There are many theories about why we and our fellow animal earthlings yawn, but as yet there is no conclusive evidence to suggest one particular reason. Some of the theories are as follows:
Too much carbon dioxide in the blood - therefore a need to increase oxygen
Stretching of muscles - any muscle needs to be exercised and stretched so does our tongue, muscles of the throat and voice so they do not spasm and cramp
Nervousness - there is evidence to suggest that yawning keeps a person alert when there is an impending threat
Controlling brain temperature and regulation of body temperature
All of the above and indeed the many more that can be found when one starts to research this subject seem perfectly plausible, and there are still studies being carried out to understand why animals yawn, why this can happen in herds and why primates might do it to frighten away possible predators.
However my aim for writing this blog was to emphasise that whatever the reason behind our mysterious yawn and the very contagious nature of it, it is a PERFECTLY NATURAL reflex.
So natural in fact that as yet it cannot be fully explained! Although if it is linked to such things as brain cooling and too much carbon dioxide in our blood, then we really don't want ignore this powerful natural instinct as it is there, as are all our natural responses, to HELP us! It is a warning sign, our body's way of communicating a situation that could potentially harm us.
Which leads me back to my familiar blog topic and asking the question;
Why are we so absorbed in this fake perspective of living that we think it's ok to ignore and suppress natural instincts?
The majority of the time our body gives us signals that something is not right, whether that be an emotional signal of feeling unhappy, afraid or anxious, or a more practical signal of hunger, tiredness, pain in a muscle or joint, a headache or a simple cold.
The "normal" response to these signals is to just carry on. We continue with all our pressing life commitments ignoring these messages. A couple of pain killers gets us through the day if we have a headache, or a couple of anti-depressants or bottle of wine, if the sadness gets too much!
Do we ever really ask why we have a headache or why our immune system was so low we caught a cold or a virus? If we could understand more profoundly the affect our emotions have on our immune system, known as Psychoneuroimmunology, perhaps when we feel unhappy or angry we would look deeper into what has made us feel this way. Dealing with the root cause of something, adjusting our lives and perspective of our life so we are relatively happy might prevent the stress on our immune system, keeping us stronger and happier. Most of us choose a quick fix physically or emotionally, and then wonder further down the line why we became ill.
My question as always is, why? What have we come to as a society if we allow this personal ignorance, this lack of understanding of ourselves and our bodies, what makes us ill and how we can prevent it? Looking inside and listening to the body, instead of reaching out all the time for answers from people who are no more empowered than ourselves.
The GP for one, who armed with an array of the latest drugs and potions, based on often limited clinical trials and backed by billion pound pharmaceutical companies, tries to appease our cries for help. The drugs themselves have a list of side effects which often appear worse than the original problem, but hey ho, at least we are being "pro-active" in our quest for "good" health.
The GP presented with all the illnesses, disorders and ailments that they encounter on a daily basis, does not have the time to take each individual case and look at what might be causing, or what might have caused an illness to be triggered on an emotional level. All they can do is hope to provide something to ease the symptoms, rather than make the illness go away. If doctors agree that Psychoneuroimmunology actually exists, then surely illness must stem from and be triggered by an imbalance at some point in our emotional state. Of course Eastern medicine has acknowledged this for centuries using a combination of treatments, looking at the emotional and physical combined.
The more we suppress our natural instincts, whatever they might be, the more we put our body and our health at risk.
Some examples; how often do you hold on and not go to the loo because work, school, time does not allow it?
How often have you had a stinking cold but have gone about your day anyway dosed with paracetamol, decongestants, and caffeine?
How often has your stomach growled from hunger but you didn't have time to eat even though you can feel the agitation of stomach acid on your intestine walls?
How often have your shoulders been stiff and painful because you sit in the same position at work and continue in that same position until one day you have a bad back and worse?
How often have you suppressed a yawn because you were worried what the boss or the teacher would think about you?
You may ponder over the above examples, and simply conclude that life is as such, and we all have to put up with it. Maybe we do....we'll continue with an overburdened health service, full hospitals, Depression and Dementia on the increase as people just can't cope anymore and fall down under the strain or their minds simply want to forget.
Or maybe we don't have to be this way. Surely if we take the time to listen to our body and the signals it gives us, we will learn to trust when something isn't right, we will begin to understand our body and allow it time to do what it knows naturally. If we ALLOW instead of fight and suppress we will begin to understand the process of our body, mind and emotions. We will know in advance what makes us fearful, tired, lower in resistance. If we can avoid states of mind and being that we know don't feel right, surely we can become stronger, and in becoming stronger less likely to become ill.
