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

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Pilates, Alexander and the Usefulness of Exercises
by Robert Rickover

After a few months of Pilates classes, I proudly announced to my teacher that I could now do 100 of the "Hundreds" - an introductory abdominal strengthening exercise Pilates describes in detail in his book Return to Life Through Contrology. "Good," she said, "now let's aim for 200!"

This statement was a bit of a turning point about my attitude towards Pilates. It had the familiar ring of "more is better" so often associated with fitness programs and I had come to Pilates precisely because of its reputation for highly-targeted, well-thought-out, exercises designed to improve physical functioning. As a teacher of the Alexander Technique I was always a lot more interested in quality of movement than in quantity and, from what I had heard, so was Joseph Pilates.

My experience with the Hundreds, and with other aspects of my classes, caused me to go back to the source and read Pilates' two books.* There I discovered that Pilates was indeed a great believer in doing exercises well, and most definitely not in excessive amounts. Indeed in his description of the Hundreds, he urged people to gradually build up the number of repetitions, while carefully following the precise instructions for the exercise, and "Never exceed 100 movements." For many of his exercises, he suggests a very small number of repetitions, often as few as three.

In Your Health, Pilates elaborates on the whole question of quality versus quantity: "...be sure never to to repeat the selected exercise(s) more than the prescribed number of times since more harm will result than good by your unwittingly or intentional disregarding this most important advice and direction. Why? Because this infraction creates muscular fatigue - a poison. There is really no need for tired muscles." (emphasis mine).

How different an approach this is than the common "no pain, no gain" school of thought. In my experience with Pilates training, there definitely was pain and, virtually no gain after the first few months.

I do not know a lot about the history of Pilates training after his death in 1967, but I recently spoke with another Alexander Technique teacher who actually studied and then worked in the original Pilates studio in New York City some twenty-five years ago. He said the training had done a lot to transform his body in a positive way and that the exercises, while sometimes quite demanding, were done with only a few repetitions.

Another Alexander colleague, who is also certified as a Pilates instructor, believes that in at least some of the current versions of Pilates training, very "non-Pilates" ideas have been added to the mix. I would love to hear from those more knowledgeable about current trends in Pilates training about their take on the current situation.

F. Matthias Alexander, the founder of the Alexander Technique, also had very strong views on the subject of exercises. Indeed at the start of his first book, Man's Supreme Inheritance, he spends several pages on this very topic. I think it's fair to summarize his views by saying that in his view exercises had, at best, very limited value. More often than not they led to harm. In his view, most people who took up a fitness program (in his day, it often was termed "physical culture") did so without taking the time to learn how to use their bodies well. As a consequence, they took their old, harmful, habits of posture and movement with them as they exercised.

Worse yet, most people doing strenuous exercises tend to exaggerate their harmful habitual patterns. You can easily see this for yourself by looking a any group of joggers or runners - you'll see lots of examples of heads pulled back onto tight necks, hunched shoulders and pained facial expressions. If you were to observe these people while they were walking, you might seem some of the same patterns, but in a muted form.

Today, most Alexander Technique teachers would probably agree that Alexander went a little too far in his condemnation of exercises. Indeed, there are Alexander teachers today who specialize in working with students doing specific athletic activities like running, swimming, cycling etc. However, there is still a very strong emphasis on how one uses his or her body when exercising. That's an emphasis I believe Pilates would endorse wholeheartedly.

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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