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

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Beyond the Ab Crunch - Pilates and the Alexander Technique
by Jane Staggs

I have been teaching the Alexander Technique since 1979. One of the many benefits the Technique brought was that I changed from a classic couch potato to a slightly, emphasis on the slightly, athletic person. The advantages that came from fitness were impressive, and I became interested in fitness as an aspect of health.

Pilates has been around a long time, but until recently, at least here in Britain, you could only practice it in one or two studios in the more exclusive parts of London. In the 1990s Pilates exploded into the public eye, and mat classes became increasingly available. This was largely due to Body Control Pilates, a modern, British development.

At this time I came across various Pilates classes and eventually found one I liked, a Body Control Pilates class. I have had a twist in my spine, or scoliosis, all my life. Significant improvement of the twist was not one of the benefits of Alexander Technique. There was improvement but it was desperately slow. After a year and a half of Pilates classes, and I was not good at homework, the twist was noticeably improving. Intrigued, I wanted to learn more.

One Pilates teacher training course and many hours of exercise later, the scoliosis is a shadow of its former self. Why didn't the Alexander Technique have such a decisive effect? It would seem that it is possible to lengthen and widen within deep structural imbalances and not significantly change them.

The Alexander Technique and Pilates are complementary but entirely different. Pilates is only an exercise system, and not even a complete one because it does not include aerobic work. But it is a very good exercise system. Body Control Pilates is a development from the classical Pilates and is different from any Pilates that is practised in the USA. It has added new, easier exercises that allow anyone, regardless of age, health, or fitness to benefit from the Pilates approach. It has also incorporated the latest information from medical and sports research. An Alexander Teacher, Helge Fisher, was involved in the early stages of its development.

People need to exercise, now more than ever before as our lives become increasingly sedentary. Alexander famously did not approve of exercises and there is still an anti-exercise bias in the Technique. Muscles and joints need movement to remain healthy. Joints are fed and cleaned by movement pumping fluid in and out of the capsule, and production of synovial fluid is encouraged. The body will always tend to move in the future as it did in the past, following the same neural pathways. The spine contains dozens of joints. Some of these will always move and others almost never. The joints doing all the moving become stressed and weakened, the ones that rarely or never move become stiff. This happens all over the body and, of course, involves muscles as well. Coordination, joint and muscle health are compromised, and misalignment and muscle imbalances occur or become stronger.

Pilates takes the spine, and the rest of the skeleton, through all of their possible movements. In the Alexander Technique we become accustomed to keeping the spine lengthened and straight most of the time, and at first, all the rolling, flexing, extending etc. of the spine was rather shocking. But these exercises insure that there are no areas of the spine, or skeleton, that are not taken through their range of movement. Muscle and joint health, muscle imbalances, and misalignment are improved. New neural pathways are created.

Core strength is probably what Pilates is most famous for, and most people think core strength equals abdominals. Core strength is the latest thing in gyms and training regimes, and some of it is pretty unsophisticated. But there is more to core strength than ab crunches. There are core, or stabilising muscles all over the body. The Alexander Technique does develop core strength, but not in a systematic fashion as Pilates does, so some areas may be missed. This is especially true when there are particular weaknesses, muscle imbalances, or misalignments in the skeleton.

People will exercise, even if Alexander teachers think they shouldn't until they have had at least twenty lessons. Pilates, like the Alexander Technique, is a pre technique in that it improves any other sport or fitness regime. It is not mindless repetitions of physical jerks like gym work or aerobics. Pilates emphasises awareness, release of tension, and relearning. Sound familiar?

Pilates improves strength in specific areas, corrects deep misalignments, improves flexibility, and improves isolated movement patterns. The Alexander Technique provides the framework that puts all this together into a functional whole - good use - which is of infinite practical value.

Jane Staggs teaches the Alexander Technique and Pilates in Cambridge, England. You can visit her website at www.alexandertechnique.com/cambridge. For more about Body Control Pilates see www.bodycontrol.co.uk.

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

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