Yawning to Exercise the Face, Throat, Diaphragm, and Voice

In a previous post, I wrote a review of the book Parkinson’s Disease and the Art of Moving by John Argue. In this post, I’d like to discuss one of the practices that Argue highly recommends for people with Parkinson's (PWP): yawning! (Have a look at this Youtube video for visuals of Argue demonstrating many of his exercises, including yawning, as well as tips for daily movement for PWP.)

Most of the time we take yawning for granted–maybe it means we’re tired, or maybe someone nearby happened to yawn and we followed suit. But have you ever noticed how good it feels to yawn? This is because a yawn is one of several varieties of breathing that invoke the autonomic nervous system–the part of the nervous system that works involuntarily.

A yawn, a spontaneous deep breath, a big sigh— all of these are indications of your system making a needed adjustment for itself, such as taking in extra oxygen or relaxing a muscle that has been in use too long.

Benefits of yawning

Of course, most of the time we don’t feel the need to yawn. But there’s a trick that can be of great benefit to PWP: fake it till you make it! A pretend yawn will have many of the same beneficial effects as a real yawn. More often than not, if you try it a few times—vocalizing the yawn and even visualizing yourself yawning as you do it—it actually will trigger a real yawn!

Yawning is particularly valuable for PWP because it can help exercise areas that are prone to rigidity, such as the diaphragm (the muscle most responsible for breathing) and the throat. When you yawn, the muscles around the face and mouth stretch. Try expanding the area of your solar plexus as you yawn, or even picturing your whole belly as a balloon expanding a little in all directions.

A strong vocalized yawn—Yaaaaaahhhhhhh!—simultaneously asks for a loud voice and more activity in the muscles of the face and throat. This is a very useful antidote for PWP who experience a mask-like expression and a quiet voice.

In addition, a yawn causes the larynx (breathing tube) to drop down further than it ever would in conversation, exercising the nearby muscles. To exercise the throat in the other direction, try making a nice audible swallow at the end of your yawn. Swallow as “muscularly” as you can, and finish with a big “aaahhh,” as if you just had a big swig of a cold drink on a summer day.

Tips for practicing

Yawning feels good, helps with breathing, and exercises the face and, when vocalized, the voice. But how does one remember to do it? I have two recommendations. One is simply to begin noticing when you do yawn: notice how it feels, feel your face stretch and your throat move, and notice the fuller volume of your inhalation.

Next, try to establish a practice of yawning. Perhaps you can yawn every time you take your medication, since that’s already on a schedule. Or yawn first thing in the morning and before you go to bed. Whatever schedule works, try yawning several times a day for at least a week. Notice if it makes a difference in your face, voice, and breathing.

YAAAAAAAAAhhhhhhh - Happy yawning!

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