Tongue Tension and Headaches
Maybe you’ve had one of those headaches that seem to start in the nape of your neck. Surprisingly, tension in the neck is often a result of tension in structures that lie in front of the neck: the jaw, throat and tongue.
For most of us, concentrated thought involves verbalization. When you’re puzzling over something, your tongue and back of your throat (think of the place where you swallow) unconsciously become active, even though you’re not speaking. Next time you review your bank statement, notice what’s going on in your throat or tongue. If you sense tension there, you can begin to transform the habit by creating an alternative sensation of stability for your head.
Try this experiment: widen the back edges of your tongue to spread sideways toward your upper back molars. Then let your tongue tenderly carpet the roof of your mouth, spreading out to softly touch the inside edges of all the upper teeth maxilla. The roof of the mouth is formed by two mirrored bones called maxillae. Porous and cavern-like, they also form the floor of the nose.
For some people, the tongue’s soft support for the maxillae seems to widen the nasal cavities, making inhalation smoother, and supporting nose breathing. Other people may notice a subtle sensation of length along the upper throat, as if the head were released upward, making more room for the pharynx.
If you’ve learned a different position for your tongue in a meditation class, remember that those practices are practices; what I’m sharing here is the normal position for the tongue. And, I’m suggesting that this can contribute to healthy postural organization of the neck, as well as prevent occasional tension headaches.
How you hold your tongue can be a deep-set habit that may have begun with how you suckled as an infant. As you become aware of tension in your tongue—you may be surprised at how pervasive it is—you’ll need to renew the tongue softening many times a day.
Each time, take a nano-second to register the difference in your breathing and in the posture of your neck.
The neuroplasticity of our brains lets us replace old habits with new ones–if we approach the challenge with patience and gentleness.
Good luck with this!
Tongue Tension & Posture
“My tongue?” you say. “What does my tongue have to do with my posture?” Actually, quite a lot.
Try on some of these tongue positions.
I always like to underscore my points with body awareness, so let’s begin with that. Start by trying on four tongue positions:
- Let your tongue rest like a puddle in the floor of your mouth. The tip of your tongue will lightly touch the inside of your lower teeth.
- Rest the front third of your tongue very lightly against your upper palate, the tip just touching the inside of the upper teeth. Let the back of your tongue feel wide and soft.
- Press your tongue against your upper palate. The tongue flattens and the mouth cavity becomes smaller.
- The “half-swallow”–what your tongue does just before you swallow—the back of it thickens. Hold that position for a beat or two.
Next, for each of these positions, notice the following:
- How it feels to breathe.
- Your emotions or mood.
- The expression and tone of your face.
- Your head’s position above your body: more forward or back?
- Differing tensions in the muscles that join your neck and head.
- How it feels to walk with your tongue in each of these places. Notice specifically the motion in your spine.
Position #2 is the one we want.
The tongue’s presence below the maxillae helps support the upper face, provides length for the throat and tone in the entrance to the gut tube. It helps align the neck and head above the torso. It also helps support the nasal bones, making it easier to breathe through the nose.
Recently I’ve met several New Rules of Posture fans that took my advice on page 159 to heart. You’ll find there a paragraph advising the reader to let the tongue puddle in the floor of the mouth. It’s good advice as an exercise for relaxing the tongue and jaw. Unfortunately I didn’t say what to do with the tongue after you had relaxed it, and so these readers had been trying to cultivate the #1 position. (Wishing you could go back and re-write your book is the downside of being published!)
I now have a pretty strong opinion about where the tongue belongs when the body is upright and moving. In Pilates and yoga classes I too often see tongues become engaged in the effort to perform a challenging move or pose. The resulting jaw tension and tension in the deep core can only be counter-productive. The tongue does support the neck, but not through tension.
Where do you think Mona Lisa’s tongue rests? How about the actresses in the photo?
Adapted by G Ross Clark
Mind Your Tongue 🙂
What Does Your Tongue Have to Do with Your Posture?
The tongue is a fascinating muscular organ with a myriad of functions and purposes. It is a voluntary, sphincter-like muscle, which is vital for chewing and swallowing food, speech, and taste. Of course, as we all know, it is also instrumental in creating pleasure and having fun. In the back of the mouth, the tongue is anchored into the hyoid bone.
In many yoga classes during centering and sometimes even while doing yoga postures, or asanas, you might be instructed to let the tongue float, release the tip of the tongue away from the roof of the mouth or from pressing into the back of the teeth, and soften and relax both the tip and root of the tongue. Once you do that, the upper and lower teeth stop clenching, the jaw relaxes, and you discover tremendous space in the mouth cavity. On a more subtle level, it’s like you shed a heavy coat of tension. You diffuse strain.
If you pay attention, you might feel more space overall–from the top and back parts of the head (i.e. the brain, or thinking flesh) all the way down to the pelvic floor, the groins, the hips, and the legs. Your external and internal gaze soften, your receptivity expands, and you realize that the tension in your tongue and jaw has been keeping you on “back-burner high alert,” literally keeping you “in your head” at the expense of the rest of your physical flesh.
Modern anatomy provides a simple explanation of that phenomenon. The tongue is the top part of the Deep Front Line (DFL), as explained to us by Tom Myers. The deep front line starts (or ends, depending on how you want to look at it) deep in the sole of the foot (where the tentacle attachments of the tibialis posterior muscle connect and support the major bones of the foot and ankle like a hammock) and ends (or starts) with the tongue. This is literally your plumb line, gravity line, support line, your posture line.
