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Yawning Yogis

I've recently started teaching hatha yoga and have noticed that as soon as I start the breathing with my students, some of them can't stop yawning, and they'll continue yawning a lot during class. Is there is a physiological reason for this?

—Lauren

Timothy McCall

Read Dr. Timothy McCall's response:

Dear Lauren,

Many people in the modern world, including many who practice yoga, live stressful lives and walk around most of the time in a state of sympathetic dominance. By that I mean that the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), associated with the "fight or flight" response, is more activated that the parasympathetic nervous system, the branch of the ANS associated with rest and relaxation.

Since stress hormones are stimulating, these people may not notice how tired they really are until they get into a situation in which they start to relax. Yogic breathing—such as gentle Ujjayi pPranayama (Victorious Breath)—or practices that lengthen the exhalation relative to the inhalation can pretty quickly lead to parasympathetic dominance, and that's probably why the yawning occurs. And, although we don't know why, yawning also seems to be contagious—once one student starts, it may spread like wildfire. As with students who fall asleep in Savasana (Corpse Pose), yawning may signal a sleep deficit that your students would be wise to address before health problems result.

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Reader Comments

Claudia

Yawning should be seen as a sign of compliment as this means the student(s) are relaxed and at ease in their surroundings. Yawning is a sign of relaxation, not boredom.

Charlie Heffernan, RYT

I don't mind a nice yawn but mine come in great long strings - then they become disruptive. Sitting in meditation during such a stretch ends up involving Kleenex to dry the tears/post-nasal-drip that come with a big yaw skein. A real nuisance when I'd rather be completely still!

Joanne Myrup, Taos, NM

This isn't a physiological explanation but in re-evaluation co-counseling theory, yawning is viewed as a method of emotional discharge, along with laughing, crying, shaking, raging or talking. For example, when I'm in a RC session and 'working on' an emotional issue, I might shake if I'm accessing fear, or rage if I'm releasing anger, usually shaking later since fear is usually under anger for me. I do love to yawn, though, and sometimes, when I'm feeling safe in practice or yoga class, I'll yawn the whole way through-- just releasing something deep, don't even know what it is, sometimes!

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