Anyone familiar with the original writings of Joseph Pilates and F. Matthias Alexander will be struck by the parallels between their analyses of why the physical functioning of most adults has become compromised. Both men began their investigations as a result of serious personal challenges. Both men were in part inspired by their keen observations of the way animals moved. Both placed a tremendous emphasis on movement quality and both were aware of the close link between mind and body. Both developed specific systems designed to help others improve their physical functioning. Both men lived into their mid-eighties and were actively teaching their methods until shortly before their deaths.
The parallels go on and on. Of course there are some significant differences.
What can we say about about the Pilates Method and the Alexander Technique as they are practiced today?
The first thing to take into account is that the terms “Pilates Method” and “Alexander Technique” are not trademarked. This means that ANYBODY can call him or herself a Pilates Instructor or Alexander Technique teacher.
The same is true of course in many other fields – you do not need any formal certification to call yourself a piano teacher, a gymnastics instructor, a meditation teacher or a fitness trainer, to cite a few common examples. In all these fields, the responsibility falls upon the client or student to evaluate the credentials and reputation of the teacher.
As in other fields, there are professional organizations that certify Pilates Instructors and Alexander Technique teachers. In the case of the Alexander Technique, there are a relatively small number of such organizations and many are interconnected, recognizing each other’s members. They generally include teachers who trained in the different variations of the Technique that emerged after Alexander’s death in 1955. These organizations – known generally as professional societies – are usually national in scope although some have members in many different countries.
Alexander professional societies usually oversee one or more training courses for Alexander Teachers; anyone who graduates from an approved course is automatically eligible for membership. At present, there are in the neighborhood of 60 training courses worldwide. In general, training to become a teacher of the Alexander Technique takes three years, following the pattern Alexander established when he first started training teachers in 1931. Many professional societies have codes of ethics and good practice which their members are required to follow.
With Pilates Instructor training, the situation is quite 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 never took the initiative of setting up an official training programme with the result that many of his disciples went on to teach their own versions of Pilates Method. The definition of what was, or is, true Pilates is somewhat blurred and, indeed, is still be debated today.”
I believe this “blurring” is quite a bit more apparent with Pilates instruction today than is the case with the Alexander technique. A number of individuals have established their own versions of the Pilates Method and their own certification requirements. These requirements vary widely and, in general, require a much shorter period of training than is the case for Alexander Technique teachers. Generally it’s only a few months or less. The surge in demand for Pilates classes in recent years seems to have outstripped the pool of people qualified to teach them, leading to worries about safety. A recent Wall Street Journal article titled “Is Your Pilates Instructor a Health Hazard?” addresses this question in some detail.
Clearly if you decide to take either Pilates Method classes or Alexander Technique lessons or classes, you are well advised to do some research and investigation first. Some very good advice for choosing an Alexander Technique teacher has been provided by Barbara and Bill Conable in their book “How to Learn the Alexander Technique, A Manual for Students”. An edited version of their advice can be found at:
If you decide to take Pilates classes I would 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’d be very wary of about classes that seem more aerobic in nature. Finally, you should be able to see some concrete results in just a few sessions.