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

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The Alexander Technique and Pilates Exercises -
The Similarities and the Differences
by Fran Robinson


J.H. Pilates (b. Germany 1880-1967) suffered from ill health in his childhood - he was frail, had rickets, asthma and rheumatic fever, but was determined to overcome the problems that these conditions had left him with. He experimented with many different approaches such as yoga, gymnastics, self-defence, dance, circus training and weight training. While interned in England during the First World War, he worked with wounded war veterans and amputees and developed the rehabilitation aspect of his work. While in the camp he also used an old bed frame and its springs for stretching and muscular development exercises - this was the prototype of the Reformer/Allegro machine, which is still used to this day.

Frederick Mathias Alexander (b. Tasmania 1869-1955) was also a frail child, and his frequent ill health led him to often miss school. His great love for Shakespeare and the Classics, encouraged by a private tutor, fuelled his desire to become an actor. By the 1890s he had opened his own voice studio and was already well known in Australia and New Zealand for his dramatic readings, but his constant throat problems and bouts of coughing looked like ruining a promising career. As doctors and other professionals were unable to help him, Alexander decided that he would have to resolve his own problems.

By the end of the 19th century Alexander had cured his voice and throat problems and actors were coming to the "Breathing Man" as he was then known, for help with their problems. But Alexander decided that opportunities would be greater for him in England and in 1904 set sail for London.

After the War Pilates returned to Germany, but America beckoned him and he opened his fitness studio in New York in 1926.

Continual Experimentation and Development of both Methods

Throughout their long lifetimes Pilates and Alexander were continually developing their systems in the light of continued experimentation and experience. Pilates was constantly refining his system, modifying his exercises for each student depending on their needs and progress.

Alexander was constantly refining the use of his hands in teaching and had to adapt his one-to-one teaching to group teacher training when he opened his training course in 1930s.

Different Interpretations

The constant revision of both systems by their inventors has led to widely differing interpretations of these systems by later teachers. As Pilates did not write a manual, and frequently changed his way of teaching the exercises, there are different opinions among Pilates teachers as to how, why and when "Joe" did certain exercises.

Between 1910 and 1942 Alexander wrote four books, the titles themselves (Man's Supreme Inheritance, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, The Use of the Self and The Universal Constant in Living) reveal how far his Technique had moved from a method originally designed to resolve his vocal problems. The Use of the Self in particular is concerned with the power of habit, thinking and change. Among Alexander teachers there is constant discussion about what is the "true" interpretation of his key concepts of "inhibition," "direction" and "the primary control."

The Pilates Method of Exercise

The Pilates Method is fundamentally a method for exercise, but one which places great importance on thinking in a focused way. It encourages alignment throughout the whole body and limbs, lengthening and greater articulation of the spine, stability and strengthening of the lower back ("core stability" or "girdle of strength") and expansion and releasing of the shoulder girdle. It places great importance on breathing and appropriateness of movement while doing the exercises. That this has benefits on mental as well as physical wellbeing is without doubt.

Alexander's Technique of Change

Although primarily developed to overcome Alexander's vocal problems, Alexander realised that the implications of not relying on the habitual feeling reactions which accompany our every activity and replacing these with precise orders (or directions) to bring about a rebalancing of the whole person, had ramifications into every human activity.

Differences between Pilates Exercise and the Alexander Technique

The Pilates system is one which works directly on the body, and apart from the classic Pilates Mat exercises often uses elaborate, complex and costly machinery. It forms part of the "physical fitness" ideology prevalent in our society. It is sometimes taught on a one-to-one basis and in small groups where hands on guidance aids the teaching. Some Pilates teachers instruct large groups, demonstrating the exercises from a platform, and not using hands-on guidance. Pilates training is frequently a short "add-on" for fitness instructors.

The Alexander Technique is primarily a method for psycho-physical change - changes in the body come about indirectly. No special equipment or machinery is required. It is generally taught on a one-to-one basis but sometimes in small groups. Hands-on work is an integral part of the teaching and people are encouraged to use the Technique in their daily lives. Alexander Teachers need to do a full-time three-year training course.

Similarities between Pilates Exercise and the Alexander Technique

The Pilates Method and the Alexander Technique share, among other ideas, the organisation of the body to encourage lengthening of the back, widening of the torso, strengthening the lower back and stabilising the lumbar spine to provide a stable base for all movement.

Both men were convinced that the mind and body are connected. Pilates' favourite quotation was, "It is the mind itself which builds the body," (Schiller), while F. M. Alexander on page one of The Use of the Self states quite clearly that "it is impossible to separate 'mental' and 'physical' processes in any form of human activity."

Pilates students and Alexander pupils frequently speak of how relaxed yet revitalised they feel after a class. They are empowered by a greater connection to, and a greater understanding of their bodies and minds.

It seems to be the case that the split between mind and body within our culture needs to be healed. For the means to achieve this healing - at least in part - we have much for which to thank both Joseph Pilates and Frederick Matthias Alexander.

© Fran Robinson 2004

Fran Robinson received a BA degree from the University of Manchester in 1971. She qualified as an Alexander Teacher in July 1975 and has been a teaching member (M.S.T.A.T.) of the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique since then. In 1984 she received her Certificate in Basic Training from the Centre for Transpersonal Psychology and in 1996 qualified as a Painless Spinal Touch therapist. In 2002 she trained as a Pilates teacher in London. You can find out more about her teaching at her website, www.franalextek.co.uk.

For more information about the Alexander Technique visit: The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique

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