Yawning is a natural breathing technique that will improve your overall health and well-being. It energizes you while also triggering the relaxation response. It helps with sleep, mood, and anxiety, and it discharges stress and tension. Everywhere I go I encourage people to yawn. Why? Because it’s good for you and it feels good too. Yawning is one of those very natural reflexes, and not just among humans. All mammals yawn, as well as birds and reptiles. And although we tend to associate yawning with being tired or bored, there is far more to it than that. Animals often yawn before they attack, and they yawn when the fight is over. Have you noticed how often dogs and cats yawn and stretch, even after lying for only a few minutes? Yawning has to do with energy, balancing the nervous system, releasing toxins, and more. One of the most interesting things about yawning, and we all know this, is that whenever one person in a group yawns, someone else also does. In fact, just talking about yawning in a group will result in someone yawning.
We know that yawning is contagious, and science is finally beginning to take a more serious look at this phenomenon. Did you know that sociopaths don’t share the tendency to yawn when others do? The less empathy a person has, the less likely he or she is to catch a yawn. Yawning is a very natural and healthy phenomenon. It’s actually a vital breathing reflex, but consider the social programming around it. We’ve been taught to think or feel that it is rude or impolite, even insulting or offensive!
Besides attracting attention, there is often a perceived message of boredom, or that the yawner is not interested in what is happening or being said. Cultural mores about open mouths and human noises deem that they are not acceptable in “polite society.” All this causes people to suppress something that nature requires us to do.
I imagine a young schoolboy in the back of a classroom allowing a big yawn, surrendering totally to it while the teacher is lecturing or writing something on the blackboard. I imagine this juicy, yummy, luxurious, full-body yawn taking over the child. With the yawn comes the natural urge to stretch and to breathe and to make sounds . . . It’s a beautiful moment of natural healthy pleasure and aliveness. But yawning attracts attention, which sometimes can be negative and punitive. As a result, the child is taught in no uncertain terms to keep that movement of life energy, of that natural spirit, to himself.
In her poem “Wild Geese,” poet Mary Oliver says you need to “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”7 She may not have been referring to yawning, but that’s exactly what it feels like when we allow a full-body yawn to take over our being. Now imagine you are a counselor or a therapist, and someone is telling you his or her problems: “My dog died.” “My teenage son is on drugs.” “I lost my job.” “My marriage is falling apart.” And right then you feel an urge to yawn. What kind of reaction can you expect if you surrender to that urge? “Am I boring you?” “Are you tired?” “Aren’t you listening to me?” “Don’t you care about me or my problems?” “How dare you yawn right now!” Would you as a counselor or a therapist allow yourself to yawn in that situation? (All the ones that I have trained certainly would, and not only that, they would encourage their clients and patients to do the same.)
Yawning is a perfectly natural way to integrate, process, and shift energy. It’s nature’s way of connecting you with your energy, body, and feelings. Yawning allows us to open and connect to another’s feelings, to awaken and connect with others on a subtle energetic level. It allows you to touch your own spirit, to open to the flow of the universal life force on a very deep level and in a very practical way. When we yawn we clear and release subtle energetic blocks in our system, allowing us to feel more fully and deeply into what is happening, into what is being experienced. It allows us to be totally present to ourselves and the ones we are with.
The yawning reflex lights up the same part of our brain that is associated with empathy, bonding, play, and creativity. So please let that soft animal of your body, or that little boy or little girl in you, yawn to his or her heart’s content! If you are like most people, you probably have a lot of incomplete yawns trapped inside of you, aching to come out. Admit it: you have suppressed or blocked or inhibited many yawns throughout your life. So much so that I would wager even when you are alone you probably automatically suppress some portion of the yawn out of habit. Maybe one reason yawning seems contagious is that it communicates acceptability, it is like giving someone else permission. Subconsciously we think: “Oh, you mean it’s okay to yawn here? Good! Because I need it too.”
