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

Click Here for Printer Friendly Version

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

by Robert Rickover

In Part I, we explored the crucial difference in Pilates' and Alexander's view of mind and body. Pilates believed complete coordination between mind and body was necessary for any system of physical training to be successful. Alexander saw mind and body as completely inseparable; both were aspects of our psycho-physical whole.

Pilates' understanding of the importance of mind-body coordination can be seen very clearly in his approach to physical self-improvement. Over the years he developed a great many exercises designed to improve strength and flexibility. He also devised a number of ingenious mechanical devices to facilitate the specific targeting of muscles or muscle groups. He would tailor the use of these devices and exercises to fit the needs of the individual client. And he always placed a great deal of stress on precisely how each exercise was to be done.

As an aside, Pilates also invented a bed he thought would help people sleep better and improve their posture as well as several chairs designed "with the laws of nature" in mind. You can see photographs of his bed - which appears to be a truly bizarre contraption - in his book Your Health.

In his book Return to Life Through Contrology Pilates provides several photographs and a detailed set of instructions for a great many of these exercises. The emphasis is always on learning the precise way to perform the exercise along with instructions for proper breathing. More often than not, he suggests that the exercises be done very slowly at first, with only a few repetitions - often as few as three. Clearly he wanted people to use their minds when exercising their bodies so that they could be aware of precisely what they were doing, thereby gaining maximum benefits and avoiding harm.

How different this is from what one often sees in a gym or fitness club where the emphasis is on quantify rather than quality and mindfulness is often completely absent. In the gym I go to, you can often see people exercising on treadmills or exercise bikes while reading the paper or watching TV. Pilates would have been horrified to see this.

As, I'm sure, would Alexander. In fact, Alexander's approach to fitness did not include exercises at all! He believed that what most people needed was the ability to consciously direct themselves towards a more efficient way of doing whatever it was that they already did. The idea of prescribing specific exercises, even if done "correctly," would have made little sense to him. While Pilates urged his readers and clients to pay close attention to how they did his exercises, Alexander's approach was to teach his students how to pay attention to themselves in whatever activity they were doing. When they did this, he believed, they would naturally select activities that best meet their needs.

Furthermore, because of his observation that most people tend to exaggerate harmful patterns of posture and movement when engaging in strenuous activities, the re-training needed to to improve your overall state of functioning is far more likely to succeed when it takes place under less demanding circumstances.

While this certainly did not rule out physical exercises, his emphasis was always on improving they way one functions in ordinary, daily activities. And, in his view, that always consisted of both a mental and physical component. For him, "thinking" and "doing" were totally interconnected and in a very profound sense; "what you think is what you get." As any competent Alexander Technique teacher can demonstrate, you can learn new ways to think about yourself, at rest or in movement, that immediately improve the quality of your functioning.

The title of Alexander's first book, Man's Supreme Inheritance is a reference to our human capacity to think our way out of dysfunctional patterns of behavior. The majority of people go through life on "auto-pilot" most of the time and so they tend to repeat the same patterns of posture and action - whether they are harmful or not. When those patterns are harmful, Alexander believed the solution was to use our innate capacities for self-correction and self-improvement.1

In a subsequent article I will explore the strengths and weaknesses of Pilates' and Alexander's approaches, and some of the ways they can complement each other.

  1. It could be argued that Pilates' understanding of mind-body unity went further than is evident in his writings. He certainly understood that whenever you use a muscle, you use it in relation to all of your musculature. It seems very likely that he also understood that when you strengthen a muscle, you also strengthen the connection between the mind and that muscle; perhaps this could be seen as uncovering and utilizing the underlying unity between mind and muscle. Looked at from that point of view, Pilates' approach to fitness was to influence the "mind-body unity" via the bodily end of the spectrum while Alexander emphasized using the mental end of that spectrum.

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

Find more articles at pilatesandalexander.com