The Yoga of Yawning

By Michelle Fajkus & Charles MacInerney

{Read the full, original post on Elephant Journal}

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Only we humans, conditioned to be polite, suppress our urge to yawn. Our suppression of a natural, healthy, physical urge is actually detrimental to our health.

Yawning is an ancient and vitally important reflex. Human fetuses begin to yawn and pandiculate (stretching and yawning at the same time) during the 12th week of pregnancy. All vertebrates yawn—humans, primates, mammals, marsupials, birds, reptiles.

There is a misconception that yawning implies boredom, disinterest, or tiredness. Yawning helps us transition from wakefulness to sleeping at night, and it also helps us transition from sleeping to wakefulness in the morning. Yawning increases circulation of cerebrospinal fluid and plays a role in arousal. Yawning also helps us relax and reduce our stress levels, which is why Olympic athletes are often seen yawning prior to competition.

I (Charles) began taking yoga classes in Oxford when I was 11. At the end of the practice, during savasana (corpse pose), I went into a state of deep relaxation. When my teacher closed the class with an Aum chant, I started to yawn. Not wanting to be disrespectful, I tried to suppress the urge and when it got away from me, I covered my mouth.

After class, my teacher advised, “Don’t suppress the urge to yawn. Let it out,” and yawned herself. After that, I indulged in yawn after yawn, until my eyes watered, and I felt alert, calm, and happy.

In a workshop he taught at the Texas Yoga Retreat last fall in Austin, I (Michelle) witnessed the humorous way in which Charles can yawn with his entire body—mouth, arms, legs, fingers, and toes! He encouraged all of us in the class to practice yawning and considers it the perfect yogic “complete breath” and an underutilized form of pranayama. (Charles is one of the main organizers of the annual weekend retreat and always offers a few fun, fascinating workshops.)

The scientific community is just beginning to realize how important yawning is to our overall health and well-being. Repetitive yawning increases the beneficial effects.

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Step out of the Bureaucracy of Ego

Chakra 7thI’ve been thinking a lot about escape lately—and the comforts of home.

Escape is a myth, an illusion. There is no escape. This is it. Here we are.

Yet, paradoxically, there are many escapes—even more than the good old standards like binge-drinking, drug use, overeating, sex, TV, caffeine, and shopping. Reading, writing, and speaking just to hear oneself talk can all be forms of escape. Even yoga and meditation can serve as escapes and feed our addictive personalities.

“It is important to see that the main point of any spiritual practice is to step out of the bureaucracy of ego. This means stepping out of ego’s constant desire for a higher, more spiritual, more transcendental version of knowledge, religion, virtue, judgment, comfort, or whatever it is that the particular ego is seeking.” ~ Chögyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

I have created a comfortable home. I have an awesome life—which is not to say that I don’t have struggles and stresses—but, my struggles and stresses have evolved and diminished incredibly due to the lifestyle I have chosen to live. One of simplicity, natural beauty, mindfulness, and loving kindness.

This life I am currently living has bloomed and flourished thanks to discontent. In my 20s, I was discontent with the standard life I had been conditioned to embrace: the hamster wheel of school, higher education, attainment of degrees, career promotions, two-week vacations, professional existence until retirement, and death.

Even earlier, I was discontent with the dogma I had been conditioned to believe—that I was an “original sinner,” full of faults, needing to confess, repent, and be redeemed or saved. That Jesus was the perfect, white-skinned, blue-eyed son of God, crucified for my sake. I was discontent with the contents of my mind, my moodiness, my manic depression, my irrational anxiety, my being told to just take one of these pills every day to make the pain go away.

Now, it’s clear to see that my discontent was a great gift.

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How to Own Your Shadow

We all know about spiritual teachings regarding our body, mind and spirit, or soul, but many times the teachings leave out an essential fourth area of work—shadow work.

Life is duality. Yin, yang. Moon, sun. Black, white.

But, of course, life is also full of paradox. Death and life are black and white, yet simultaneously painted with infinite shades of color. We make choices every day, all the time, yet control is an illusion.

Nothing is linear or as easy as a list of ten pieces of advice.

Owning our shadow sides means being in touch with reality.

It means expanding our self-knowledge to include awareness and acceptance of our dark side, our shadow. What do we fear? What makes us rage? What are our habits and patterns? Where is our resistance?

Body work is movement, which has a thousand forms of expression from sports to yoga to hiking to massage and more.

Mind work is meditation, which is really just a fancy way of saying sitting still and witnessing the mind and its activity in a nonjudgmental way. Mind work works mostly on the levels of thought and emotion such as insight meditation or loving kindness techniques.

Spirit work is also about meditation, deeper meditation, and the incorporation of mindfulness practice into our daily lives.

So, what about the shadow? What is it and why should we care?

Shadow work is another category of mind work that is often neglected or ignored completely. It’s just as crucial as body work, mind work and spirit work. In fact, without doing shadow work, we will never get rid of our neuroses, no matter strong our “spiritual practice” may be.

Unless we start owning our shadow sides, our lives will never be completely functional.

Here’s to working with our shadow aspects, owning them and transforming them—thereby freeing up more energy to focus on the light.

How do you shine light on your shadow? What are your escapes? What are your fears? What makes you mad? What makes you feel guilty or ashamed? How can you own your shadow?

To learn more about working with your shadow side, check out our new e-booklet, Shadow Work!