As a multiple black belt, a Reiki practitioner, and a professional dancer of twenty years and counting I have spent a great deal of time studying the various capacities of the human body. They are truly miraculous things capable of a near infinite assortment of actions and skills, above and beyond the incredible processes of ordinary functioning. The more devotedly and intricately you train your body the more you get to know it, understand how the countless myriad pieces fit together, and what those pieces can do in specific combinations.
One common theme to all forms of athletic training is the pursuit of achieving maximum results through the most efficient means and methods possible. The more efficiently you can perform a task the more you can repeat it, the longer you can sustain it, or the further you can enhance it.
A massive part of this process, whatever the discipline, is constant repetitive training to make the action itself an automatic skill. The other part is the application of a conceptual approach, either to give the task a beneficial mental target or to nuance the process through use of a specific technique. In simpler terms, practicing helps us to master ‘what’ and the way we mentally and physically approach it nuances ‘how’.
A fundamental principle which holds true in sports, dance, and life in general is that a relaxed muscle moves far more easily and freely than a clenched one. A simple demonstration, make a fist with one hand. Clench the fist as hard as you can then try to move that arm around while clenched. Then, keep the fist closed but relax the muscles in your arm as much as you can and once again try to move the arm around.
Freedom of movement and range of motion vastly improve when our muscles are relaxed.
Even in something as combative as martial arts, which involve striking and grappling, the ideal is to remain as relaxed possible as much as possible. Clenched muscles move much more slowly, clumsily, are less precise, and connect with much less power. Staying relaxed until just before the moment of impact allows for a great deal more speed which generates power, flexibility, accuracy, and ability to recover.
In dance we sometimes do things which seem to defy the laws of physics. Leaps, turns, powerful accents and postures all require energy and exertion. But clenched muscles are heavy, slow, clunky, rending movements lethargic and wooden looking. Free and engaging movement requires the body to be relaxed and expanding not clenched and contracting.
And in ordinary life some of the most common complaints are of headaches, back pain, and feelings of exhaustion. Tense or clenched muscles burn an immense amount of energy, leaving us feeling drained, and if they remain clenched for too long can lead to aches in our body and constriction of blood flow to the skull and scalp resulting in headaches. The body is a holistic organism. If one part of it is tense the rest of it follows suit, whether the initial tension was deliberate or not.
As human beings our bodies respond to stress and anxiety by reflexively tensing certain muscles groups as part of the ‘fight-or-flight, protect-the-vital-organs’ impulse. The most common are the ones at the base the neck which then become the source for most headaches. Our mostly seated existence and resulting crunched postures cause the muscles in the lower back, hips, and glutes to seize up sparking all sorts of pains up and down our spines. Since these clenchings are subconscious it can be difficult to notice or thwart them.
The good news is we can use the body’s holistic nature to our advantage. Just as the whole body will tense up in response to singular tension, so too will it relax if we can coax certain key areas to soften and release. Since focusing on a do always proves more effective than a don’t rather than trying to tell our muscles not to clench, or to stop clenching, we can focus on relaxing certain areas which can be most effective for getting the entire body to follow along.
Enter the feet, the top of the skull, and the yawning effect.
Finding The Sensation
First, to create the feeling we are after the best method is to give our bodies the sensation of it. We all understand a yawn but imaging your feet or skull yawning might be a bit off-putting. Instead, take one hand and bring the tips of all the fingers and thumb together to make it look like a duck bill or as though you’re about to pick a fight in Italian.
Then place the point of the duck bill against your leg. Now, keeping the tips of your fingers and thumb gently pressing down spread them out away from each other slowly until your palm lays flat against your leg. It should feel like the palm of your hand is yawning open as it spreads the points of contact out and away. Repeat this a few times nice and slow focusing on the sensation of it, the yawning feel.
Now, if you haven’t already, take a seat. Cross your legs so you can get access to the bottom of one of your feet. Yes, this might be a bit ticklish but take a couple deep breaths and remember to move slowly. Place the point of the bill against the arch of your foot just in front of the heel with the thumb towards the heel and the fingers towards the ball of your foot. Maintain a decent amount of pressure as you slowly spread the finger tips away, making sure the fingers head up towards the ball of the foot. The pressure and slow movement will help to minimize the ticklishness.
Repeat this a few times feeling the yawn sensation against the foot. If you aren’t already leaping up and around from the ticklishness continue to repeat the movement but now try and get your toes to play along. Feel the yawning sensation against the foot now extending into the foot as well. If this isn’t driving you absolutely bonkers, feet can be tricky for some people, be sure to repeat this process on the other foot as well.
Moment of truth, stand up with your feet about hip width apart and with your knees slightly flexed. Take a deep breath in and as you let the breath out try to repeat the yawning feeling in the bottoms of your feet. It should feel like the arch of your foot is trying to flatten against the floor and your toes will likely be pulling slightly up into the air. This will make your feet feel more spread out and down into the floor. Your body will likely want to go with them, you might even find yourself lowering slightly in your legs. That is the grounding and opening sensation for your feet.
