Jaws for Life
When you're stressed, chances are you can feel it somewhere in your body. "The nervous system creates neuromuscular habits in response to stress," says yoga therapist and chiropractor Tom Alden. "Some people hold or metabolize tension in the jaw. Others hold it in the neck and shoulders, or low back." In yoga class, "Relax the jaw" is a common instruction for bringing awareness to unconscious tension in the body. But for the millions of people with temporomandibular joint disorders, or chronic tension in the jaw, mouth, and tongue, that simple instruction can seem as daunting as being asked to put a leg behind the head.
Temporomandibular joint problems, a collection of conditions characterized by pain or stiffness in the jaw and surrounding tissues, can be caused by stress or misalignment of the teeth, and can cause headaches and painful tension in the neck and shoulders. Alden says that deepening the awareness of the tension and getting to the root of the stresses that cause it can help, but he advises that what works for one person might not be as helpful for the next. Therefore, he recommends using the following poses to explore the source of the tension and experimenting with releasing it. If a pose provides relief, you should keep doing it, but be mindful that you aren't creating additional tension.
Lie on your back with a bolster or thinly folded blanket under the length of your spine, adding support under your head if you need it. Practice Supine Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath), with awareness of the sensations in the chest, neck, base of the skull, and jaw.
Sit on your shins for Simhasana(Lion Pose) . Open the jaw and extend the tongue toward your chin as you exhale intentionally. Then, synchronize the movement of the tongue and eyes as you move them down, up, and to the sides.
As you come into Ustrasana (Camel Pose), observe the interplay between chest, neck, base of skull, and jaw, noticing if you're holding tension in any of those areas. Open the mouth and extend the tongue. Repeat Simhasana or move on to Down Dog.