My Tongue, My Guru

My Tongue, My Guru

“Relax your face,” my yoga instructor reminds us after giving other verbal adjustments to our bodies in tree pose.

“Let the skin of your forehead sink down toward your eyebrows and out toward your temples.”

“Shavasana eyes. Glaring will not help. Don’t force the pose with your mind. Trust your body,” he’ll urge us while we hold warrior three.

I can do it. I’m pretty good at relaxing my face while my body is in a demanding position. It’s a skill that seeps over into life—to be able to find a sense of calm in the midst of chaos. To choose mindfulness in the middle of trigger-filled, stressful moments. Relaxing my face can help trick my whole being into relaxation.

But then he says, “Relax your tongue inside your mouth.” It feels like he is talking directly to me each time, calling my out, like he can see through my clenched jaw to an active tongue.

Just last week he told us, “Your body is a mixed level yoga class. You will naturally be good at some poses and not others. Some parts of your body will cooperate and others will resist.”

I may be strong and flexible. I may be able to hold difficult poses with relaxed facial skin for a long time, but I have a beginner tongue. I think it’s from years of gymnastics. Being judged against perfection while flipping and twisting and leaping, we had to keep a pleasant face. But an active tongue was a hidden part of bracing for landings or squeezing to stay on the beam or willing my body to move faster and higher. My will power resided in my tongue.

It is amazing to me, though, how much power a tongue can have over a person. A flexed tongue turned into clenching and grinding my jaw in my sleep, struggling with TMJ and neck pain and headaches. Even sitting here writing, I can feel my whole jaw and neck area release when I let my tongue go.

Trying to embrace my tongue as one of my gurus, a weakness that has something to teach me, I listen closely when yoga instructors talk about tongues. At a retreat earlier this summer, the teacher talked about how important it is to have a relaxed tongue throughout the practice. Engaging the tongue automatically triggers the digestive system, which we don’t want active while we practice. Even thinking about talking automatically engages the tongue. So when we actively relax the tongue, conversely, the language centers in our brain relax, too, which helps clear the mind. That’s why, I imagine, people on silent retreats notice a physical change in their throat skin. When speaking isn’t an option, that whole part of our body can just take a nice, long break.

My clenched tongue is an issue of posturing. Letting go of my tongue is my work because, for me, it really means letting go of the need to talk, the need to digest, the need to be in control and move and go faster and higher and land safely and be perfect.

Changing lifelong habits comes slowly. I’m starting in yoga class, where mindfulness abounds. I’m not judging myself as I am getting my body situated in a pose, but once I have arrived, releasing my tongue is part of every pose. I’ve come to notice, then, other times in my day when it is active, and I release it. Sometimes, moments later it is clenched again. But this is the work. The more I let my tongue go, the more I release a posture of defensiveness, franticness, and not enough-ness. My calm tongue has made my mind calmer. It brings a spirit of rest that has made me a better listener who is more in touch with when I am hungry and satisfied. I am open and ready to receive what the world has for me.

Just the other week, I had a really good tongue day. I was satisfied with my writing for the day and ready and open to hear how Dan’s day was when he came home. That night was our neighborhood block party, and I actually trailed behind my introverted spouse on my way out to meet our new neighbors. The event was filled with eating and talking, and I wasn’t quite ready to engage my tongue and lose the bliss I maintained during the day. But the next step is to carry that bliss into every moment that life presents. It’s harder in public, but I tried to check in with my tongue at the event. It does have a lot to teach me.

So what are you clenching these days?