This exploration is inspired by an interchange on a women’s correspondence page in today’s paper in which someone asks, “I am a woman but I hate wearing high heels. Is there any hope for me?” This succinct enquiry receives a long reply in which the columnist supports the idea of abandoning high heels but uses humour to recognise the valid claims of sexual attraction and fashion: “The legs are meant to be longer naturally, not attenuated by you standing on your tiptoes, see?” The appeal of the reply is to women choosing to mature, to free themselves from painful delusions. This is a fascinating area and one very relevant to the Alexander Technique on a more interesting level than simply the damage done by wearing high heels. In fact research seem to reveal the amazing ability for women to compensate for the unsettling demands of strange body techniques such as walking in high heels.
I believe the term ‘body techniques’ goes back to the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss who used the term to understand how we use things – with our hands and feet and mouths principally – and how our use changes the things and what they mean for us. If we make a distinction between technology, as things and structures, and technique, as our skills, I can see a fascinating process of influence. New inventions don’t just happen. Technologies can be seen to emerge out of wide and deep cultural ideas, spiritual and intellectual movements, and then the way we use technological structures, on an individual as well as a social scale, expresses our creativity, our ability to learn, to improvise. Mauss was interested in the way we learn to use our bodies and extensions to our bodies, and how the social and psychological elements in our learning play into the purely biological. The Alexander Technique does seem to be committed to a conservatism of the body, to body techniques which have been prized free of anything external, even a pair of shoes or a chair. But we can never be free of cultural norms. The Alexander Technique evolved in a time when anxieties about physical degeneration in the age of industrialisation were a strong influence. It has lived through the age of relaxation to today, which might be termed the age of fitness and flexibility (in life style and body movements). Chairs, shoes, mobile phones, are closely connected to our bodies, become part of our selves, shape us in many senses. Flip-flops have as great an influence on the way we walk, and the way we are, as do high heels, and are just as open to the creative and exploratory use we bring to them. We don’t need to fuse with objects. One of the creative aspects of our body technique may be to accept and cope with pain or discomfort which we decide to bring upon ourselves in the name of social acceptance, sporting success, self-expression. For me, the Alexander Technique is not a way of trying to reclaim some pure, natural functioning. It does, though, help me not to get absorbed by technology, allowing me to have more awareness and thus control over how I use my body, and the things I take to me: how I use myself. Adaptability rather than naïve naturalism: this is what I mean by technique.