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I love the word “unclench.” I just like to say it. Unclench is one of those words that evokes many different ideas and visuals for people, and it may mean something different for everyone.
Unclench would be a terrific heavy metal band name.
I enjoy telling people I am unclenching because this also makes them laugh. But after the snort laughs and snickers subside, I explain that I am talking about relaxing.
Unclenching the jaw has to be the fastest way to relax, to take a breath, and to set the reset button. The number one thing we can do to live a more positive and stress-free day-to-day existence is to, well, unclench. Or simply, to relax the face.
Many times we don’t even realize that our jaws (or anything else, for that matter) are clenched in the first place. Some people chronically clench their jaw which can lead to headaches, jaw pain, or even dental problems.
Or, like most of us, the trouble is as simple as holding our emotions and stress in.
I did not notice that my own jaw was clamped shut until a yoga instructor suggested that we “loosen the jaw, soften the face” while easing into yoga asanas. I was astonished to discover that my jaw was, in fact, clenched! It was my “a-ha” moment, right there, on the mat.
Unclenching became my habitual effort from that day forward, and I even apply this mantra to my emotions and thought patterns. It works.
Unclenching, or softening can also transform the experiences of illness, trauma, or even cancer. In fact, this is true for patients, family members, or even caregivers.
Whether it was the emotional terror of my cancer diagnosis, the day-to-day unpredictability of how I felt, physically, or the pure stress of navigating my fears, being able to remind myself to simply unclench was my best habit.
During my chemo infusions, as I had a surgically-implanted “Port-a-Cath” under my skin, with a catheter threaded into my jugular vein for a year, I would make an effort to unclench when the nurses would secure my port (with the needle) and prepare me for infusion. Being relaxed and emotionally "unclenched" was integral to my success every time.
I would simply close my eyes, soften my face, and relax my jaw, right there in front of the oncology and chemotherapy nurses. My being calm and open helped everyone else be calm and open, and the energy in the room was good as a result. I felt very lucky during every medical experience, and concentrated on feeling blessed instead of anxious.
Do it now, with me: Drop your lower jaw away from your upper jaw and let it hang like those heavy metal mouth-breather dudes from high school. Just trust me, they knew how to soften their faces, though I kind of doubt they were actually implementing any yogic or meditative practice.
But they did have an advantage; they were simply relax-faced, unclenched.
This works by softening and loosening the jaw, instantly relaxing all those muscles in your face and neck – and maybe even the whole body. Unclenching the jaw has a ripple effect and manages to lower the heart rate and make a person stop, pause, and take a breath, deliberately.
Beyond this physiological calming effect, the most rewarding effect is to the psyche and spirit, where the body and mind become one.
Perhaps those metal dudes were actually yogis, practising their “pranayama,” or yogic breathing exercises? The “ujjayi breath” is a yoga breathing technique that brings calm and awareness to the present moment, and to the mind and body. The yogis do it by relaxing the jaw and tongue, slowly contracting the throat, and inhaling and exhaling full breaths in a steady rhythm. This creates an audible hissing sound, like the ocean.
And with this rhythm, I find I am suddenly better equipped to deal with whatever is on hand, contemplate a situation, or even reflect on things to come. Anxieties and immediate stressors might even subside for a minute. Or twenty.
Unclench has to be the greatest advice in the universe as the act of doing it – of unclenching – is the easiest thing for us to do, privately and physically.
As us yoga devotees say: The truth lies in the soft face because a soft face leads to soft heart.
Take it from one mouth-breather to another, 2014 is the Year of The Epic Unclenching.
Rock on. Breathe on. Namaste.
Bif Naked is an international recording artist, cancer survivor, poet and activist currently working on her first book with Harper Collins. Loving and living in Vancouver and Paris, simultaneously. You can follow her on Twitter at @bifnaked