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

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Pilates, Alexander and the Health
of the Human Race - Part 2

by Robert Rickover

In Part 1, I explored the serious health crisis facing mankind identified by both Joseph Pilates and F. Matthias Alexander, developers of the Pilates Method and the Alexander Technique. They held very similar views about what had gone wrong and as we shall see, their proposed solutions to the problem were, in broad outline, very similar.

Pilates and Alexander put forth a number of suggestions about how the serious health crisis facing modern man could be alleviated. They both advocated a reasoned approach to the problem: find out precisely what is going wrong, why it is going wrong, and then think out and apply a rational solution.

Both men emphasized the unfortunate role of faulty childhood education and training which, in their views, inevitably led to harmful habits of thought and action. To overcome this, proper education (or, more accurately, re-eduction) was needed. As Pilates put it, in a statement that could easily have been written by Alexander, "...incorrect habits are responsible for most of our ailments, if not all of them. Equally true is the statement that only through proper education is it possible to replace bad habits with good ones..."

Both men felt that this re-eduction had to be based on a clear factual understanding of how we function and a clear-headed approach to improving that functioning. As Pilates writes, "...in order that one may receive the maximum benefit and resulting normal health from one's daily activities, one should understand at least some of the rudimentary underlying principles governing the mechanism of the human body in motion, rest and sleep. For example, knowledge of the leverage possibilities of the skeletal framework, the range and limitation of proper muscle tension and relaxation, the laws of equilibrium and gravity, and last but not least, how to inhale and exhale (i.e. how to breathe properly and normally) are essential if we are to benefit from any exercises."

This corresponds closely with Alexander's belief that it is important to have some knowledge of how we are designed if we wish to make useful changes. Some of these ideas have been elaborated on in recent years by Alexander Technique teachers and termed "body mapping" - a simple, systematic, process by which one can discover some some very basic, practical, anatomical information about yourself.1

It's telling that both Pilates and Alexander had occasion to make disparaging comments about anatomists. Pilates castigated them for failing to understand what he perceived to be the true mechanism of the spine and proper methods for training it. Alexander once met with a group of anatomists and later commented that their studies had done nothing useful to enhance their own posture and movement patterns. For Alexander it made no sense to study anatomy if you weren't going to use your knowledge to improve your own functioning.

Both men were self-trained in the field of anatomy and, for the most part, their understanding of human form and functioning was accurate. On occasion, however, they both were guilty of profound anatomical misunderstandings. Pilates made a very serious error when he insisted that the ideal human spine should be straight - that any spinal curvature at all is not natural. Alexander, for his part, put forth an odd test designed to quickly determine the level of someone's quality of functioning ("use" in his terms) based on hand positions - a test that has subsequently been completely discredited.

In the grand scheme of things, these failings are of minor significance in evaluating the overall importance of these two men's approach to health and fitness.

Although their general approaches were similar, they came up with quite different remedies to the health crisis they both saw so clearly.

  1. Alexander Technique teachers Bill and Barbara Conable have been leaders in this development. Their book How to Learn the Alexander Technique - A Manual for Students is a good start for anyone who wants to explore ways of improving posture and movement patterns on their own.

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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