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

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The Differences in Pilates' and Alexander's
Approaches to Self-Improvement - Part I

by Robert Rickover

Joseph Pilates and F. Matthias Alexander had similar views of what had gone wrong with the overall health of modern man and, generally, what needed to be done to improve it. Both men strongly and sincerely believed that if their ideas were universally adopted, many of the problems they had identified would be solved.

They also agreed on a great many specifics. To cite just one example, they both argued that it was of the utmost importance to have some very basic anatomical knowledge so that one could more effectively and efficiently use one's body in accordance with its design.

Yet anyone who has had experience with their actual methods - the Pilates Method and the Alexander Technique - can testify to the fact that they differ dramatically in their approach.

Why is this? And what are the differences in their methods?

I believe the answers to these two questions can be found in their approaches to the relationship between mind and body. While Pilates and Alexander both saw a much closer connection between the two than was generally the case at the time they were developing their ideas, there was a crucial difference. In order to see this clearly, we will need to read a little of what each man had to say about the subject.

Pilates wrote, "...the solution to our present-day ills lies in recognizing the fact that normal development of both the body and the mind is not possible by pitting the body against the mind, or vice versa. It is foolish to believe that one can perform effectively without working in concert with the other. Rather, by recognizing the mental functions of the mind and the physical limitations of the body, complete coordination between the mind and the body can be achieved."

Pilates also wrote of "...the deplorable state of ignorance existing with reference to one of the simplest, if not the simplest, law of nature - balance of body and mind. The absence of its practical application in our present-day program of physical education and training must be addressed."

Alexander might have agreed with this as far as it went, but he took things a step further. Through his work on himself in overcoming a vocal problem, and his experiences in helping others, Alexander came to the conclusion that it was not balance of mind and body that was crucial, but rather absolute unity of the two that needed to be understood on a practical level. For Alexander, "mind" and "body" were simply two sides of the same coin.

"I must admit," he wrote in his third book, The Use of the Self, "that when I began in investigation, I, in common with most people, conceived of 'body' and 'mind' as separate parts of the same organism and consequently believed that human ills, difficulties and shortcomings could be classified as either 'mental' or 'physical' and dealt with on specifically 'mental' or specifically 'physical' lines. My practical experiences, however, led me to abandon this point of view and...(my technique)...is based on the opposite conception, namely, that it is impossible to separate 'mental' and 'physical' processes in any form of human activity."

In his second book, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Alexander addressed the problem this impossibility of separation created for his writing: "I am forced to use the words 'physical' and 'mental'...because there are no words at present which adequately express the manifestations of pycho-physical activity...I wish therefore to make it clear that whenever I use the word 'mental,' it is to be understood is representing all processes or manifestations which are generally recognized as not wholly 'physical,' and vice versa the word 'physical' as representing all processes and manifestations which are generally recognized as not wholly 'mental.'"

Part II of this article will examine how Pilates' and Alexander's conceptions of mind and body affected the nature of their approaches to improving health and well-being

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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