Is a yawn simply a silent scream for coffee or is it something more? Understand why yawning is a spiritual practice, and how you can include more of it in your daily routine.
As a spirituality teacher, I’m often asked what my favorite easy spiritual practice is. When I answer “yawning,” I get a lot of strange looks.
Admittedly, even for scientists yawning is still a bit of a puzzle. Theories abound on why we do it, from being tired or bored to lack of oxygen or to lower the temperature of the brain. Sometimes yawning can signal a change in physiological states—from sleep to waking, boredom to alertness, waking to sleep, and so on.
What’s more, yawning is not limited to humans. Even our pets do it. Have you ever noticed your dog doing it after a particularly tough day or a visit to the V-E-T? Dogs often use a yawn to release stress, deal with nervousness, or get rid of pent-up energy.
The other day, Instagram informed me a yawn was a silent scream for coffee. Yet, there’s so much more to the phenomenon of yawning. Try doing it in a crowded room. Researchers suggest people who yawn back have a high level of empathy.
Notably, when others are around, we usually yawn less—even when the presence of others is implied, such as when our webcams are on, one study found. Although we may be socially conditioned not to yawn, plentiful research suggests why we should.
Health Benefits of Yawning
In their book How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist, Dr. Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman assert that yawning can “physiologically relax you in less than a minute.” Their research suggests that yawning creates a unique type of neural activity in the area of the human brain that plays a fundamental role in consciousness and self-reflection. What’s more, this neural activity has been linked to increasing social awareness and creating feelings of empathy.
Newberg and Waldman offer these 12 reasons why we should yawn every day:
1. Stimulates alertness and concentration
2. Optimizes brain activity and metabolism
3. Improves cognitive function
4. Increases memory recall
5. Enhances consciousness and introspection
6. Lowers stress
7. Relaxes every part of your body
8. Improves voluntary muscle control
9. Enhances athletic skills
10. Fine-tunes your sense of time
11. Increases empathy and social awareness
12. Enhances pleasure and sensuality
Granted, yawning may not bring on immediate nirvana. Yet, any practice that can increase self-reflection and empathy is a worthy one in our pursuit of wellness and spiritual connection.
As the Zen saying goes, “Enlightenment is an accident, and practice makes us accident-prone.”
Tips for Starting a Morning Yawning Practice
Add these five steps to your get-up-and-go routine:
- Stand up. Raise your arms straight up as high as you can, stretching the fingers wide, then release your arms down to your sides with an exhale.
- Take a deep breath—a really full breath, stretching your mouth open like a yawn—and then exhale, sighing loudly.
- Pause. Don’t skip this step. Passing out is not the goal of this exercise.
- Repeat fake yawn-y breath. Alternate breaths 12 to 15 more times with a short pause in between. (Most likely, your fake yawns will turn into bona fide ones.)
- Sink into 10 minutes of stillness, watching your breath, then slowly continue your day.
More Reasons to Yawn All Day Long
Of course, yawning doesn’t have to be relegated to the morning hours.
At work or home: If you find yourself in conflict with another person, try stepping out of the room for a quick yawn to release tension and anxiety.
Constantly bombarded? Change your desktop pic to someone yawning—seeing a pic (or even reading the word yawn) can trigger a releasing yawn.
When you’re pissed off: Nothing zaps spiritual energy like anger. Yawning is safer and more cost-effective than tossing plates into a wall.
Before meditating: Use a yawn to kick-start your breathing or meditation session.
And it’s time to stop labeling the tension-relieving practice of yawning as “rude.” Imbue your entire day with yawning moments of wellness—and perhaps you’ll, in fact, need less coffee.
For another unusual and delightful morning practice, read "Got Gökotta?"