Per Myers, it plays a major role in lifting the inner arch, stabilizing each segment of the legs, supporting the lumbar spine from the front (where we all need support!), stabilizing the chest while allowing the expansion and relaxation of breathing, and balancing the delicate neck and the heavy head on top of it. Here is a fascinating video of Myers (note: this a dissection of the deep front line and therefore, viewer discretion is advised), walking us through the entire deep front line in one piece: from feet to diaphragm to tongue!
Doug Keller calls the DFL the core sutra (thread) of the body. And the DFL is indeed your core! Further, per Myers, the DFL is not strictly associated with any movement (minus a couple of exceptions like the diaphragm!), yet no movement is outside its sphere of subtle and profound influence.
But let me get back to the tongue. So, having a tense tongue can literally create tension (and therefore, inefficiency) anywhere along this core line. If the gravity line is not in optimality/balance, the body will find other ways to function by compensating with other more superficial structures (this is the beauty and the curse of the human flesh). Remember this the next time you feel gripping anywhere in the body when in a yoga pose you find challenging or try to do a pose by clenching your teeth and pushing your tongue against the insides of the mouth.
Here is even a more radical thought: why not remember that throughout the day, not just in your daily or weekly or whatever frequency works for you yoga class. Start noticing how much tension you hold with your tongue throughout your day and release it anytime you notice.
This can at first be anywhere from exasperating to annoying as you realize how much you do it, but I think the more you engage in that simple technique of letting the tongue free, the less you will grip it.
As you do this, there will be more spring in your step (literally!). You will move and function with more grace and utility. Your engagement with your surroundings will be both more enhanced and less harsh.
Adapted by G Ross Clark
Tags: Anxiety | anxiety | vegus nerve | stimulation | brainstem | sympathetic | nervous
Simple Trick to Relieve Stress: Vagus Nerve Stimulation
The next time you’re feeling anxious or depressed, don’t take a prescription drug.
Instead, try a safe and effective remedy for stress that is backed by thousands of years of anecdotal and scientific evidence.
Doctors and other experts say that stimulating something called the vagus nerve – which originates in the brainstem and extends all the way down to the tongue, vocal chords, heart, lungs, and other internal organs – is a quick and easy way to relieve anxiety.
You may have never heard of the vagus nerve, but it is the most important element of the parasympathetic nervous system, the one that calms you down. When you stimulate your vagus nerve, you counteract your sympathetic nervous system, the one that causes stress by activating your fight-or-flight response.
“It’s almost like yin and yang,” says Mladen Golubic, M.D., of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine. “The vagal response reduces stress. It reduces our heart rate and blood pressure. It changes the function of certain parts of the brain, stimulates digestion, all those things that happen when we are relaxed.”
When you stimulate your vagus nerve, it releases an array of anti-stress enzymes and hormones such as acetylcholine, prolactin, vasopressin, and oxytocin. Vagus nerve stimulation is associated with benefits such as improved memory, immune function, sleep, and higher levels of growth hormone. It also may help tame inflammation, allergic responses, and tension headaches.
Unless you’re a yoga master, you cannot directly and consciously stimulate your vagus nerve. But you can indirectly stimulate your vagus nerve to relieve anxiety and depression.
“Deep breathing is a great example of that,” says Dr. Golubic.“We have a certain space where we can control breathing. We can extend the inhalation and the exhalation. So by those practices we can activate the parasympathetic nervous system.”
Other ways to stimulate your vagus nerve include cold-water facial immersion after exercise and submerging the tongue.
“The best practice is a complete breath which involves diaphragmatic breathing,” says Dr. Golubic.
That means expanding your diaphragm, a muscle located horizontally between the chest cavity and stomach cavity. Also known as “belly breathing,” diaphragmatic breathing is characterized by an expansion of the abdomen instead of the chest.
Start by taking a deep inhalation into your belly while counting to five. Then very slowly exhale while pursing your lips. To get into a vagus-nerve stimulation mode, it’s best to reduce the number of breaths from a typical 10-14 per minute to 5-7 per minute.
“If you look at the studies that have been done, about 10 minutes of deep breathing is enough for you to notice that you’re calming down and becoming relaxed,” Dr. Golubic says. “The key is to do it on a daily basis in such a fashion that you gradually reduce the number of breaths per minute. The whole purpose is to relax.”
Some studies show that cold water facial immersion, especially after exercise, can quickly stimulate the vagus nerve and help reduce the heart rate while activating the digestive and immune systems. The area behind the eyeballs is a particularly accessible zone for stimulation.
The best way to practice this technique is, while seated, bend your head forward into a basin of cold water, and submerge your forehead, eyes, and at least two-thirds of your cheeks. During studies of this technique, the water temperature was kept at about 50-53 degrees Fahrenheit.
Another way to stimulate the vagus nerve is to immerse your tongue in saliva. The tongue and the hard and soft palate are other accessible zones for stimulation.
In order to promote salivation, try relaxing and reclining in chair and imagine that you are sucking on a juicy lemon. If that doesn’t work, simply fill your mouth with warm water.
Bathe your tongue in the saliva or water while breathing deeply through your nose. Enjoy the feelings of relaxation in your head, neck, hands, hips, and feet. Do this for three minutes.
“The best part of these techniques is that they are effective, have no side effects, and they are free,” said Dr. Golubic.