Who hasn't been told that yawning is rude? To be on the receiving end of a yawn is an affront. To be the one delivering the yawn is an embarrassment. Like with most innate, natural processes, polite society tells us that yawning is something to be done quietly, unobtrusively and preferably privately...
But what can be more satisfying than a full blown yawn, particularly one accompanied by a good old stre-e-e-e-etch? Animals do it all the time, notably when they make the transition from inactivity to activity. So what is the purpose of yawning and why does it feel so good?
Contrary to popular opinion, yawning doesn't promote sleepiness, but actually serves to keep us awake. The deep intake of breath and accompanying facial contraction that occurs when we yawn increases blood flow to the brain and stimulates the neural area responsible for encouraging us to be more alert, conscious and self-reflective. The facial contraction also squeezes (and thus lubricates) the eyes to give clearer vision, and stretches the eardrums to improve listening focus. Breathing deeply slows down brain waves, helps to relieve staleness and sends muscles the instruction to relax. So rather than being a sign of boredom, yawning is actually an indication that we are becoming more present and engaged.
The unique form of stretching (officially called a 'pandiculation') that occurs with a yawn also plays a vital part in making us poised and ready for action. Unlike the passive stretching we might do in conscious preparation for exercise, the natural process of pandiculation actually tenses muscles before stretching and releasing them. This enables muscles to be reprogrammed from the level of the brain, thus allowing them to fully let go of any unconscious stiffness or holding.* 'Resetting' muscles in this way is a little like re-booting a computer that has crashed, with old stuck patterns being cleared in order for full functionality to be restored.
What interests me as a yoga teacher is that many of the goals we are working towards during disciplined yoga practice are effortlessly achieved in one brief, natural bodily process: yawning. Try it. Give yourself permission to yawn and stretch with abandon. In addition to the deep, refreshing breath in and complete, settling breath out, you will probably extend your arms and legs, arch and twist your back, tense your muscles intensely and then relax fully, all in the most natural way. Feels good, huh? You are now primed, present and prepared, mentally and physically, to meet whatever is in front of you.
Combining conscious pandiculation with yoga exercise can create a helpful tool for physical healing. Re-establishing the connection between mind and body by tensing muscles before releasing them not only invites a more integrated, holistic sense of self, but also assists in the lengthening of muscles that had forgotten they were holding themselves in contraction. I'll write more on this in future posts, but for now, enjoy shrugging off the straightjacket of social convention and follow your body's desire to yawn and stretch whenever it wants to – you'll be doing yourself a huge favour!
* For a comprehensive explanation of the sensory-motor neurological loop, you can check out this article from gravitywerks.com
Penny Jane Fuller 2016
Image by Julian Love