Anyone familiar with the original writings of Joseph Pilates and F. Matthias Alexander would be surprised by the parallels between their analyzes of why the physical functioning of most adults is compromised. The two men began their investigations as a result of serious personal challenges. Both men were partly inspired by their careful observations of the way animals moved. Both placed great emphasis on quality movement and both were aware of the close connection between mind and body. Both have developed specific systems designed to help others improve their physical performance. Both men lived into their mid-80s and were actively studying their ways until shortly before their deaths.
The parallels continue. Of course there are some important differences.
What can we say about the Pilates method and the Alexander technique as it is practiced today?
The first thing to keep in mind is that the terms “Pilates Method” and “Alexander Technique” are not trademarks. This means that a person can call himself or herself a Pilates instructor or Alexander Technique teacher.
The same is of course true in many other fields—you don’t need any formal certification to call yourself a piano teacher, gymnastics instructor, meditation teacher, or fitness instructor, to name a few. In all of these areas, it is the responsibility of the client or student to assess the instructor’s credentials and reputation.
As in other fields, there are professional organizations that certify Pilates instructors and Alexander Technique instructors. In the case of the Alexander Technique, there are relatively few such organizations and many of them are interdependent, recognizing each other’s members. They generally include teachers trained in the various forms of technology that emerged after Alexander’s death in 1955. These organizations—generally known as professional associations—are usually national in scope although some have members in many different countries.
Alexander’s professional associations usually oversee one or more courses for Alexander’s teachers; Anyone who graduates from an approved course is automatically eligible for membership. At present, there are approximately 60 courses all over the world. In general, training to become a teacher of the Alexander technique takes three years, following the pattern that Alexander established when he first began training teachers in 1931. Many professional associations have codes of ethics and good practices that their members are required to follow.
With the training of a Pilates instructor, the situation is completely different. I think Lynee Robinson and Helge Fisher put it best in their book “The Mind Body Workout with Pilates and the Alexander Technique”: “Unlike Alexander… Joseph Pilates took no initiative to set up a formal training program and as a result many of his pupils continued to teach their own versions of the Pilates method. The definition of what was, or is, true Pilates is somewhat unclear, and remains even today.”
I think this “blackout” is more apparent with today’s Pilates instruction than it is with the Alexander Technique. A number of individuals have created their own versions of the Pilates method and their own certification requirements. These requirements vary widely and generally require a much shorter training period than is the case for Alexander Technique instructors. Generally it is only a few months or less. The increase in demand for Pilates classes in recent years seems to have outgrown the pool of people qualified to teach it, leading to concerns about safety. I recently published an article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Is Your Pilates Instructor a Health Hazard?” It addresses this question in some detail.
Obviously, if you decide to take a Pilates class, class, or Alexander style class, you’d be well advised to do some research and investigation first. Barbara and Bill Conable give some very good advice on choosing an Alexander Technique teacher in their book How to Learn the Alexander Technique, A Guide for Students. A revised version of their advice can be found at:
If you decide to take a Pilates class, I suggest paying a lot of attention to the nature of the instruction. The exercises should be done very slowly and carefully at first, with an emphasis on educating you about the body mechanics involved. I would be very wary of classes that seem more aero in nature. Finally, you should be able to see some tangible results in just a few sessions.