I once had the immense honour of taking lessons in the Alexander Technique with Margaret Goldie. In her youth, Miss Goldie was trained by and worked alongside the famous teacher and author who gave his name to the system he developed, F.Matthias Alexander, or ‘F.M.’ as she called him. Miss Goldie taught me about bringing awareness and consciousness to all my everyday activities, including eating.
with F.M. Alexander
The Alexander Technique she taught is generally associated with posture and spine alignment. This, of course, is true, but it does not tell the full story of this technique, which affects and enriches our way of being in the world.
And lessons with Miss Goldie were about so much more than mere spine alignment. Although there was no philosophising in Miss Goldie’s lessons, her instructions and indeed her own way of being, reminded me of the concept of ‘mindfulness’ in Buddhist philosophy—that whatever we are doing, we will do it more fully, or truthfully, or rightfully, if we give it our full attention and by doing so, we can pull ourselves right into the present moment, instead of being distracted by thoughts of the past, or future.
Miss Goldie was one of those remarkable people whose entire being embodied what she was teaching. Even though she was well into her eighties when I knew her, at an age when most of us are well retired, she was able and strong and straight and alert and had the graciousness and grace of somebody totally at one with themselves.
This was a time when the TV programme The Simpsons was just a gleam in Matt Groening’s eye. The phenomenon of sofa-eating was something done only by loutish students in grotty flats, with no dining-tables and had not yet contaminated family life in the ubiquitous way we see today. I could never imagine Margaret Goldie, slouched on a sofa with a TV dinner.
Today, one of the problems that many Alexander Technique teachers encounter, is the stubborn attachment many of their students have to sofa-eating. This contributes to some of the digestive ailments that plague many people today, such as indigestion, heartburn and irritable bowel syndrome.
If you are slouched in Homer Simpson pose, your spine is collapsed and your tummy is squeezed. Your digestive organs cannot operate efficiently in this position. Your food cannot be properly and smoothly worked through your digestive tract. You are impeding your system from drawing the optimum nutrition from it.
In addition to the physical difficulty of digesting food properly, when curled into a sofa, there are other implications for the loss of those times during the day we used to spend at a table eating. This used to be a type of ‘time-out’, when we weren’t subjected to TV or other distractions. It was a time to relax and eat and perhaps enjoy some conversation.
Our current lifestyle of dashboard dining, eating on the hoof and TV dinners, no longer allows us the chance to have time-out to replenish our energy and spirits, in the way that we need to, as human beings.
One of the central concepts of the Alexander Technique is what F.M. Alexander termed ‘endgaining’. Endgaining describes the way we do most things today. With regard to eating, endgaining is what happens when we eat on the run, or at the dashboard, or on the sofa, or even at the table, when we just gobble down our food, hardly noticing what we are doing. Endgaining is eating to be full, to obtain the gratification of sating our hunger, but not caring how, or what, we eat. It is when the journey doesn’t matter, only the destination. This applies to eating as much as to everything else in life.
For a moment, let me ask you to think about what the opposite of an endgaining TV dinner would be like…..a meal perhaps with beautifully prepared, quality food, which we eat sitting at the table, our backs undistorted, mindful of the food as we eat. But before we begin, perhaps we might pause to become aware of the food we are about to consume, to look at it on the plate, notice its colours and breathe in its aromas. We take a mouthful and as we slowly chew, we pay attention to its flavours and textures. We eat calmly, easily. All is as it should be. We are aware of what we are doing and when we have had enough, we are aware of that too and we stop eating. We neither over-eat nor under-eat. We don’t give ourselves indigestion, or heartburn, or irritable bowels. We don’t comfort-eat, or eat addictively, because awareness melts away these misplaced activities, which we subconsciously engage in to become unaware. We become nourished, more vital, more ourselves.
*According to the Alexander Technique, the way to eat is at a table, sitting on a chair that allows your feet to be flat on the ground. A wedge-shaped cushion sloping downwards, away from the back of the chair, can also help attain the optimal alignment. Allow your spine to be unsqueezed. When you lean in towards the table, move from the base of the spine, rather than hunching your shoulders over. Bring the food to meet your mouth, rather than the other way around.
But, most important of all, be aware as you eat. Don’t try too hard to ‘do things right,’ or tense up. The Alexander Technique is about letting go of your habitual distortions and allowing the right ‘use of the self’ to occur.
One of the greatest gifts we can give to our children is not to pass on our bad habits to them—the unnatural muscle tension and body distortions which we have accumulated throughout our lives and which they will subconsciously imitate. Alexander taught that children naturally have the right use of the self, but acquire bad habits from the adults around them.