Negative practices are instilled within us at a very young age. So many children stand before me in a singing lesson, when we have done our breathing exercises and they start to yawn, immediately stifling it. "Noooooooo!" I cry, "Let it out!!!" and they smile with watery eyes. All of them tell me how at some point they have been told off for yawning at school, usually in a class like maths or science. This infuriates me! The whole point of our warm ups in a singing lesson is to get them to relax, open and feel engaged to sing, to express and communicate using their voice. To allow the magic and creativity of the right side of the brain to emerge and take over the moment. To let the over developed practical left brain have a rest. As soon as these children (and adult students) start breathing deeply and singing, yawning starts to happen. It allows them to get rid of all the residual tension they might be carrying around so their body is free to sing and live in the moment for a while.
Here's something I used to use yawning for. When I was a active professional opera singer, on an audition tour, very often I would drive several hours in the car, or take a plan and a taxi, ending up in a theatre or agent's office (often in Germany) with no vocal warm up facilities. Bearing in mind the audition might be at 10 o ' clock in the morning, the best of singers needs a warm up! In some situations there was literally a secretary's office to wait in and that was it, unless one wanted to warm up in the street (which often seemed like a viable option!). I found that a great silent warm up for my voice was to allow myself to yawn excessively. I would instigate the first few and then that was it. Not only did it make me feel more awake, alert and refreshed, it stretched all my throat, laryngeal ligaments and ears and affected the way I breathed.
If you have ever observed yourself amidst full yawn you will find that diaphragmatic breathing comes instinctively...meaning you do it without trying or even noticing! My voice after this would feel great and sound open and full with a range of tone and colour. It helped with my audition nerves and anxiety, calming me down and I always gave a much better performance.
If yawning could do this for me in a situation of pressure, I realised I was dealing with a very powerful reflex. I used to make myself yawn, but think on a daily basis how often your body is trying to yawn, and how often you might suppress it.
Suppressing something this powerful will only lead to body imbalance. Body imbalance over a prolonged period leads to stress and illness. If indeed a yawn is a stretch for more hard to reach internal muscles and organs to prevent spasming and cramps, then IT IS IMPORTANT.
If it serves as a reaction to prevent an imbalance of carbon dioxide in the blood, which ultimately can lead to varying degrees of hyperventilation causing stress, anxiety, digestive problems, high blood pressure and so on then IT IS IMPORTANT.
All of our natural instincts are there for a reason and should be listened to and allowed. The next time someone makes a sarcastic comment about you yawning, tell them you are doing it for your health! End of!
I was alerted to a quote in FHM Magazine (February 2014) by Petr Cech Chelsea FC Goalkeeper which said,
"To deal with that kind of pressure, we are taught breathing exercises in our training schedule...it's the key to absolutely everything...it helps you sleep. It is simply balanced breathing....controlling your heart rate and clearing your thoughts."
Petr Cech, Chelsea FC Goalkeeper in an interview with FHM Magazine February 2014
Being a professional opera singer, breathing was something I had to focus on in order to produce my voice and in producing my voice I found an inner calm and focus which enabled me to actually get up in front of people and perform. Often, while I was waiting to go on stage, I would be nervously shivering, wondering how on earth I was going to sing feeling like that, but as soon as I engaged by breath, support and voice, the shivering went away, and I was catapulted in to the present moment of the performance. I suppose I began to take this for granted. It was just what I did.
It wasn't until I started working with people with illness or disorders such as anxiety, panic attacks, stress, stuttering, Dystonia and muscle spasms that I realised how most clients didn't understand the process of breathing, let alone how their body actually worked, but not only that, so few realised how simple health problems and day to day issues could be eased or even cured with a small adjustment to how they thought about breathing and then some exercises to build strength.
Even a simple ailment such as a tension headache would respond to diaphragmatic breathing as by expanding the upper body to allow efficient inhalation and exhalation, muscles and ligaments of the back, neck and shoulders would be encouraged to gently stretch allowing blood circulation to the area.
I would find myself teaching friends deep breathing exercises to practise throughout the day in order to relieve stress and stress related symptoms. I would ask them to observe what they were doing with their tongue during times of tension...were they gripping their jaw tightly, did they grind their teeth at night time? So many people couldn't answer these questions, because they lacked simple body awareness, until they went away for a week, observed their themselves and found all manner of tensions they were doing without even knowing it!
