(Based on the lecture portion of my sleep workshop “Snoozefest: How to Practice Yoga for a Good Night’s Sleep”)
Yawns are the best. Virtually all vertebrates do it, with humans yawning as early as 12 weeks in gestation. A unstifled yawn is literally a breath of fresh air. It feels fantastic.
Humankind doesn’t fully understand the yawn, but it appears to have many benefits. Yawning could help our bodies thermoregulate; it could give us a boost of awareness; it could help us relax around other people; it could help us deal with stress; it could help us get to sleep.
Like a Rock, Like a Log, Like Nature
The intuitive squeezing and stretching that accompanies a yawn feels even better. Science calls this pandiculation. That “first stretch in the morning” movement helps us transition into wakefulness by getting our blood, lymph, and digestive tract moving.
What body part is unaffected by pandiculation? We squeeze the muscles of our low back, our jaw opens wide as we squeeze our facial muscles, an arm or two reaches over head, and our fingers and toes expand and scrunch them.
Yawning indicates a decrease in vigilance, which means we can afford to be less aware of our surroundings and become more conscious of our internal state. This pratyahara (drawing inward) is a necessary precondition for sleeping, and can help us stay mindful throughout the day. Yawning and pandiculation are nature’s yoga, breathing, and meditation practices combined into one effective and intuitive action.
If yawns are healthy, suppressing a yawn might actually be unhealthy. A 2012 article describes one possible detriment to stifling our yawns: “…due to our social sanctions in the Western world to generally suppress the yawning reflex, perhaps we are leading to endemic tonsillitis.” (Thompson et al.) Save your tonsils: yawn!
Breathing is such an effective way to control our internal state because it’s both an automatic and a voluntary process. Yawning occupies the green flash moment within breathing: even when we focus on generating a yawn, we’re never quite sure if we actually created it. Unlike other breathing practices, a yawn’s conception starts too deep within to fully claim it as ours.
Yawning is one of the most mysterious aspects of an already mysterious phenomenon: sleep. We don’t wake up by pretending to be awake. We don’t get hungry by pretending to be hungry. But we start sleeping only after pretending to be asleep. Throughout the day, our brains build what science calls sleep pressure. A chemical called adenosine builds inside our brains throughout the day. We describe the abundance of this chemical as “feeling sleepy.” Sleep pressure is highest at night, and is a way of convincing us to get to bed.
Preparing for sleep effectively is known as sleep hygiene. To my ears, anything with the word “hygiene” sounds a bit off-putting, but this has nothing to do with the antiseptic properties of our beds. It’s all about setting an intention to improve the quality and quantity of our sleep.
It includes some well-known sleepytime tropes: no caffeine after 2pm (for me it’s 10am), no or less alcohol, no big evening meal, less spicy foods for dinner. More recent suggestions are to avoid watching screens at night (TV or smartphones) and dim our lights when the sun goes down. Our brains are great at associating, so it’s also recommended to use our beds only to sleep: don’t eat in bed, for example.
I think we can use movement, insight practices and yawning as a routine to get to sleep. We can spend 5 minutes or an hour lying down, rolling around and yawning. It gets our blood and lymph systems moving in a relaxed way. Yawning and pandiculating squeeze and relax muscles along our entire fascial structure. Becoming interested in our internal state can help stimulate our parasympathetic system, our “rest and digest” state in preparation for a good night’s sleep.
Changing Our Perspective on Yawning
We have a negative association with humans yawning: it means we’re bored or tired. While this may be true in a particular instance, we shouldn’t blame the yawn. We need to infuse yawns with the positive notions they deserve.
Yawns indicate comfort. The greatest compliment an animal can give you is yawning around you. It means they’re comfortable with you! The same goes for us human animals: We yawn more around people we feel close to.
Yawning indicates empathy. My wife and I often yawn at almost the same time. The mirror neurons in our brain, the ones used to generate empathy for others, react most strongly when we see people we love. So if you yawn, and somebody near you yawns, it’s a sign that you two have a meaningful relationship.
Saving our tonsils, getting us to sleep, moving blood and lymph, making us more alert and empathetic… We can trust yawns for all of this. They will be there for us, one after another, as many as we need. Happy yawnings!