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The Strengths and Weaknesses of Pilates' and
Alexander's Approach to Self-Improvement
by Robert Rickover
When I started taking Pilates instruction, I had been teaching the Alexander Technique for over twenty years. Within a few weeks - and a lot of very strenuous classes and very sore muscles - I could detect a noticeable strengthening of my abdominal muscles and an increase in core strength. A change in my appearance was noticed by friends and family. Over time, however, I found additional benefits very slow in coming and eventually, after almost two years, I stopped taking classes.
Later, I resumed Pilates instruction, this time with an Alexander Technique teacher who was also a certified Pilates instructor. This time, the Pilates exercises were still quite demanding, but were typically repeated only a few times each day. A lot more attention was devoted to my use as I performed the exercises. And my training was always accompanied with gentle reminders to use my Alexander knowledge as I did the exercises. Improvements in my functioning quickly followed.
From my own and others' experience with the Pilates Method and the Alexander Technique, I have come to the conclusion that both processes have great potential for improving our physical and mental well-being. And both, in my view, have limitations that are rarely addressed by their practitioners.
I'll start with the method I know best - the Alexander Technique. It is my belief that the Technique is by far the most powerful method currently available to improve our conscious direction of ourselves. If you want to learn how to use your mental abilities to make immediate and useful changes in how your body functions, the Alexander Technique is the way to go. The Technique has been around for over a century and has a long history of helping people learn how to stand, sit and move with greater ease and efficiency. Countless performers have used it to improve the quality of their performance, and it has a well-deserved reputation for teaching people strategies for alleviating stress-related conditions such as back pain, stiff necks, tight shoulders and the like.
But the Technique does have limitations. First, it quite limited in its ability to alter the exceedingly complex and subtle physical restrictions that lie below the level of consciousness. In my experience, methods like cranio-sacral therapy are an ideal way to get at those kinds of restrictions. Second, and of relevance here, it can also be limited in changing deep-rooted structural imbalances. Because the Technique relies on mental direction rather than exercises, the pace of change tends to be gradual. On the one hand, this is a great strength of the Technique - it never pushes change too fast for the body to handle. But it also means that, in effect, it might take many lifetimes to eliminate large physical distortions.
Although oversimplified, I believe a car and driver analogy is helpful here. A good driver can try to get the best performance possible out of a car with mis-aligned wheels and defective brakes. But unless the wheel alignment is corrected and new brakes are installed, there is nothing he can do to improve their functioning.
Pilates addressed himself to just that kind of issue in humans with his highly targeted exercises designed to correct specific physical imbalances and weaknesses. In my case, my abs were weak when I started with Alexander lessons some 30 years ago, and while their tone may have improved a bit over that time, they were still very far from having a good overall tone when I started taking Pilates classes. They certainly have a way to go, but I doubt that the improvement in their tone which I experienced - and the corresponding improvement in my core strength and overall quality of functioning - would ever have occurred if I had not resorted to Pilates training, or something like it.
Perhaps because of Alexander's disdain for exercises, many Alexander Technique teachers still view them with some suspicion. There is sometimes a tendency to think that with enough lessons, the Technique will take care of everything.
Pilates instructors can also have their blind spots of course. From what I've seen and heard, they often do not spend nearly enough time and attention to the way their clients are using their bodies during exercises. They are sometimes guilty of believing that just because they tell a client to do an exercise a particular way, perhaps demonstrating what they want a few times, the client will actually be capable of doing it that way. In general, Pilates instructors have little or no concept of "use" - Alexander's term for the way in which we coordinate our posture and movements. It's my belief that the Pilates Method and the Alexander Technique can be very complementary ways of learning to improve functioning - that even a little experience with one can make learning the other far more efficient and effective.
In the final article in this series I'll examine the legacies of Pilates and Alexander. I will also try to answer the question: "What kind of help can I expect from today's Alexander Technique teachers and Pilates instructors?"
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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