Science is now telling us it is a good idea to yawn and to yawn often. What happens in a dog or cat’s jaw, spine, pelvis, and limbs when they yawn? The jaw opens wide, the spine arches and curls. They also stretch their front and back legs as if doing yoga! You need to do that too. When was the last time you really let yourself yawn? Unashamed. Uninhibited. Without any embarrassment or self-consciousness. When was the last time you allowed yourself to enjoy a full total-body yawn? What if yawning is to your energy body what showering is to your physical body? I like to look at how yawning is similar to other human experiences in terms of the forces and dynamics at work. Think about it: you can trigger a yawn, and you can block or suppress a yawn. But when it’s happening, it’s very hard to get out of the way of it. The important words here are “it is happening.” You are not “doing” the yawn. You can do something to trigger it, to bring it on, and you can do something to block it or suppress it, but once it’s happening, it is happening. You are not doing it. It is something that takes over your body, your being. What else is like that? How about an orgasm? You can trigger it and you can suppress it, but once it is happening, once it takes over, it is awfully difficult to get out of the way of it! Guess what? Learning to welcome and allow yawning, learning to deliberately enjoy full-body yawns throughout the day, will improve your sex life at night. (But only if you have a belly button!)
Another example of a human experience when similar forces and dynamics are at work is when it comes to emotions. They are contagious. You can trigger an emotion—in yourself or in others—and you can suppress an emotion. But when it is happening, there’s no getting out of the way of it. Emotions, when they come up, take over your body-mind system. Learning to breathe and relax through a yawn helps us to breathe and relax with our emotions; it enables us to channel energy in a more conscious, healthy, and creative way. The unique yawning exercises at the end of this chapter will
not only open and expand your breathing capacity, they will help you open to your emotions more fully, to honor and embrace them, but not be so pushed or pulled or controlled by them.
The next exercise combines what I call basic and advanced yawning. I am going to ask you to play with your yawn and to experiment with the yawning
reflex. You will be giving yourself big, expansive inhales and luxurious sighs of relief during the yawn. And you will be practicing “connected breathing,” spinning the breath like a wheel while you yawn. Before we get into the practice, I’d like to point out how yawning is just like any other natural urge or reflex—like eating, sleeping, or using the toilet—and yet very different. For example, when you’re eating, you don’t wait until you are
starving to death before you feed yourself. You don’t wait until you are exhausted and falling off your feet before you give yourself a rest. And you don’t wait until your body is screaming and desperate to relieve itself before you allow it. You do these things on purpose and on a regular basis, often even before you really have to or need to.
We have rituals built into our lives that allow us to do these things often. And yet when it comes to yawning, when do you yawn? You probably only do so when and if your body actually demands it, forces you to do it. And then what do you do? You probably suppress it, either partially or completely. The point is: don’t wait until your body demands yawning. Create daily yawning rituals. Yawn on purpose. Do it often. Do it regularly. Anyone can
trigger a yawn. As you breathe in, open your mouth, wiggle your jaw, do something with the back of your throat and trigger the yawning reflex. Do it now. Do it more than once. Stretch while you yawn. Make a pleasant, soothing sound when you yawn. Yawn till your eyes water. Forget about what people think. Forget about what you think! Forget about how you look. Wherever you are right now, put this book down and give yourself a big juicy,
luxurious full-body yawn. Indulge yourself. Go for it! Do it again. Make noise. How do you feel?
If you cannot allow yourself to experience a full-body yawn, what does that say about all the other areas of your life where you don’t let yourself be natural? Do your concerns about what other people will think or say, or how they will react, stop you from listening to your body, to your heart, to your nature? How often and in how many ways are you inhibiting your own natural energies, your creativity, your love, your truth, your spirit? Stop it! Just stop it! Give yourself (and others) permission to be fully human. When we don’t let ourselves and each other be human, we force ourselves and each other to be fake.
The children among us and around us are modeling our behavior; they are consciously and unconsciously adopting our habits and patterns. We need to provide them with an honest example of what is truly natural. Get over your social, family, religious, or cultural programming. Let yourself yawn. Make yourself yawn. Encourage others to get over their stuff about it too. Yawning is a powerful neural-enhancing tool. In fact, it has been called one
of the best-kept secrets of neuroscience. Yawning is associated with the precuneus, a tiny structure hidden within the folds of the parietal lobe, and it
appears to play a central role in consciousness, self-reflection, and memory retrieval. The precuneus is associated with the mirror neuron system in the brain. Yawning evokes a unique neural response in the part of the brain involved in social awareness and feelings of empathy. Deliberate yawning can strengthen this important part of the brain and this capacity in us.
