they were functioning that day. It was said that this gave him an edge in betting and that as a consequence he often did quite well at the track.*

Alexander also appropriated a term used by horsemen in Australia to describe the quality of a horse's functioning: "use." Today Alexander Technique teachers still talk about "good use" and "poor use" as a shorthand way of indicating the level of a person's overall coordination and balance.

While Pilates didn't use a single word to encompass this idea, he clearly had a very similar understanding: "Both (mind and body) must be coordinated, in order not only to accomplish the maximum results with the minimum expenditure of mental and physical energy, but also to live as long as possible in normal health and enjoy the benefits of a useful and happy life."

Both Pilates and Alexander asked why it was that animals almost always have good use while humans often do not. Animals' use can be compromised, often severely, when they have been harmfully exposed to humans with poor use or very harmful human-created conditions (poorly ridden horses, and animals caged in a zoo are obvious examples), but these are exceptions to the rule. Even most domestic animals exhibit excellent use.

Both men gave considerable weight to harmful habits of posture and movement learned in childhood, often from well-intentioned parents and teachers who inadvertently passed on their own mis-use patterns. As Pilates said, "The average child is born of parents whose physical and mental balance was either compromised or perhaps never even attained. Often times, these parents are physically defective without themselves being aware of the fact." Alexander lamented the fact that when choosing a caretaker for their young children, parents almost always failed to consider that person's use pattern.

Pilates also placed some of the blame on childbirth practices which he considered unnatural and harmful to both mother and child. Alexander, on the other hand, believed that many mis-use patterns could be traced to the pace of industrialization in developed countries like England (where he lived most of his life) that often outstripped individuals' ability to adapt effectively to their rapidly changing circumstances.

Animals, of course, are blithely unaware of economic trends or of artificial birth methods. Their parents and colleagues, so to speak, usually have good levels of functioning - "good use" to use Alexander's term - themselves. Certainly for animals in the wild, good use is imperative for survival and so there aren't likely to be many poor examples around for young animals to mimic.

While both Pilates and Alexander were inspired by the functioning of animals, the two men differed significantly in their proposed solutions to the mis-use patterns so often seen in humans. These important differences will be discussed in a later article.

In the meantime, however, you might want to heed my dog Wendy's parting words of advice: "Humans would do well to pay a LOT of attention to us!"


*Both Pilates and Alexander also felt that there were some human examples of good functioning worth paying attention to. Pilates looked to the ancient Greek athletes. He viewed them as cultured nature lovers whose bodies were not, in Pilates' words, "unnecessarily burdened with clothing as we understand it today." Alexander observed that acrobats tend to exhibit very good use, presumably because the nature of their profession demands it; a trapeze artist with a stiff neck won't be a trapeze artist for long! Alexander made it a point to attend circus performances whenever he could.

The Pilates quotations are all taken from his book, Your Health.

Click here to see photographs and learn more about Wendy.

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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