Why Yawning is Important—And How to Optimize the Reflex
The other night at a dinner with Michael Lear, a wonderful yogi and important quarterback for mindfulness and meditation in this country, he caught, out of the corner of his very alert eye, the suppression of a yawn. (It was late.) “Please yawn,” he explained. “Really give into it, as it’s the body’s primary way to release and stretch the jaw and neck muscles after a long day of work and conversation.” And then, since yawning is contagious, there was a good 30-60 second stretch of yawning back and forth. “There’s a perception that it’s rude or that it means that you’re bored, but the reality is that it’s a very important mechanism for releasing stress. It feels good for a reason: Trust that your body knows how to calibrate itself.”
Lear should know, as when he’s not teaching yoga or sharing the The Trager Approach (more on that later) in far-flung corners of the globe, he is giving his time to organizations like The Shanthi Project, which teaches a very specific type of yoga to under-served and at-risk people, like veterans, juveniles, and those incarcerated to help resolve the burden of living with PTSD and developmental trauma.
According to Lear, this is how to really lean into the yawn reflex.
Gently tilt your head back to a comfortable position and allow your mouth to hang open widely while you gently extend into it.
Contract the back of the throat as if to perform Ujjayi breathing—a whispery breath—which is typically done through your nose with your mouth closed. Breathe deeply through your mouth so you feel the air hit the back of your throat.
Inhale and exhale completely while allowing your shoulders to relax as you exhale.
When the yawn comes, reach and extend into it, riding the yawn to stretch the jaw muscles.
Repeat 8-10 times until tearing starts. As your jaw muscles stretch and relax, and the yawn expands, the lacrimal glands around the eye are squeezed and tearing is induced.
Continue with steps 1-4 above, and when the yawn comes, bring together only the lips. Keep the teeth slightly separated. Creating this shape with your mouth as you yawn will take out more slack in the throat muscles to bring the lengthening and relaxation around the base of the tongue, and further stretch and relax the neck, jaw, and occipital regions.
Repeat 8-10 times until you begin to tear.
Explore these exercises throughout the day, especially before bed, to release accumulated energy and tension that may result from conversation and or the vicissitudes of the day.
Note: Tearing is not necessary for this exercise to be beneficial.