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!
So much has been written on the subject of fear! Yet very few of us get to really understand it! If we did we would be free of inhibitions, doubts, illness and so many other negatives states of being and we would be able to express ourselves freely. We live in a society where fear is the norm, whether it be fear of doing something wrong, fear of how others see us, fear of losing loved ones or our job, fear of being attacked, of losing money, of not being able to pay the bills, of being alone, fear of change, of being criticised and the list goes on. On so many levels we are afraid, and those fears mentioned are just the obvious ones.
If we take a much closer look at ourselves and our personal lives, we might say on a superficial level, "I'm not afraid, I don't fear anything per say..." but is that really true?
I ask this question because in my work, week after week, I see people who are afraid of the sound of their own voice, afraid of the sound that comes out, afraid that it's not good enough, afraid that it sounds wrong, afraid that they sound stupid, afraid that they look ridiculous when they are singing (or sounding), afraid that if they take a deep breath and open themselves holding their head high, feeling their personal strength and power, someone might ask them who they think they are to be doing such a thing!
On the other extreme you have those that are afraid that they might "do" it wrong, they are so self critical that everything is perfect. They have trained themselves to swallow the feeling of self doubt and do the task anyway, but the fear continues to seep out on a physical level with tension and frustration at making any small "mistake."
I work from the perspective that our voice is the most natural thing about us. For the majority of us, when we are born we cry, scream, wail, coo, gurgle and giggle. This is how we communicate. We don't question these sounds we just "sound" them. I've mentioned this in previous blogs, but if you have the opportunity to look at a baby's stomach when s/he is crying, you will see that the sound is being produced like a type of squeeze box from the diaphragm. This is a human breathing and sounding the way nature intended. Likewise look at a dog when he barks, or a horse when she brays, the sound is being produced from the body.
I will restate that sentence, these sounds are being produced from the body, not some mystical muscle in the throat.
Our ability to sound is an emotional reaction on some level, whether we are laughing, sobbing or screaming with pain. Yet through speech and the way we are expected to speak after a certain age, we are encouraged to suppress natural emotions and not show our true feelings. We are even led to believe in some situations that it is a weakness to show emotion in our speech, hiding behind our words.
Most of us have experienced not being able to contain our emotions, whether it's being ecstatically happy about something, or so sad that our words can no longer cover the fluctuations of tone in our voice. The sensation of holding back tears is heard in the inflection of the voice and often felt as a pain in the throat.
There are of course situations when we do have to "control" our reactions as we have the intelligence to understand the consequences of situations. However we must be aware, for our own personal health and happiness that too much suppression leads to lack of sensitivity and expression. Eventually if we suppress our sensitivity and ability to express for too long, we become closed and cold. We may then look to other stimulants to help us "feel" again, whether it be our love life, sex, alcohol, drugs, food or lack of it and so on.
Some people have been forced to close down and not to feel the pain that life has presented them with, because of abuse and other despicable events and in these severe cases it is a matter of survival. Better to survive and not feel, than to die of the pain of feeling too much, and surely if we allow ourselves to feel, how will we ever forget what happened to us if the pain is there as a reminder?
For me the concept of the human body is not a rigid one. I see myself as a mass of vibrating particles being held together, just like everything else physical. You remember? This is the thing we all learnt in Physics classes at school...that everything we perceive as solid is in fact a mass of vibrating particles. This isn't hocus pocus, this is scientific fact.
So, I am made of matter, therefore if you break me down, you will eventually be able to measure the particles in my more solid parts and the particles in the fluid part of me (on average about 70%). As humans we are just matter. This means that our thoughts (non matter, therefore energy) are created from that matter and as a large part of us is made up of fluid, we can easily change and reform. Our feelings and thoughts are a product of who we are and what we experience, but nothing is concrete in the human body, it can be moved and changed.
Therefore, our past feelings, fears and experiences, if still haunting us and our minds in the present moment, must be shiftable! But how do we shift them?
