Editor's note: The below recommendations are intended to be general recommendations for yoga practitioners and teachers. They are not a replacement for the personal advice of a health professional.
Jaw pain and stiffness, the most troublesome of the primary symptoms of temporomandibular joint disorders (TMD, commonly known as TMJ for “temporomandibular joint”), are some of the most common complaints of my yoga therapy clients. However, those symptoms are usually only mentioned after back, shoulder, and hip issues are discussed, because they don’t view yoga therapeutics as something that could help their jaws. My clients are often surprised by how much yoga has to offer when it comes to relieving tension in the jaw.
I was listening to a podcast recently about the prevalence in our society of jaw issues, many of which were attributed to our regular use of computers and cell phones. Habitual misalignment of the head, a major contributor to jaw issues, is common because of the jutting forward of our heads as we drive, look at our phones, and work at computers. Many lines of work, such as photography or even teaching young children (think of leaning down to listen), also involve pushing the head forward. And the more often we do this, the more it becomes a body samskara (a deeply ingrained habit). When the head pushes forward, the jaw has to adjust, often changing the way the teeth align—sometimes resulting in a misalignment of the jaw that can contribute to jaw pain or stiffness.
One way in which jaw misalignment can cause pain is by creating pressure on the trigeminal nerve (the fifth cranial nerve), which communicates between the face and the brain. Its three parts include the ophthalmic connection (eye area), a maxillary connection, and a mandibular connection. These latter two affect the jaw. When the trigeminal nerve is pinched or compressed due to jaw misalignment (or other issues), it’s pretty hard to ignore (think shock-like nerve pain and/or a burning sensation). Some people find that relaxation techniques including yoga help relieve the pain of trigeminal neuralgia (a chronic condition in which the protective myelin sheath of the trigeminal nerve is damaged, most commonly by the pressure of a blood vessel that comes into contact with the nerve)—a pain sometimes so severe that just brushing the teeth or applying makeup can trigger it. While I don’t suffer from trigeminal neuralgia, after some recent dental work that shifted my bite, I’m currently using many of the techniques described below, and finding them helpful for both relieving pain and tension in my jaw and for reducing stress.
My clients are often surprised by how much yoga has to offer when it comes to relieving tension in the jaw.
The yoga poses and other suggestions that follow are not only quite relaxing but include techniques for bringing your head into optimal alignment to prevent jaw tension.
Before we explore yoga poses that can benefit the jaw, let’s look first at some practical daily solutions for relieving jaw tension.
Be mindful throughout the day to draw your skull up and back and sit up straight. Sounds simple, but it’s a remembering game. Getting your computer off your lap, or leading with your chest instead of your nose while walking, are a couple of examples of mindful ways to make sure your head isn’t jutting forward.
Take jaw breaks. And to release mandibular tension a few times during the day, circle your jaw using your hand and not your jaw muscles.
Bring your head into an up-and-back position, then roll your tongue around the front of the teeth ten times each direction.
What you may notice is the pleasant effect these and the practices below can have on the nervous system as a whole.
A Yoga Practice for Jaw Tension
Here, we can rediscover how we may have been harboring jaw tension, and how we can best release it. Do the following short practice before bed to help your jaw heal.
1. Vamping Pose
While seated, cup the base of your skull with your right hand, and slightly lengthen the back of the neck. Then reach your left arm out to the side (like warrior II position) and turn your head to the left. Hold for three breaths. Then repeat on the other side.
Cupping the base of the skull like this can serve as a reminder of how royal we feel when we get the head centered. It’s also something you can do throughout your day and your yoga practice (as in warrior II) to avoid jutting the head and jaw forward.
2. Downward Facing Cobra
We typically lift our faces when practicing cobra pose. But for this variation, your intention will be to keep your chin slightly tucked and to focus on the extension of the upper back (not the neck). Lie on your belly with your inner thighs together, your forehead hovering just above the floor, and your arms resting along your sides with palms facing inward (a). On an inhale, keep your gaze down and the back of your neck long as you lift your chest away from the floor (b). On an exhale, release. Do five lifts and lowers, thinking of lifting the back of the head as you rise. This can help strengthen the back of the neck, and help you with finding your optimal head alignment.
