Awareness is the first step in releasing painful tension in your jaw. When you’re stressed, chances are you can feel it somewhere in your body. The nervous system creates neuromuscular habits in response to stress. Some people hold or metabolise 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 characterised 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. Deepening the awareness of the tension and getting to the root of the stresses that cause it can help, 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.
Practise the following breathing technique, with awareness of the sensations in the chest, neck, base of the skull and jaw. 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 and fold the tongue back so that the underside is pressed against the back of the upper palette, breathe deeply and softly, like the gentle snoring of a sleeping baby.
For Lion Pose sit in Vajrasan, place the hands between knees, fingers pointing towards the body, lean forward, tilt the head backwards and open the mouth, extend the tongue as much as possible, open the eyes wide and gaze at the eyebrows centre, inhale through the nose, producing a steady ‘ah’ sound from the throat.
As you come into 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. Sit in Vajrasna, inhale rise on to the knees and stretch arms to the sides, exhale, twist the torso to the right, bending backwards, grasp the left heel with the right hand. Look at the left arm which is vertically raised over the head with the palm facing forward.
Downward-Facing Pose, rest your forehead on a block or bolster. Observe the interplay between chest, neck, base of skull and jaw. Come onto the floor on your hands and knees. Set your knees directly below your hips and your hands slightly forward of your shoulders. Spread your palms, index fingers parallel or slightly turned out, and turn your toes under.
Exhale and lift your knees away from the floor. At first keep the knees slightly bent and the heels lifted away from the floor. Lengthen your tailbone away from the back of your pelvis. Against this resistance, lift the sitting bones toward the ceiling, and from your inner ankles draw the inner legs up into the groins.
Then with an exhalation, push your top thighs back and stretch your heels onto or down toward the floor. Straighten your knees but be sure not to lock them. Firm the outer thighs and roll the upper thighs inward slightly. Narrow the front of the pelvis.