Let's turn our minds back to the new born baby who screams and cries without any care of what others may think. If the baby feels a pain of hunger or wind, that pain is translated into sound and is released from the body, it also sends a signal to the mother that her child is feeling discomfort, she can then act on this signal in its early stage and solve the problem of the hunger. The baby feels better and the so does the mother as the problem has been resolved before it can escalate to something more serious. The child's voice was used to express the problem and give it a release from the physical pain....and then everything returned to normal.
As adults we might not want to scream and shout all the time, but we do need to reconnect with our ability to identify when we are unhappy, express this to ourselves and/or those around us that might be the cause of the unhappiness, and then work it out of our system so that it is over and dealt with and does not linger, causing us future pain and fear of pain.
Feeling fear is a good thing IF we can identify it as an emotion that rises within us to guide our way and show us that something isn't right. It is a temporary emotion and should be used as a guide. It is not something that we should feel all the time.
Cavemen of yore would sense something was wrong in the field, look over their shoulder, see a big bear, feel fear which would produce adrenalin into their system and give them an extra spring in their step as they legged it back to safety.
Nowadays we feel fear in the present based on past events, and we use these past events to predict how we think the future will materialise, release adrenalin, fail to act on the reason why we are afraid and neglect to burn off the adrenalin. Adrenalin left in our body causes stress, anger, insomnia, high blood pressure and so many other "unexplainable" illnesses and disorders.
So why are we feeling so afraid? That is what we need to work out. Why do I meet so many people that are afraid of singing, embarrassed by the mere suggestion that they should sing? Why do happy little toddlers sing quite naturally and at what point are they made to feel daft for doing this? Even the new born baby strings a line of gurgles and coos together when happy which is the start of the natural process of singing.
Singing is a natural and necessary action for our health and wellbeing and something we have done from birth. It helps us release our negative emotions, our pain and our fears as if we were a crying baby again.
People , or adults in particular tell me over and over that they were told to be quiet, shut up, not sing as they were deemed "out of tune." Some are afraid even of speaking their thoughts, as a critical upbringing has made them careful of the things they choose to give voice to for fear of being made to feel worthless. So fair enough, I completely understand it. But if we know that our body releases fear, tension and adrenalin by sounding with the voice, whether it's screaming, crying or laughing, these being the extremes, if we know singing can bring us the same relief as shouting, but is a more pleasurable experience, why are so many of us afraid to do it and afraid of what might come out? And WHY do we care?
The baby just sounds, the dog just barks...the human thinks and then decides if the vocalisation is good enough.
Here's a few interesting facts;
1. The inside of our mouth contains little sensors which are activated when we breathe through our mouth causing adrenalin to be released into the body.
2. A sudden intake of air, like a gasp alerts the body's nervous system to a potential problem and it also releases adrenalin into the system.
3. When adrenalin is released into your body you are on high alert. Your heart rate will increase and your breathing will become more shallow. If this adrenalin is not burnt off you will feel anxious, unable to rest, irritable, unwell, suffer a possible upset stomach, acid reflux, headaches, neck and shoulder stiffness etc.
4. Learning to control your breath helps you press the "reset" button on your body. You can control your nervous system, your mind, your heart rate and communicate more effectively when you breathe as nature intended, the way you did when you were born. Concentrate on the out breath, most people hold too much stale air in the lungs. In situations of stress, breathe out first, and then back in.
5. Using your voice expressively, like singing for example, has many proven health benefits a bit like yoga. It helps to control and calm your breathing, energising you and releasing any residual adrenalin that might have built up in your system from the day, helping you to release tension, de-stress and make clear decisions.
6. When you breathe more effectively and sing, you change your state of mind, existing in the present moment, forgetting about past experiences and fears. When you allow your body to return to this child like state you can clear your mind and relax, safely and without being afraid. Sing things you love, this adds to the feel good factor.
7. Fear is a warning sign, listen to it, and act accordingly. Then LET IT GO.
Alexandra Rigazzi-Tarling, my journey into Singing and Sound for healing body, mind and spirit of all beings.