Pilates and The Alexander Technique: One Teacher’s Journey to Marry the Two

by Kristen Thomas Fryer

~Fourteen years ago, I was introduced to The Alexander Technique and I experienced my first pain-free night of sleep in 5 years. The Technique, developed by F. M. Alexander, was gentle and seemed effortless and yet it reduced my pain to nothing! I was so impressed with the Technique that my voice teacher said, “I was a plug that finally found a socket.” I wanted to know everything I could and decided to pursue the 1600 hour teacher training program in Cincinnati, Ohio. I had no money, no car, no job, and the course would cost $550/month for the next 3 years of my life. On paper my plan made no sense. My parents had just gone through bankruptcy and there were no loans available for an unaccredited course such as this. I took a leap of faith, moved to the city, and hoped for the best. I got a job at Clifton Natural Foods and used my bike to get around. It wasn’t ideal.

The director of my training program, Vivien Schapera, had been a fan of Pilates for years and knew a Pilates studio owner looking to train someone to teach. This was literally the first Pilates studio in Cincinnati and not many people knew what she was teaching. We met and she took me on as a trainee so that I could find a way to support myself while training. I really was in bad shape and very full of myself. Not a good combination for a trainee. Nevertheless, we proceeded. In retrospect, it was too much for my sore back but I wouldn’t have been able to afford it otherwise and it gave me the opportunity to study The Alexander Technique.

The two trainings were complete opposite experiences. The Alexander Technique was focused on becoming very conscious of my thinking and becoming aware of my habits of movement. The Pilates training was focused on exercises and trying to isolate different muscles in my body. My evenings were spent lifting heavy trays while being a banquet server. I would say it was a transformational experience that challenged me both physically and mentally. I was exhausted. Only motherhood tops the experience!

I started Pilates from an extremely unconditioned place and was being trained at the caliber of a teacher (and then some). The exercises weren’t enjoyable, they were something to be endured. I lost a tremendous amount of respect for Pilates in those early months. I couldn’t wait to get my Alexander certificate and be done with Pilates.

A year before graduating from my Alexander training course I was introduced to Ron Fletcher’s protege at the time, Pat Guyton. (Ron was a protege of Joseph Pilates.) Pat piqued my interest because she was all about the nuances of Pilates movements. There was lots of depth to her teaching. She didn’t just teach exercises, but the overall energetic quality of the movement. Pat was able to teach lay people the quality of movements that made them look like well-trained dancers. I began attending workshops with her and Ron Fletcher. I loved the focus of the work and felt my body changing for the good. I loved the attention to details, the use of the eyes, interesting choreography, foot movement, and Ron’s towel work. It was enough to keep me in the game. I joined the Ron Fletcher Program of Study the same month I graduated from the Alexander course.

Over the next few years, my Pilates business became so established it was difficult to bring The Alexander Technique into my practice. The studio where I taught was not interested in promoting The Alexander Technique. The only quiet place to teach Alexander was in the men’s dressing room. Also, the studio wanted a ‘uniform’ teaching style so clients could move easily from one teacher to another. This is typical of Pilates studio culture. The Alexander Technique was the lens through which I taught my clients, but some clients needed more of the Alexander re-education experience. I didn’t feel hopeful that I would ever be able to properly marry the two techniques.

About 4 years ago, I went out on my own and began adding much more Alexander Technique to my practice, even having some clients start with a series of Alexander lessons before learning Pilates.  It has made cuing clients in the midst of Pilates a lot easier. Clients who would have been complaining of pain in the past are getting relief and enjoying the movements.