Now, repeat this process with the top of your head. Place the point of the duck bill on the top of your skull, right in the center, and slowly spread the points outwards with moderate pressure. Whether the finger tips travel towards the front, the back, or out the sides won’t really matter. Aside from mussing up your hair it will start to make your scalp feel like it is being spread out and down towards your neck.
As you repeat the action try and feel your scalp playing along. You will start to feel your face relaxing, your cheeks and jaw drooping, your neck and shoulders may start to slump. Once you can feel that spreading sensation focus on trying to keep the top of your skull at the same height despite the out and downward drooping. It will start to feel like the crown of your head is emerging from the depths, breaking the surface and opening towards the sky.
Finally try and put them together. Make them a simultaneous action, feet and skull yawning in unison. You will likely find one easier to envision and focus on than the other which is normal, just try to make sure they both stay connected. This will give the body the sensation of both lowering and stretching upwards and opening in all directions.
For Everyday Life
Once you are able to create and feel the simultaneous top and bottom yawning sensation dose yourself with it from time to time whatever you happening to be doing. You can be standing, sitting, working away at something. Just take a moment to put your feet flat, breathe, and give the feet and skull a yawn.
The more often we can give our necks and backs a quick dose of relaxation the less likely we are to develop the aches and pains which can be so draining and distracting. In addition the more the body is able to relax and release the better our breathing becomes, which is better for our overall health. And the physical release of muscle tension will generate a corresponding release of emotion tension and anxiety which among other things will boost your immune system.
For General Sports And Athletics
Running, jumping, swinging bats or clubs or rackets, or simply working out and stretching the more relaxed your body is the more efficiently it will work. If you have ever taken a golf lesson loosening up the body will have been a prominent part of the process and for good reason. For multiple parts of the body to work smoothly in co-ordination they need to be able to move freely. Use the yawning sensation to both prepare and deliver and you will find your energy sustains much longer and your result become much more controllable.
When stretching, passively or aggressively, the yawning of the feet and skull will help relax the muscles so your stretch can reach the tendons which are the real targets. If your muscles are tense, which they will do if you are really working a stretch, then you won’t gain all that much genuine increase in your flexibility because you are simply arguing with the muscles rather than stretching and extending the tendons beneath them. Whether doing ordinary stretches or Yoga poses yawn the feet and skull as you go into the stretch and keep re-dosing it as you hold the stretch. Keep those muscles from reflexively clenching up and undoing all your good work.
For The Martial Artists And Energy Workers
Whether working set forms, grappling, sparring, or working with internal energies the more you can relax and open the body the more balanced and effective you will be. Your stances will be more rooted but still able to move, if you are trying to be light on your feet you will still have full agility but with a solid base beneath it, and when grappling you will have greater capacity for wiggling and squirming to either execute or escape the locks and holds.
When working strike pads imagine the skull and feet yawning at the point of impact, even inside the solid fist. A relaxed body will release more power and impact while also keeping your rooted to recover afterwards. And in terms of stances the more open and relaxed your feet are the more rooted your stance will be and the more control and balance you will have when transitioning from one stance to the next.
For those of us who work with internal energies, whichever name or lexicon you wish to use for them, we all know the most potent gateways in the body are the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, and top of the head and tension acts like a block in the plumbing. Since we use them all the time we are usually pretty good at keeping tension out of our hands but it is surprising how much tension can sneak into the other two, especially when we are concentrating on something. When working with energy try to co-ordinate the foot and skull yawning with the act of exhalation to keep those little plugs from sneaking into the system.
For The Dancers
Flexibility, balance, and extension are top priorities for all styles of dance. Even those more grounded and in the pocket still function best when the body is loose and able to move. We achieve extension and shaping not by reaching or straining for it but by releasing it. Want to make the arm look longer yawn the palm of the hand, want the leg to extend yawn the foot, want to fill the space and create engaging presence yawn the skull.
Latin, ballroom, ballet, contemporary, jazz, burlesque, hip-hop, crump, pick your style the rule still applies. A relaxed and breathing body moves better than one which is clenched off.
Pay special attention to the top of skull. With all the work we do on the other parts of our bodies and shapes the crown of the head often gets overlooked and tension there leads to strain in the face, tension and hunching of the neck and shoulders, and will make us more likely to fall off balance when trying to spin or turn.
If you really want to push the boat out you can add a third yawn. Back and down along the tail bone.
Lower back tension tends to cause us to crunch or cinch up the base of our spines giving us a slight ‘ski-jump’ or ‘Mr. Magoo’ type shape. Whether we are looking to simply ease the lower back, be more rooted for a strike or throw, gain that extra bit of hip action in our Latin walks, or get that extra dynamic ‘pop’ to our movement, a down and back yawning action in the tail bone can work wonders.
Place the peak of the duck bill in the middle of your lower back just above the hip bones. Spread the contact points out and down along your tail bone with the fingers fanning out towards your glutes.
A yawn in the tail bone can sometimes be enough all on its own but if you can get all three yawns going in unison your body will feel like it is almost sloppy relaxed with your shoulders softening and rolling open, your neck will feel longer, your legs will feel more sturdy beneath you, and your breathing will be deeper and more calming.