Examples of this were things like gritting their teeth whilst driving at 70mph on the motorway, or pulling their tongue back into their throat whilst talking with an authoritative figure, like a manager at work. Some people couldn't believe they were able to hold so much tension in their body, without being consciously aware. The problem is, all these small tension habits all over the body, which are usually emotionally charged, gradually build until one day we are stuck. It always amazes me when people are surprised they have slipped a disc in their back, or wake up with a frozen shoulder!
I think that's it really. It's about being aware of the physical self and the things it gets up to when we are not paying attention, because these things can seem really simple and harmless, but actually when they build up, for several hours a day, several days a week, we can see that they start to impair out natural functions.
Let's take for example gritting our teeth. Try it now. Grit your upper and lower back teeth together. Where do you feel the tension?
In the jaw itself definitely, but what about the forgotten bone behind the ears, linking to the muscles and ligaments at the base of the skull, and the throat? Apply this type of tension on a daily basis in situations of stress (and some people really are stressed all day!) and what do you get? At the very least you get a headache, but if that headache persists because your jaw tension is present, because you are suffering from mild anxiety due to small life challenges perhaps at home or at work, what happens? You most likely start to take pain killers, or go to the doctor who tries to appease you by prescribing something stronger, or sending you for tests.
Instead, what you could have done is been aware of how you are feeling and the affect this was having on your body. You could have identified areas of tension in the moment and how once triggered this set off a chain of related muscles which caused the tension to spread.
At this point, you would have been aware that your body was starting to release adrenalin into your system, a perfectly natural protective response to tension in case you needed to engage in a fight or flight situation and that breathing techniques or physical exercise at this point would be the only way to burn off this adrenalin, which later in the day, if not gotten rid of, would make you feel irritable, depressed or possibly give you a sleepless night.
Learning to be aware of ourselves and our tendencies and learning to listen to our bodies is the first step. Although having said that, as soon as you start some sort of breath training and awareness, it becomes easier to listen.
So, this week, challenge yourself to listen to your breath. We use such a small amount of our lung capacity on a daily basis, it's no wonder that as a nation we have the physical and emotional issues that we do. If you have the opportunity, observe a new born baby crying and notice how their breathing from a tiny little diaphragm catapults a huge vocal cry out of their body. If you don't have a baby to hand, observe the dog barking. The diaphragmatic action is the same.
Failing that, think of the last time you ran screaming, probably as a child being chased across the playground at school! You would have used your whole body to make that high pitched sound which could be heard down the road.
Observe your breathing when you are upset or crying, and notice how your diaphragm plays a huge part in sobbing, or if you are laughing uncontrollably, what area starts to feel tired? Yes that's it, the diaphragm!
Even when you let out a big yawn notice the breath you take as you breathe in at the start...it's impossible to do a superficial yawn! Whilst we are on the subject of yawning be aware that it is your body's natural way of releasing tension, the more you can instigate yawning in a stressful situation the more you will stay calm and alert, and it's an absolute crime that children in school are made to feel they are doing something wrong when they yawn in the classroom! How many people feel it is rude to yawn??!!! If we can possibly find any more natural processes to repress and hide, we might really be able to screw up our bodies! I jest, but am very serious!
To practise breath awareness and tension release have a go at this exercise:
1. Take a deep breath through your nose and imagine you a filling up with air all the way down to your belly.
2. Breathe out all the air by dropping your mouth open and letting your tongue hang forward and out of your mouth (like a dog when its panting). Breathe all the air out until you don't have any left, and then breathe out a bit more...leave your mouth and tongue open and relaxed and draw the air in again through your nose, repeating step 1.
3. Practise a cycle of 3 breaths like this after breakfast, lunch and dinner and before you go to sleep. Use these 3 breaths whenever you feel angry, sad, embarrassed, tense, and so on, and especially if you have to make a decision about something.
If you are not used to breathing in this way, go carefully, and never do more than three at a time until you build up strength. If you feel light headed sit down. Breathing the way nature intended is a powerful force and should not be undertaken lightly. Do the above exercise at your own risk, and who knows, something amazing might happen......
Alexandra Rigazzi-Tarling, my journey into Singing and Sound for healing body, mind and spirit of all beings.