Written by Shirley Wade-Linton.
I am currently a 3rd year student at the Alexander Teacher Training School and have become quite fascinated with how the Technique can be applied to eating. Having been a dietitian for over 30 years and run many workshops on Mindful Eating and Body Awareness, it seems that the Technique would have much to offer in this particular area.
Hunger, food and eating are such big stimuli for us and they are so loaded emotionally, that we normally eat with very little attention paid to the food, our levels of hunger or the feedback we get from our bodies. We are so often not conscious or mindful in this area of our lives.
The Alexander Technique can be used as a framework in which we can evaluate and change our relationship to eating. Below I will relate some of Alexander’s key concepts to the process of eating.
Recognition of the Force of Habit
As Alexander pointed out we must recognise the degree to which our unconscious and repetitive behaviours (ie habits) feel normal and right to us. We have a lot of habitual behaviours around food that are so ingrained and learned from such an early age that it can be very difficult even 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 also highly cultural. Do we sit around a table, or kneel on mats, do we eat in the kitchen or dining room, or do we eat in front of the TV?
Other habits are more personal in nature. Many people salt and pepper their 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 people habitually keep food separate on their plates and others mix it together. Some have a habitual pattern of what is eaten first – the meat or the veg. We have habits around events. Some people always eat popcorn while attending the cinema or always drink beer when watching football. Clock eating is another habit. If it is 7:00 pm, I must eat whether hungry or not
It is only when we recognize these and many other habits around food that we can begin to choose which ones serve us and which ones don’t. Unconscious, automatic habits around food can have a potentially negative effect on our health.
Recognition of Faulty Sensory Awareness
What feels normal, feels right to us even though it might not be. When it comes to the area of hunger and satiety, our bodies seem unreliable. Some people confuse feelings of nervousness, boredom, anger or sadness with the feeling of hunger. Often people think they are hungry when indeed the body is thirsty.
Taste can be another area of unreliable feedback. Many ready meals and other processed food in the UK diet have 40% more salt than most other countries and the manufacturers are very reluctant to reduce this as everyone is now used to this overload. So that is what these foods taste like to people now. Long standing habits are so ingrained that they feel normal. People put on low salt diets will be very unhappy with their food for awhile and then adjust to the new lower salt level. They are surprised when they go out for dinner or have some tinned soup, that they then find it much too salty for their liking.
Endgaining – Means Whereby
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 so quickly, sometimes without even chewing properly, simply to stop the feelings of hunger. We will eat junk on the Tube on our way home from work rather than wait for the experience of a nourishing supper.
When presented with a meal, the means whereby the end can be accomplished (not being hungry anymore) means staying in the present. Quiet mind, soft belly, tasting the food, smelling the food, releasing the death grip on the fork and knife. 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 and Non-Doing
Inhibition is a capacity not to react to a stimulus. 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 .
Could be defined as conscious intention. It could also be seen as the life force or unconscious flow. 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 and taste (really taste) the food, paying attention to the levels of satiety or fullness that our bodies are giving us and remain present in the moment.
The Primary Control
It will be interesting to notice how your primary control (the head, neck and back relationship) 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. Try putting a mirror in front of you while eating a meal – just as an experiment. 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.
I have seen many people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and am only now noticing how often they are collapsed when sitting and therefore must be collapsed when eating. This does not help digestion.
The Mindful Eating Exercise
The purpose of this exercise is to learn to be mindful while eating. It is a method to enable us to get back in touch with our bodies in a way that all of us were in touch with them when we were very young. I tell people that if they do this exercise 5 times (in a period of a few weeks) in a mindful way, it will begin to change their relationship to food. It will get harder and harder to overeat and/or not listen to the body while eating.
This is an exercise that I was taught in 1983 from Stephen Levine at a weekend Death and Dying Workshop and it made a huge impact both on my relationship with food and later on my teaching. I have used it especially while working with groups of “compulsive overeaters”, but it useful for everyone.
Are you hungry? How do you know? How does your body tell you if it is hungry? Are you thirsty rather than hungry? Are you physically tired and so a nap would be more appropriate than eating?
* Pick up the food you have chosen – look at it as if you’d never seen it before. You might ask where this grew on the planet. Stay present in the moment.
* Now smell it. Close your eyes and smell 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 for the next 5 minutes or so, 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. Enjoy.
Shirley is a final-year student on Anthony Kingsley’s The Alexander Teacher Training School. 2004