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

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Pilates, Alexander and the Health
of the Human Race - Part 1

by Robert Rickover

Joseph Pilates and F. Matthias Alexander were important pioneers in thinking about how the human body functions, and how to improve that functioning. Their ideas, carried on today as the Pilates Method and the Alexander Technique, have had a profound influence on many other fitness training and somatic education programs.

One of the most striking parallels between these two men's work is the sweeping view they had of the health challenges facing mankind today, and of the wide-ranging benefits that would come about if their ideas were put into practice. They both spent many years experimenting and working on themselves, making their own bodies as laboratories, as it were, for testing each new idea. They both also acquired considerable experience in working with others to improve their functioning and they both repeatedly offered to demonstrate their methods to anyone in authority who would take the time to investigate them.

In each of their first major publications, they express frustration with the direction the human race is taking and make urgent calls for remedial action based on their discoveries. At the start of Your Health, published in 1934, Joseph Pilates writes:

"Daily, from sunrise to sunset, radio, newspapers and magazines broadcast to the world how to maintain health, how to regulate health, what to eat, what to drink, even what to think.

"This conflicting information... (has caused) nothing less than confusion (to those) who are so unfortunate as to hear or read the diametrically opposed viewpoints of our so-called guardians of our health, since it is rather the exception than the rule, that these instructions are in agreement in their ideas and methods.

"To one who has devoted the major portion of his life to the scientific study of the body and, to practical application of natures's laws of life pertaining to the natural development of coordinated physical and mental health, and to the prevention rather that the cure of disease, the misinformation I have so often listened to or read borders closely on the criminal. Why? Because the acceptance of many of these popular yet bogus theories not only results in the squandering of untold millions of dollars, but, more seriously, can and does actually shorten the lives of uncounted millions."

Apart from not mentioning television or the internet, one would have no way of knowing this was written over seventy years ago. We continue to be subjected to conflicting advice about almost everything related to health - nutrition, exercise, posture, prescription drugs, to name but a few examples.

Clearly Pilates was addressing major heath issues, issues that are not susceptible to any kind of quick fix. The same is true for Alexander. In the opening pages of his first book, Man's Supreme Inheritance, written in 1918, Alexander devotes a great many pages to the same concerns voiced by Pilates. Some idea of the flavor of Alexander's writing can be found In his Preface to the First Edition of the book. Here Alexander explains why he feels the need to put forward his ideas immediately, even though they were still in a preliminary state of development:

"...there are many reasons why I should hesitate no longer...chief among them being the appalling physical deterioration that can be seen by any intelligent observer who will walk the streets of London or New York, for example, and note the form and aspect of the average individuals who make up the crowd. So much for the surface signs. What inferences can we not draw from the statistics? To take three instances only: What of the disproportionate and apparently undeniable increase in the cases of cancer, appendicitis, and insanity? For that increase goes on despite the fact that we have taken the subject seriously to heart. Now I would not...say that because the increase in these evils has gone hand-in-hand with our endeavours to raise the standard by physical-culture theories, relaxation exercises, rest cures (and therefore) the one is the result of the other; but lacking more definite proof on the first point, I do maintain that if physical-culture exercises, etc., had done all that was expected of them they must be considered a complete failure in the checking of the three evils I have listed."

In their analyses of the sad state of human affairs, on occasion both men veered into the realm of the bizarre. Pilates, for example, viewed masturbation as "the curse of mankind" and Alexander had some strange ideas about vaccinations and about "primitive peoples." I think it's fair to say that these were aberrations that did not take away from the important discoveries these men made.

In Part 2 of this article, I will explore some of the many similarities in their proposed solutions to the health crisis they both identified so clearly.

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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