I attended a silent 10 day Vipassana retreat which inspired me to write this article. All of the activities were conducted in complete silence. Eating was one of the rituals I most enjoyed; as it allowed me to be completely immersed in the whole process of eating, which was an amazing experience. I had time to notice my habits around eating, such as my posture and how quickly I usually eat; also to consider the whole journey of how the delicious vegetarian food arrived on my plate.
This made me think about how noisy and distracting eating usually is, and how there has been a fundamental shift in what we eat, and the way we eat in the last two decades; which is having a big impact on our health. We live in a world of fast foods, eating out, takeaways, microwave/oven dinners, a bombardment of information, distractions and visual pollution. Like many habits, eating is not that conscious for most people.
We often gulp food down without giving our attention to taste, texture, smell, colour and sensation. We spend little time to consider where the food is from, how it was cooked, grown or produced. The decline of eating meals at a table is also more apparent than ever, with 35% eating their breakfast in front of the TV or smartphone, and almost half eating dinner while watching TV slouched on the couch.
Research has shown that being present while we eat plays an important role in digestion and the amount of food we consume. If we’re distracted we eat more! Also, the mind forgets we had a meal when distracted so it’s likely we will be snacking later; so eating when relaxed and collapsed in front the TV, or working at a desk, on a mobile device, or on the move isn’t such a good idea: also it’s wise to remember that after eating it takes about twenty minutes for the brain to give the body the signal that it full.
If you are stressed, or in a rush when eating, you don’t digest your food properly. This can be the cause of all sorts of health problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, acid reflux and heartburn to name a few.
The good news is many of these common problems can be reduced or eliminated if we are organised in a more poised and balanced way; this give us time to eat and adopt healthy eating habits.
I truly believe the Alexander technique is a wonderful life skill that addresses the demands and challenges of contemporary living. So much of what we do is habitual, eating and movement come under this umbrella of unconscious habits. At the heart of the Alexander Technique is a very simple idea, which is being present and poised in your activities. Eating is a great activity to practice being present; when we are present there is the potential for more ease, poise, balance, grace, appreciation and satisfaction.
Here are a few ideas that can lead to a much healthier attitude and approach to eating.
These five basic Alexander principles can be used when eating. I would like to add that it is best to have lessons with an Alexander teacher for these ideas to make more sense and more importantly to experience some of the wonderful benefits.
See if you can begin this practice with just one meal a day.
(1) Awareness: Identifying your habits around food, how do you eat, are you stressed? Rushed? Distracted? Are you collapsed on the chair/sofa?
(2) Inhibition: Stopping yourself from doing the unhelpful habit. This could be poor posture, being distracted, eating too quickly and not tasting and chewing food properly.
(3) Means whereby: This is where we consider the process of eating, rather than the end result. Explore the taste, smell, sensation and colour. Think about the journey of how the food got to your plate, how you eat, how tight are your shoulders, hands and jaw when you eat?
(5) Primary control. This brings our attention to the delicate relationship of the head relative to the rest of the torso. In other words, are you compressing your body when you eat? What is happening to your posture? Is your head poking forward and down into your plate?
(6) Force of habit: This is one of the biggest obstacles to change, noticing how strong your habits are around food. This is where the help of a teacher is really valuable. How easily are you distracted, slumped, rushed and tense when you eat?
(7) Mind wondering: This is where the mind wonders off. Notice how easily distracted you are. I find not having a mobile phone helps. Also by creating the intention to be present will be enormously helpful.
When you choose to be mindful around the habit of eating, you are less likely to shovel the food down, or be slumped over the food. You can consider your relationship to your body and the food, and you can ask the questions are you comfortably erect? Are you present? These questions can have an immediate influence on the quality of your eating habits and posture, all of which impact our health.
Give yourself enough time to eat.
Give a blessing or thanks for food, a moment to consider how the food got to you; the sun, earth, water, growers, producers, packers and delivery vehicles etc, and people who don’t have food.
Hold the utensils lightly in your hand, noticing if the grip is tight, even swapping the knife and fork around, to get you out of your habit of always holding the knife or fork in the same hand.
A great way to practice being present when eating is to ask a question about the food, such as what’s the taste like? The texture? Colour? Smell? Origin etc?
Chewing your food is really important; do this as slowly as you can you, will get to experience the full sensation, smell and flavours of the food.
Eating is so primal and necessary to life; it can also be one of the great healthy pleasures in life, or it can turn into another unhealthy habit. Enjoy exploring healthy mindful eating habits which can transform your health and give you greater vitality and enjoyment.