The Alexander Technique and Mindful Eating
Shirley Wade-Linton – Registered Dietitian and Teacher of the Alexander Technique
Unconscious, automatic habits around food can have a negative effect on our health.
Mindful eating has been a large part of my work in counseling people with disordered eating. In 2005 I qualified to teach the Alexander Technique. It seems obvious to me that the Technique has much to offer this particular area of our lives.
Many people can go through most of their lives without ever eating a meal in a conscious and mindful way. Hunger, food and eating are such big stimuli for us and are so emotionally loaded that we normally eat with very little attention. In London, during my AT training I often ate with other students and it was surprising to see the very people who moments before had been aware and conscious now eating in such a manner that only could be called completely habitual and unconscious.
The respect and awareness that a student or teacher of AT takes with regard to his/her use so often is disregarded whenever food is around. Small children take great care with food. They explore it, smell it, taste it, reject it and generally eat when their bodies are hungry and stop when they are satisfied. The small child might be a very messy eater but he is paying more attention than the habitual adult.
The Alexander Technique can be used as a framework in which we can evaluate and change our relationship to eating.
As F.M. Alexander pointed out we must recognise the degree to which our unconscious and repetitive behaviours (ie habits) feel normal and right to us. Habitual behaviours around food are ingrained and learned from such an early age that it can be very difficult to recognize them.
Some of our habits may be cultural in nature. For example, the tools we use to eat may be chopsticks, knives & forks or hands. Where we eat is usually culturally determined. Do we sit around a table, or kneel on mats; do we eat in the kitchen or dining room, or in front of the TV?
Other habits are more personal in nature. Some of us salt and pepper our food before even tasting it – a habit encouraged by many restaurants where the pepper grinder is brought around just as the meal is served. Some habitually keep food separate on their plates while others mix it together. We can have a habitual pattern of eating the meat or the vegetable first. We have habits around events. The cinema means popcorn, football means beer. Eating by the clock is another habit. If it is 7:00 pm, I should eat whether my body is hungry or not.
When we recognize these and other habits around food we can begin to choose which ones serve us. Perhaps our cultural patterns serve us and we will continue to eat with chopsticks or forks, but isn’t useful or healthy to eat by the clock or to eat when our bodies are not hungry or to eat when we are sad or lonely.
When it comes to the area of hunger and satiety, our bodies may seem unreliable. We can confuse feelings of nervousness, boredom, anger or sadness with the feeling of hunger. But when attention is paid, it becomes clear that food is being used to suppress emotions.
Endgaining might be defined as the desire to bring about the end (not being hungry anymore), however inappropriate the means might be to achieve this. We gulp down food simply to stop the feelings of hunger. I used to watch people eating food on the London Tube rather than waiting for a much more pleasant place to eat.
When presented with a meal, the means whereby the end can be accomplished means staying in the present. Quiet mind, soft belly, tasting the food, smelling the food, releasing the death grip on the fork and knife. It means enjoying the moment, staying conscious, not letting the mind wander, but staying in the experience of the food and the cues from the body. Mindful eating increases the enjoyment of food if the food is good and decreases the enjoyment if the food is stale or boring or simply not good tasting.
Inhibition is a capacity to be nonreactive. Inhibition is an action and a freedom. It allows us to keep our options open. How many of us keep our options open when eating a meal? How often do we finish the entire meal because it is on our plate? Do we give our bodies a chance to respond to the input of nutrients and notice when the body is complete with the meal? Or do we react in our habitual way and eat all the popcorn, finish the bag of crisps, eat everything on the plate because that is our habit? We also eat everything on the plate because it tasted so good at the beginning of the meal when we were hungry. We then desire to have that taste again and again and we don’t notice that as the body is satisfied the taste buds signal us to stop.
Imagine stopping and inhibiting our usual reactions and so being present while eating mouthful by mouthful. Being conscious in the action, mindful in the process.
Food is a huge stimulus – we are hot wired to want it and want it immediately when we are hungry. It is one of the big three – air , water, food – and as our very survival depends on it, our habits are long standing .
How are sending directions relevant to eating? In mindful or conscious eating, when we have inhibited our normal habits then and only then can we have the intention to stay in the present. We can then taste the food, paying attention to the levels of satiety or fullness that our bodies are giving us while we remain present in the moment.
It will be interesting to notice how your primary control is challenged as you eat. Some may have seen a video in which Marjorie Barlow takes a sip of tea while keeping her neck free. She doesn’t collapse forward, she doesn’t drop her head to the cup, but lifts the cup to her lips and easily and lightly drinks tea. Just as an experiment, try putting a mirror in front of you while eating a meal. See if you collapse and drop the head and shovel in the food. Does your lower jaw open to receive a forkful or does your head snap back (a la Homer Simpson) to engulf the food.
The Mindful Eating Exercise
In 1983 I attended a weekend workshop on Death and Dying. Stephen Levine invited us to bring our lunch so we could experience a mindful exercise. Those 20 minutes with my sandwich made a huge impact both on my relationship with food and later on my teaching.
The following is an exercise that I have adapted many times in the twenty years since first experiencing it. I invite you to try it when you are physically hungry. Do this quietly and without TV or a radio being on.
* Pick up the food you have chosen and look at it as if you’d never seen it before. You might ask where did this grow on the planet? Stay present in the moment.
* Now smell it. Close your eyes and smell it. Do you still want to eat it?
* Now as you bring the food to your mouth, inhibit your habitual response to bite, chew and swallow. As you begin to chew, move it around in your mouth. See if you can notice different flavours when it’s in different parts of your mouth. Close your eyes to cut down on other stimuli in the room.
* As you bite down notice any sound it makes. Chew it very slowly.
* Swallow and notice if you can feel your stomach receiving the food? Notice if you want to rush and eat the next bite before you have even finished with this one. Inhibit this habitual response.
* Is there an aftertaste in your mouth. Do you like it? Do you dislike it?
* How would you rate the food on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being your most favourite).
Now, mouthful by mouthful, smelling each bite before putting it into your mouth, continue to eat the food. In silence. Keep checking your level of hunger and keep in touch with what your mouth has to say about the food.
Practice the exercise gently and quietly over a few weeks – maybe a few times each week. Perhaps make a diary of your changing relationship to food.