Are your Gritting your Teeth Through Life?
You may have noticed your yoga teacher saying lines like “release your jaw”, “soft jaw” or my personal favourite; “allow space between the back teeth”. I can assure you that these are not just verbal padding when we can’t think of anything else to say, but one of the most important physical observations we can use in both our yoga practice and our life, to gauge how much tension we may be carrying.
Learning to recognise when we are running habitual patterns of stress is a fundamental guide within yoga postures that we can diffuse out to the rest of our lives. This is a key part of a modern yoga practice where we might be moving to postures straight from work, sitting hunched over a desk for hours or carrying psycho-social stress through our whole beings.
Clenching in the jaw is a basic part of the stress response as it primes us for self-protection, increasing blood flow to the temples to create the heightened vigilance that our primal selves perceive we need for survival when life is challenging. It gives us a sense of motivation and forward thrust, but when it becomes set as default it can add into neck and shoulder tension, keep sending the signals to keep up stress and agitation and even lead to symptoms like headaches and teeth grinding.
Yoga practised with embodied awareness gives us the opportunity to notice when we become locked into the head in this way and offers us ways to make space through the whole system and create the safety we need to unclench.
Watch for the following habits to be able to allow the jaw to drop away from the skull:
- Frowning, tight lips and clenched jaw are all parts of the stress response that keep us in highly motivated and alert mode as they all increase circulation to the brain, making pratyahara (moving inwards to introspection) challenging.
- Tendency to look slightly upwards and have the head projected forward of the shoulders causing tension in the neck, back and jaw; both chair-sitting habits and also the front brain lead tendencies of modern life where we project the head rather the heart forward first.
- Jaw tensing can be felt down into the root of the tongue and the throat. It can represent held fear patterns and also show as an inability to let go off the head in forward bends and hold tension in the back of the neck.
- Gritting the teeth into yoga postures with willpower and ambition feed into the attitudes that get us into stress in the first place. Backing off to find the place where we can practice strength with space, ease and soft jaw and eyes can help us learn to be with equanimity and grace in all aspects of our lives.
- We often hold our habitual expressions – setting the jaw, frowning, even a forced smile – as our expression to the world and a coping strategy. The yoga mat or studio should be a place where you can feel free of needing to express anything, feel guarded or make comparison. If this doesn’t feel possible, explore other possibilities of practice, teacher or the attitude you take along to class. You may notice that the more ‘advanced’ students are those that are able to do less!
Moving into your jaw:
Moving the jaw around (with subtle, felt awareness) and creating space at the base of the skull also releases the root of the tongue, helping to engage the soothing parasympathetic tone of the nervous system (opposite to the sympathetic stress response). This is the area where the bundle of nerves engage the parasympathetic vagal nerve through the body, helping us to self-soothe. In yogic terms, this area is associated with the moon and cooling, female, yin energy. Habits that compress the base of the skull can leave us unable to access this de-stressing space and keep firing off the signals to keep stress up. This is one of the reasons it is crucial to place a lift under your skull if you tend to lift your chin or feel like your head is dropping back when lying down. This is such a held pattern for so many people that offering a lift in savasana for instance is crucial for our ability to completely relax. This is also why many people fall asleep in savasana or on a massage table; this can be the first time their vagus nerve has been able to fully relax them in a long time!
A lot of tension can be held in all of the facial muscles, around the eyes and cheeks, across the forehead and between the eyebrows – all feeding in and out of the jaw. These practices can really help to loosen up the whole area and help give you a sense of feeling and awareness of where released can be:
- Gently massage the muscles and joints of the face. Gently circle the temples with the second finger, massaging into the joint of the upper and lower jaw (temperomandibular joint or TMJ) where much tension can be held.
- Gurning – aka facial distortion – gives tense muscles a well-needed inner massage, makes us feel carefree and may even create the whole body (including diaphragm) release of laughter.
- Get as ugly as you can and squeeze into fascial areas that resist release, so just like massage, giving muscles the job they are designed to do (ie contracting) helps remind them they can go full circle and acquiesce.
- Stick your tongue out and practice lion’s breath, inhaling deeply to exhale, opening the mouth and eyes wide and sticking out your tongue – also feel free to stick out and waggle your tongue about whenever you need.
- Stretching the top lip over the top teeth releases that area where tension at the base of the skull is commonly expressed.
- You can pull your ears gently away from each other to make space into the TMJ.
Laughing, joy, nature, walking, sex and chewing well when we eat all help us release in the head, jaw and heart. Letting our practice inform us when we need more of these in life is a great part of the yogic journey…