 A Pilates class taught by an Alexander teacher will be different in that there will be more focus on the head, neck, and back relationship. That means fewer repetitions with the student supporting their head in their hands until a their abdominals are strong and integrated into holistic movements. So some students will always need support because the art of holistic abdominal engagement is not easy to achieve.  In some studios, I see private students moving on to group classes and being encouraged to do too many reptitions with bad form for the sake of getting a ‘good’ workout. When I teach I am constantly exploring ways to get the student to lighten up on themselves by using gravity to align the spine so they won’t be pulling themselves up with the extensor muscles of the back.  For instance, Pilates leg and foot work is considered a warm-up on the reformer (a standard piece of Pilates equipment). I use the reformer like an Alexander table and we consider the head, neck, back relationship before movement begins. I will often give cues that lighten the clients mindset so that they are less concerned with being ‘right’ in a movement. Typically clients will be looking down their bodies at their feet, trying to see what their body is doing rather than sensing what they are doing. This sets them up for problems with tight muscles on the front of the neck. When you are getting ready to do abdominal crunches this is the last thing you want. A gripped neck during ab work means a lot of work for your neck and low back and not very much in your abdominals.. Drawing people out of  concentrated, gripped patterns and into more of a sensing awareness can make the differnce between a gripped neck and compressed spine and an open, free neck with a lengthened spine. The student is then much more aware of their neck during the abdominal sets.

Awareness can be created by giving students a means-whereby they can do what I asking. I can’t say,  “Relax your neck” to someone in the middle of an intense activity that they are still learning so I have to be more creative than that. Say I want them to relax their neck on the front, side and back. I might tell them to close their eyes and imagine they are lying on a hillside with their feet at the top of the hill and their head aiming towards the valley below. (Imagery borrowed from fellow teacher, Erik Bendix.) This almost always gets the effect that I want, that of lightening up the student’s thinking. If you tell a student directly what to do and they have poor kinesthetic awareness, the cue is wasted and everyone will be frustrated. I don’t tell my students to push hard, or to curl up more (unless they are in the wrong position) for the sake of more abdominal burn, I prefer students to stay in their comfort zone. It takes years to progress in Pilates, especially if you are not a dancer or a gymnast. Its okay. The goal of Pilates is to get to a place where it feels effortless and given enough time and respect, it will be.

Pilates and The Alexander Technique are designed to give students who practice them longevity.  There are master level teachers in both modalities who teach into their 90’s. In my experience, my back pain ceased when I slowed down and got into the minute details of my movement.  Sometimes a workout would consist of just laying and breathing. It took years to marry the two techniques in my body but the benefits of doing so have been nothing short of miraculous in my life. I am 36 years old, pain-free, and moving better than I have in my entire life.

One of my longtime students, Cheryl, says that every week she goes away with a nugget of information that she can apply to her week. That’s exactly it. Learning how to use your body well while doing Pilates is like learning a new language. It’s one word at a time, building your vocabulary until you are fluent.

    “A fool thinks himself wise, but a wise man knows he’s a fool.” William Shakespeare

I felt like a pioneer in the early years of being both an Alexander Technique teacher and a Pilates teacher. I didn’t have a mentor who understood both modalities deeply. No one could give me concrete advice of how to use them in conjunction with one another. I worked very hard to be vulnerable with an ’empty mind’ while learning the two modalities. Sometimes I was better at it than others I know I fell prey to a closed mindset  during my early introduction to Pilates. However, I opened myself to the possibity that both bodies of work were valuable and could be valuable to me. I fell in love with them both and had go down two opposite paths hoping they would meet each other eventually. They did and they live in me everyday. I have learned that I don’t want to ‘know’ everything and enjoy exploring movement possiblities with each of my clients.

If you are curious about your mind/body capabilties, or have something to teach me, send an email  to kristen@happyspine.us


Pilates and The Alexander Technique: One Teacher’s Journey to Marry the Two — 3 Comments

  1. Thanks Robert, I have been reading the articles at your website and will be linking to it on my personal webpage, http://www.happyspine.us. Thanks so much for the offer to do a podcast. I would very much like to do that. I will look for your contact information and get in touch with you..

  2. Hi kristen,
    i think pilates is one form of exercise.
    Zip and hallow technique.
    Based on alexander thought ,’the stimulus of bad habit is always far stronger than the stimulus of new direction of employement of use’.

    In pilates the whole thing is missing and end-gaining chances are more i believe.

    If we integrate the pilates DOING in the alexander neck head back legs arms directions ,then the pilate exercises becomes a form of ‘NON DOING’ for better health.