The Power of a Yawn

by Marta Hernandez

What can this simple everyday act teach us? Besides being a release of stress in the body and the most natural thing we do, yawning can teach us how to breathe and embody movement more fully. As an instructor and movement educator I’ve noticed many things about the yawn and use it as a tool every day for my clients to deepen their physical practice.

The classical Chinese character for the word Chi literally means breath/energy and a grain of rice. The two symbols come together to bring the meaning that breath is food, essence or life force. Breath is the impetus for all movement and allows for a more expanded exploration of physical and emotional states as well as increasing our vitality and overall health through oxygenating the body and relaxing the nervous system.

Joseph Pilates told us to watch cats, but take this further and watch how they yawn! Watch a dog, cat or baby getting up after sleeping. There is a deep drawing back of the core in opposition to the stretching limbs. A yawn reaches up and down simultaneously. With every opposing force there is generally a central place for this opposition to occur, and most often this is in our core, which is the centre of our upper and lower body. Imagine the spokes of a wheel or Leonardo Da Vinci’s Man.

Opposition is occurring everywhere in nature. Trees and plants are rooting into the earth and reaching for the sun. As humans we are also affected by these same gravitational pulls of the earth and cosmos. Even a building is built deep into the earth to support itself tall in the air. If we did not use some form of opposition unintentionally in the body during the day, we would not get out of bed! Stepping out of bed in the morning, we have to root our feet into the ground and our body responds in opposition by straightening and reaching away from the earth. big or small, the mundane action of a yawn can teach us a lot about this naturally occurring opposition and deep abdominal engagement. Practise inducing a yawn and notice how simultaneously the pelvic floor, the diaphragm and the soft palate lift. If you are sensitive, you might even feel the arches of your feet lifting too. This pulling up from bottom to top is our deep core lifting naturally through all the domes. As our pelvic floor engages, it narrows our pelvis and abdominals, which in turn lengthens our spine and creates space between the vertebrae. A buoyancy and opening of the joints occurs through the lifting of the domes, creating dynamic opposition. Imagine or feel the energy running up the spine as the snake running up the rod in the original medical symbol.

How can we practically apply the yawn to our movement activities? Practise inhaling like a yawn welling up in the whole body until there is almost a shiver and notice how it fills up the back of the throat and back body more than a regular inhale. Imagine a wave rising on the inhale and falling on the exhale as we create the opposition and then let it release. As we fill up with the Chi/breath almost as big as a yawn, it can either fill us with energy on the action or help us prepare to create motion in space. Either way the yawn and the breath will affect us by the movement being more full-bodied and our body deeply inhabited, bringing us into the present moment.

Just as every wave is unique and responds to its weather conditions, so must our yawn respond accordingly to the movement that is occurring. If a movement is small, then a smaller yawning inhalation is appropriate. Developing sensitivity of linking movement and breath is a pivotal component to expanding our movement practices. Matching movement and breath should be as natural as the waves in the sea responding to the wind.

So take some time before getting up in the morning and practise yawning in bed. Have fun and explore. And yes, you can count it as part of your workout for the day!