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On the Alexander Technique and Mindful Eating


Shirley Wade Linton (first published in Statnews, January 2008).

Unconscious, automatic habits around food can have a negative effect on our health.


Mindful eating has been a large part of my work in counselling people with disordered eating. During my Alexander Technique teacher training it became 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 or 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 Alexander 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 a manner that could only be called completely habitual and unconscious.


The respect and awareness that a student or teacher of the Alexander Technique takes to his/her use is so often 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 often 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 (i.e. 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 recognise them.


Some of our habits may be cultural in nature. For example, the tools we use to eat may be chopsticks, knives and 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 the dining room, or in front of the television?


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 round 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 7pm, I should eat whether my body is hungry or not.


When we recognise 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 it may not be useful or healthy to eat by the clock, to eat when our bodies are not hungry or to eat when we are sad or lonely.


When presented with a meal, the means whereby the end can be accomplished suggests 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 with the experience of the food and the cues from the body. Mindful eating increases the enjoyment if the food is delicious and decreases the enjoyment if the food is stale or boring or simply doesn’t taste good.


Inhibition is a capacity to be non-reactive. It is an action and a freedom, and 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 body a chance to respond to the input of nutrients and notice when it 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?


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. 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 Marjory 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 (à la Homer Simpson) to engulf the food?


By applying the principles of the Alexander Technique, most of us can increase our delight with food, and in doing so, increase our heatlh.


As well as being a member of CanSTAT, Shirley Wade-Linton is a Registered Dietitian. She lives in British Columbia. 

© Shirley Wade Linton 2007




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