3.Unlocking the Jaw
Begin seated in a chair or on the floor, placing a soft fist at the jaw on one side. Without moving your hand, first try to turn your head toward the fist, engaging the sternocleidomastoid 1(a major muscle for positioning the head and jaw) in that side of the neck.
Then, gently shift the action to the jaw itself by pressing it toward the hand, holding for one or two breaths and then releasing (you can open the mouth to keep the hinge more relaxed).
Only press briefly—for one or two breaths—so that the jaw doesn’t become inflamed or feel “poppy.” Then repeat the action on the other side.
4. Neck Strengthener
Interlace your fingers behind your head and gently press your head into your palms. Hold for three breaths.
Then turn your head to the left and press it back into your palms for three breaths. Repeat on the other side.
5. Singing Snake
Come to a seated position, cross-legged or in a chair. Begin with your chin lowered on the inhalation. Lift your head as you extend your tongue and breathe out through your mouth (a). Inhale, lower your chin to a neutral position (b), and then angle your head back to the left, and extend your tongue and breathe out through the mouth (c). Return to center (d); then go to the right (e). Focus on dropping the jaw and letting go of tension on each side. Return to center to finish (f).
6. Head Hammock Flexion and Cervical Extension
These poses will stretch first the back and then the front of the neck, areas that can feel tight for people with jaw tension.
Before you practice head hammock, you’ll want to have your props already set up for the cervical extension, so you can then release right back into it.
To set up, make a big loop with your yoga strap (you’ll want a strap that’s at least eight feet long, ten feet long if you’re over six feet tall); make sure the loop is secure, and keep the looped strap within arm’s reach. Place an angled bolster under your thighs (you can angle the bolster on blocks, as pictured, though for shorter legs you may want to skip angling the bolster, especially if your feet hover above the floor), and a rolled-up sticky mat on the floor behind you, horizontally. To position yourself, lie back over the rolled mat so that it supports your neck, adjusting the placement of the roll as necessary to align the C-7 vertebra at the base of the neck with the bottom of the roll. Your head will likely not touch the floor.
Once you have your setup, pick up the securely looped strap and wrap one end of the loop behind your head, just above the ears; place the other end around the arch of one foot. Extend that leg toward the sky, flexing your foot. Let the strap support the head. Stay for two to five minutes; then repeat on the other side.
As a variation, you can also angle your head slightly in order to release one side of the neck and then the other.
When you're finished, remove the strap and lie back over the rolled mat. Remember that you’ll want the mat roll to support your neck, with C-7 at the bottom of the roll and your head tilting back. Allow your jaw to relax completely. Your mouth may be open here, which can help the jaw to relax.
Gently press one hand to your forehead for a breath or two to encourage the head to fully relax.
Then, with your arms back down at your sides and a relaxed distance from the body, stay for five minutes.
Then, bring your left hand to your left temple and briefly press into that hand (a). Repeat on the other side (b), and then bring the heel of the hand between your eyebrows and press the head to the palm lightly (c) before removing the roll and letting the body rest in for several minutes.
In addition to this short yoga sequence and the tips to apply throughout the day, I offer one more thing you can do for jaw tension: When you go to bed, encourage ease and relaxation in your jaw. One way to promote relaxation is to count out long, deep breaths (four counts or more on both your inhalation and exhalation) until you fall asleep.
Relieving jaw tension may prove to be a ticket to better sleep, and it may lessen your stress overall. In fact, you may well find that relaxing the jaw through yoga practice has a domino effect of relaxation on your entire body!
1. (The sternocleidomastoids in each side of the neck are responsible for rotating the head; working together, these muscles also flex the neck, extending the head.)