Replacing Tension with Relaxation

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Of all the joints in your body, the jaw alone bears the brunt of nourishment, communication, and emotional expression. With such pervasive physical and spiritual responsibilities, it's no wonder that so many people tend to suffer from chronic jaw tension, known as temporomandibular joint disorder, or TMD.

An umbrella term, TMD (also known as TMJ) refers loosely to any soreness, stiffness, or tenderness in or around the jaw and may be a result of daytime clenching, nighttime grinding, chronic poor posture, injury, stress, or any combination of these causes. Approximately 75 percent of Americans suffer mild symptoms of TMD (such as muscle pain and headaches) and of those, 90 percent are women. Experts do not know exactly what causes TMD. One popular theory is that damage to the joint's cartilage, a free-floating disc that glides between skull and jawbone, strains nearby muscles and sparks pain.

Because of yoga's focus on alignment and relaxation, it can be an ideal therapy for sore jaws. The first step in combatting TMD is to create a healthier posture. "The collapsed posture so many people have from sitting in chairs and working at computers is a huge factor in jaw problems," says Julie Gudmestad, a certified Iyengar Yoga instructor and physical therapist in Portland, Oregon, who has worked with students with TMD. She teaches improved posture through basic standing poses that emphasize proper alignment, like Tadasana (Mountain Pose). "Yoga is about getting the head directly on top of the shoulders," Gudmestad says. "Do that and you take the strain off the jaw."

After the fundamentals of alignment are in place, students with TMD should work on chest openers and then pepper their practice with poses that loosen and relax the shoulders. Michael Munro, a yoga teacher and physical therapist in Nova Scotia, Canada, suggests poses such as Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose), a supported Matsyasana (Fish Pose), and Ustrasana (Camel Pose). He also recommends Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) because it opens the suboccipital muscles-small muscles that rotate and extend the joints between the skull and the cervical vertebrae. "Those muscles tend to shorten dramatically in people with TMD," he says.

While TMD isn't listed as a contraindication per se, students with jaw tension may want to avoid certain asanas and modify others. Munro warns against poses that bear too much weight on the head and arms, such as Sirsasana (Headstand) and Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand), and arm balances like Bakasana (Crane Pose).

"Whenever there is a lot of effort in the neck or shoulders, it can carry over to the jaw," he says. Other modifications to consider making to your practice include bringing the forehead, not the chin, to the floor when preparing for belly-down poses, such as Salabhasana (Locust Pose), Dhanurasana (Bow Pose), and Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose). And in poses where the gaze is sometimes focused upward, like Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I), you can ease pressure on the jaw and cervical spine by tucking the chin slightly before tilting the head back.

If you're shopping for a yoga class to help relieve symptoms of TMD, look for a style that emphasizes alignment, holding, and relaxation, says Gudmestad. "Learning to move from a relaxed place is key for people with TMD," she says. "If it's a style of yoga where people get aggressive and pushy, you'll just end up bringing more tension into the head and neck."