Yawning increases when we are tired, and it may be one way our body tells us we need to rest. On the other hand, exposure to light also makes us yawn, which means it’s part of the process of waking up. Yawning relaxes us, but it also brings on a state of increased cognitive awareness: it can make us more alert. It helps us become more introspective and self-aware. Yawning is a part of the parasympathetic response—rest and digest mode. It also plays a part in regulating our temperature and metabolism. You can use yawning to ward off the effects of jet lag and to ease the uncomfortable effects of high altitudes. Athletes use it before performing. Even fish yawn when changing activities! Many neurochemicals are involved in yawning, including dopamine, which activates oxytocin, the neurotransmitter that regulates sensuality and pleasure, as well as bonding in relationships, which
means yawning can enhance intimacy. Other neurochemicals associated with yawning include ACTH, MSH, GABA, nitric oxide, serotonin, glutamate, sex hormones, and more. It is believed that yawning also cools off the brain. In fact, neuroscientists can find no other single activity that has so many benefits and influences so many brain functions at once. What more do I have to say to get you to yawn? What do I have to do to convince you that you need to yawn more? Deliberately trigger a yawn before you do something important, and then yawn after you finish it. Yawn from time to time during tests, tasks, activities, interactions, performances, presentations, and meditation. And yawn whenever you feel anxious, angry, or afraid, tired or wired. You owe it to yourself to enjoy this natural neurological treat. So what are you waiting for? Let’s practice right now.
Breathe Now: Yawning 101
Don’t close or cover your mouth when you yawn. Look up. Let your jaw fall open. Follow the urge to stretch when you yawn. Lymph glands in your neck, throat, and armpits are part of your immune system. When you yawn and stretch, you naturally squeeze and activate these vital glands. Think of dogs or cats: what happens in their jaw, neck, spine, hips, pelvis, and limbs when they yawn? Let that happen in you. Don’t just yawn once. Yawn again and again. Yawn until your eyes water. Getting your eyes to water is a very important part of a full natural yawn. How do you feel?
Breathe Now: Advanced Yawning 301
Welcome to Yawning 301!
Give yourself a full, total-body yawn as described above. But now bring conscious connected breathing into it. Don’t freeze the breath when you yawn. Don’t hold your breath when the yawning reflex takes over. Breathe in and out during the yawn. When you yawn, notice that it produces a special opening in your throat, and it gives your breath a soft, round, open sound. Breathe in and out continuously through that natural opening that the yawn produces.
Next, trigger the yawning reflex, and during the yawn, deliberately give yourself big, expansive inhales and big sighs of relief. The idea is to do connected breathing—also called continuous breathing—during the yawn: give yourself quick, smooth panting breaths, in and out, in and out—like a happy dog! Get that wheel of breath spinning when the yawn is happening.
This technique is at the cutting edge of breathwork today. People who have mastered this simple technique report that they feel physically, emotionally, and psychologically better after a few minutes of this practice. It may be awhile before we know all the medical and scientific benefits of this breathwork technique, so don’t wait—be your own scientist. Start practicing it now. Practice it every day. Make this the new way that you yawn.
What if I told you that small elite teams of warriors and some of the top athletic teams around the world are beginning to yawn and breathe together in this way? Now imagine that you or your team stumbled upon something simple and basic and easy, that happens to give you or your team a tremendous advantage over the enemy or the competition. Would you share your practice? Or would you keep it a secret? Yawning is serious business. It’s time you started having fun with it! Here’s my secret formula for practicing advanced yawning: 10 + 10 + (10 X 2). That’s ten minutes in the morning, ten minutes at night, and ten times during the day for two minutes. In fact, this formula can be applied to any of the breathing techniques, exercises, or meditations in this website. Practicing according to this formula may be the best way to integrate breathwork into your everyday life, and to master any technique or exercise.