The Yoga of Yawning

By Michelle Fajkus & Charles MacInerney

{Read the full, original post on Elephant Journal}


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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The Story of the Texas Yoga Retreat

TYR3In creating their vision statement—“Building a caring, diverse and empowered yoga community”—the Texas Yoga Retreat co-founders realized they wanted to combine the best attributes of a conference (experienced, high-caliber teachers, multiple workshop options during each time slot), with the best aspects of a yoga retreat (community, compassion, and shared experience).

Bringing famous teachers on board was actually counter-productive to this goal of building community and keeping the retreat affordable. Over the years, they have continued to deliberately invite amazing, local teachers (mainly from Texas) who are not yet famous but should be.

The moment you step onto the grounds at Radha Madhav Dham Ashram in southwest Austin, the incredibly peaceful and loving energy field there is palpable. Built in 1990, the ashram grounds feature 230 acres of rolling green hills, lots of wildlife, including dozens of peacocks milling about (babies are born each spring), luscious gardens, walking trails, and the Ancient Yoga Center, a section of the ashram specifically intended for retreats. With no TVs or cell phones in sight, the ashram is a true sanctuary, enabling all those bathed in its glory to restore their body, mind, and spirit.

Charles, Donna, and Ellen met a devotee from the ashram at a gathering of the Austin Yoga Teachers Association in 1999. When they inquired about the possibility of offering a yoga retreat there, the three were invited for a meeting with a man called Swamiji who was the spiritual leader of the center at the time. They apparently passed the test and were later told that Swamiji had requested the meeting because he needed to look into their hearts. He must have found their intentions to be pure and true. The colleagues were also instrumental in organizing the first few years of the annual Free Day of Yoga in Austin on September 1st, and the three also collaborated to create a yoga teacher training called the Living Yoga Program which continues to be held regularly on the grounds of Radha Madhav Dham.

The inaugural Texas Yoga Retreat in November 2000 was the first time that the ashram had ever invited an outside group to host an event on the property. Year after year, the ashram has been a wonderful spiritual home and the devotees who live there feel like family. The Texas Yoga Retreat is a unique, beneficial, and authentic gathering that has been held annually each fall. Back when it was just beginning, I volunteered to help with marketing and promotion. Throughout the early 2000s, I was blessed to be able to attend the event several times and participate in many inspiring workshops led by talented teachers across many diverse lineages and style of yoga.

Much has remained constant over the nearly two decades since the retreat began. The organizers collect student evaluations after every workshop. The majority of presenters are chosen from the best of previous years’ retreats. These presenters not only deliver quality workshops, but more importantly, they love teaching at the Texas Yoga Retreat and immerse themselves in the experience, rather than just showing up to teach and leaving again.

About 20 percent of the presenters are chosen for the quality of their reputation and the content of their workshops. Ellen says, “The teachers we hire are deeply steeped in their own field of practice and this comes through in their teaching. Although you may have been studying yoga for years, these classes are specifically designed to take you to the deeper level, a more authentic level of teaching that you will not typically find in a regular yoga class.”


Keep Reading (full article on elephant journal)

This year’s retreat will be held from October 20-22. You can attend the entire weekend or just come out for the day on Saturday or Sunday. Find more details here.