By habitually wrinkling the forehead, furrowing the eyebrows together or clenching the jaw, what signals are we inadvertently sending to our brains?
Practice stretching and strengthening the facial muscles, because how you hold and move the face sends some pretty direct messages to the brain. (See Strack et al’s 1988 study, “Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile,” or any of the many following studies of the facial feedback hypothesis, for evidence that just simulating a smile makes a person happier.)
To clear the face—and perhaps the mind—of tension, we can give ourselves a pre-yoga jaw massage, then officially begin your yoga practice with Humming Bee Breath and Lion’s Breath. Leave the tongue out for a minute after Lion’s Breath, lengthening it toward the tip of the chin while breathing as normally as possible.
Warm up in lunges and Warriors and glide the hands over your forehead, unwrinkling it, trying to widen the space between the eyebrows and soften at the temples. Imagine the brain itself unwrinkling, turning into a smooth sea-stone, and ask yourself if you feel less worried when you furrow less.
In Cobra and Updog, try stretching the mouth wide and looking up (keeping the forehead untroubled for extra inner bonus points).
In Downward Dog, why not flubber the lips?
In Triangle, try sucking on one cheek, and then the other, as if enjoying a butterscotch. In balance poses, to strengthen the muscles around the eyes while improving balance, see if you can move your eyes back and forth, up and down, without moving your head at all (kind of like the I’m-watching-you eyes of a haunted-house portrait).
In a palm-up version of Dancer’s Pose, take long exhales, lips soft and wide, as if blowing out candles on a birthday cake held in an outstretched hand.
Standing, getting ready for Pyramid, we could blow a kiss. Then while folding,send that kiss to the world with a Vanna White sweep of your arms, imagining being at the center of an ever-widening circle of love. Winding your legs and arms together to accordion up and down for a moving version of Eagle Pose, you could inhale normally as you rise, then puff out your cheeks like an inexpert deep-sea diver as you exhale and bend the knees more to go deeper.
In Camel, you could give yourself an underbite or stick your tongue up as if aiming to taste a ceiling made of cotton candy.
Spend longer than usual in your inversions to channel circulation and energy toward the head, energy you imagine oozing like syrup from the lower spine to the face and the brain.
In any pose where we look down at the floor just in front of the hands (Plank and Forearm Plank, Warrior III, Crow), we can imagine looking down at a glassy pool of water. From that reflective pool, a tranquil face is peering up at you: maybe the face of the Buddha or any other face that—to you— embodies calmness and wisdom and kindness (think Joseph Campbell, Carl Sagan, Leonard Cohen Glinda the Good Witch or your best-loved teacher or cat) staring back with great understanding, blinking slowly.
And maybe the edges of your mouth turn up just a bit, at the thought that that face might in some way be a reflection of your own face.
Moving into the quieter portion of your practice, as you take a seat for Bharadvaja’s twist, you could tilt your head from side to side and tip your chin until you feel a rewarding neck stretch. Then, with legs outstretched, massage your ears, noticing if you feel sensation anywhere else when pulling on the ears.
Tug on the tips of the ears to pull into a forward fold, staying long at the front of the body. And down there, on the floor beyond your heels, is that quiet pool again, that gentle face in it, looking up at you, needing nothing.
Stretch the heart a forward a little further to see the face better. Does beholding the attitude of that face offer your face any clues as to where it might let go?
In cross-legged seat, just before Savasana, collect energy in your own hands by rubbing the palms together, pulsing them together and apart, feeling a magic stickiness collecting in the air between them. Then wash that energy over your face, shampoo it over your scalp, stroke it along the sides of the neck.
In Savasana, if your face is not yet perfectly relaxed, you might envision the face you’ve been conjuring for yourself now hovering above you. See it beginning to descend softly, like a veil silking down over your features. You may notice a tingling sensation in your face as that face settles over you, as that face merges with your face, imbuing you with its finest qualities. It feels less like a masking than an unmasking.
“Ah,” you might sigh, as every pore of your face seems to open wide and every cell of your face seems to breathe deeply for the first time. And the relaxation of your face moves inward, like rain through topsoil, making its way to your mind, which relaxes in kind, softening, sprawling, widening in all directions.
Whenever you are ready, sit up, and blink your eyes shut for one last glance inward. You might again imagine your energy in the form of light, moving slickly now, as if spurred on by each strong beat of your signal heart, from your tailbone up to your head, where it blazes like a blizzard lantern, illumining your face from within.
What you see behind your closed eyelids now is not darkness, but light; and when at last you open your eyes, how limpid they are, how bright.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Amber Burke
Editor: Renee Picard
Photo Credit: pbkwee at Flickr