Yoga for TMJ: does it work?

TMJ stands for Temporomandibular Joint, or jaw pain and stiffness associated with stress, clenching and grinding the teeth — often while asleep. Over ten million US adults suffer TMJ symptoms, with women experiencing it at twice the rate of men: nearly 7% vs. 3.5%. Dentists often prescribe night guards, soft foods, hot and cold packs — which can help, but they don’t usually cure the problem. Knowing that my own TMJ was related to stress, I sought to resolve the underlying causes through yoga for TMJ.

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Workshop on Yoga for TMJ

Even though my track record with yoga classes is spotty, I signed up for a three-hour workshop, full of optimism that this was going to help me when other things hadn’t. Although I got lost and arrived late, I was the second-to-last person to get there, so the punctual people reserved their judgmental stares for the lady who came last. Thank goodness. I quickly realized I wasn’t the only stressed-out person in the room.

Our instructor was a yogi and an experienced cranio-sacral practitioner. She was about my age and had two little buns near the front of her curly hair, perhaps to contain the longer part of her bangs? Her hair also had streaks of pink and of blue, plus a hairband to keep it off her face. She used a colorful plastic teaching model of the skull to explain what goes on when our jaw starts to tense up. The bright colors on the skull ostensibly differentiated the various bones, but I thought it added a cheery note to what otherwise was a sober topic.

The only downside was when our instructor dropped her visual aid, and it fell apart. She became distracted and un-zen-like as she tried to fit the pieces back together.

 

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Yoga for TMJ: the lion face

“Okay, before we do anything, give me a little lion face,” our instructor said. The Lion Face pose involves dropping your jaw and sticking out your tongue. It’s often accompanied by rolling back the eyes. Here’s a video that shows you how to do it. There are lots of funny lion poses out there, even a flickr group that showcases some of the best ones.

You can’t clench your jaw when you’re doing a lion face. Our teacher emphasized that we needn’t do a “major lion face,” just a “little lion face.” She would talk for a bit, then stop her lecture for us to do the lion face. She would also interject “now do a little lion face”  into the sequence of poses she led us through later.

After I told my family about the lion face, my son took to doing it at random times. We might be at the dinner table, and my husband would bring up a controversial topic. I’d look across at my youngest, and he’d cue me to relax with the stuck out tongue and rolled back eyes. So far, this has been the biggest benefit of my class on yoga for TMJ.

 

Benefits of yoga for TMJ

I learned there is a link between the skull and the pelvis, and that yoga poses to open the hips and give you more hip stability can augment the lion face and other things you do to relax the jaw itself. At the same time, I’m not sure I demonstrated the proper attitude during class. It was hard to remain in a zen state, when actually I got tired of sitting for three hours on the bare floor, not to mention my annoyance at repetitive, self-oriented and generally stupid questions asked by one of my classmates. Why is there always one person who asks dumb questions? Faking a pleasant look while she was wasting everyone else’s time was NOT helping my TMJ!

 

Yoga for TMJ: attitude is everything

There was also a section where our instructor taught self-massage, and when I questioned whether rubbing my temples so hard that my arms hurt was really what I wanted to do, she came over to me and suggested I use less pressure. She placed her fingers on the sides of my head and asked me if I felt that.  “Sure,” I replied. “It feels like you have your fingers on my temples.” It did. But others had expressed amazement when she did it to them, so my comments weren’t appreciated. It was as if someone had said, “The emperor has no clothes.” Clearly, the subject of yoga for TMJ needed to be treated with more reverence than I offered.

Owing in part to bad attitude, I’m not benefiting from yoga for TMJ as much as I could. But at least the class was fun and provided some good stories. Bottom line: I think yoga can reduce TMJ, whether through specific asanas or general improvement in the ability to deal with stress. I’m just not there yet personally.

In the meantime, though, join me in a little lion face.

 

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Image credits: Amazon/Wellden, Damn Good Yoga, Anne Rosales

 

 

 

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