To yawn or not to yawn….


To yawn or not to yawn?

My still unnamed women’s choir is singing ‘The Girl from Ipanema.’ The twelve of us have been practicing for about an hour; our hips sway cool and gentle and our lips are articulating the text so ambiguously that the words sound more Brazilian Portuguese than English. We are playing between sensual satisfaction and the longing for more.

I am staging the piece as part of a fundraising performance we are doing for a women’s shelter in Toronto. We have visited Ernestine’s four or five times this past year, taking a new song with us each time. Singing with women from a whole variety of cultures and personal experiences, learning about each other as we practice expressing something new or urgent about being women right now in history. We join our voices without reservation.

I imagine the choir lining the hallway of the Old Mill, singing ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ as the guests walk from registering for the evening to the silent auction. For the next pass through the song I ask the women at this morning’s rehearsal to yawn whenever they want to – randomly – maybe yawn duets will occur or a series of solos, maybe we will overlap, or maybe everyone will yawn at once! I really don’t know what this improvisation will bring forth but I want to find a way to get inside the sensual, self-involved protagonist of this great Tom Jobim song.

The yawns are magic; they are sultry, intensely private and innocently exposing. The occasional delicious sigh slips out of a yawn and this plays with the ‘aah’ of the song’s lyrics. It is such easy Autonomic-Nervous-System-based storytelling – letting the song distill and become an instillation within the human animal. 

In a few weeks we will have the pleasure of playfully getting under the skins of the fundraiser audience and maybe even trigger a yawn or two in them as they shed their workday bodies to enter the fun of celebrating Ernestine’s shelter and the women who live and work there.

The young Brazilian, Astrud Gilberto, sings in the following clip. Her voice is fresh and naive – an uncontrived singer who was awarded a Grammy for her unruffled recording of this song. Stan Getz, her real life partner, is playing the sax. The falling snow and the stuffed deer head may be as frozen and artificial as the image of the listening women, but I love this footage for its perfect representation of our problematic collective ‘samba’ through the 60s and even more so for the big grin Astrud flashes at the end of the song.

The Pandiculator

I can see the back of painter Joseph Ducreux’ mouth. It is gaping at me and the red of this open, fleshy aperture matches the red of his jacket. His belly slackens into a fawn-coloured waistcoat, relaxation gently straining at the buttons. Both arms spread out into the dark, negative space surrounding him, one bent and actively leading from the elbow and the other stretching to its clenched-fist conclusion. I can feel the air under his armpits. His brow furrows…his face also getting a workout…working its way away from its usual socialized set. Work and release combine.

It is 1783 and Joseph is pandiculating; he has let himself yawn to the point where his whole body has been led into a fulsome, wholesome, some-kinda-big-stretch yawn…an intimate, unguarded self-portrait. In 2013 we have lost the art of yawning. I don’t know about the late 1700s but I do know that today we might only yawn around those with whom we feel extremely safe, or maybe only when we are on our own, or maybe not at all. I am grateful that Ducreux captured his private comfy-ness, presenting it as a work of art, grateful that he had an interest in expanding the range of facial expressions beyond those of official portraiture, grateful that he survived the French Revolution to work beyond the court of Louis the XVI. He is my current god of yawning though he does look more like a slightly cranky backyard gnome than any deity should.

I am obsessed with yawns, obsessed with the good they can do. I have been using them for decades in my teaching and googling them for as long as any person has googled,  but only recently have I found the solid scientific information I have been craving to support what I have witnessed in myself and in my students. The online information, despite tens of thousands of entries, used to end with some version of ‘and we don’t really know what yawning is for.’ I would often reply, out loud and a little irritably, ‘isn’t it enough that they make us feel better?”

My accumulated knowledge at that time, the things I would use to encourage my students to take the yawning plunge, included…

1)    There are more yawns measured during transition from one activity to another than at any other time.

2)    In primate study when the big baboon yawns all the other baboons are expected to yawn too…and they do.

3)    Yawns bathe all the cells of the body in chemicals that are deeply relaxing, shifting us away from the tension we are holding.

4)    Our eyes leak and our mouths moisten, and this is good for singing.

5)    The inside of our mouths stretch, jaw tension is released, as is tension around the voice box. In fact the yawn is the only way to release the throat and create more room in the pharynx.

I would also tell them the story of my daughter Oksana and how she could not fall asleep unless she had completed her requisite thirty yawns, and in the morning she could not get out of bed without a round of yawns and stretches. I did not yet know she was spreading herself out, making room internally for the day to come, but I did know that it was a moment of transition!

About four years ago one of my students – a sloe-eyed, whimsically earnest and deeply intelligent poet – sent me an article by Andrew Newberg. Reading it brought one joyous ‘aha’ after another. It gave me a sense of the scope of the chemical value of yawning …just how complex this internal cocktail actually is. Newberg’s writing speaks to the social value of yawning, explaining that it synchs us up with one another. He also describes the value of yawning in the pursuit of self-awareness. I have often told my students that all I really want to do is offer a small yawning workshop to the leaders of this world at some summit or other, and now I have the article to back up this pie-in-the-sky dream of yawns as a way to healthy political collaboration.

I no longer feel that I am yawning in a vacuum. Over the last two years I have found a Somatic practitioner, Eduardo Barrera (GravityWerks) who pandiculates his way to health and an article by Luiz Fernando Bertolucci who believes that pandiculating is an organic way to maintain musculoskeletal health.

Transformation through yawning…a breath of fresh air.

We are five minutes into ‘Slipper Camp’[1] and the first moments of dropped bel canto breath have led to a room full of dis-inhibited yawners. Mouths widen, necks arch backwards leading the whole body into wee back bends, hands clench or spread, rib cages twist, torsos elongate (first one side then the other), bottoms drop and hips grind. The movements are ever surprising as well as ample and connected.

I remind the class that the word pandiculation comes from the Italian ‘pandere’ – to spread – we are spreading ourselves out. It happens so easily in this room, the geography of my piano, books and art, and the shared company, have become a safe harbour over time and now whisper sffortlessly to each person’s ANS.

I tell my current yawning stories – explaining that I yawn now whenever I go for a walk – the first initiation to walking and yawning coming some three years ago when I was in Stanley Park – massive red cedars inspiring massive release in my body. I tell them about my nightly ritual of reading and yawning – that one of the benefits of taking this time and having intentionally linked yawning to reading in bed is that I have significantly lowered my nighttime jaw tension.

As an extra benefit I share a secret; when I am post-yawns and my partner comes to bed I cannot remember a single thing that irritates me about him. I have just started to yawn as I write about this; I am picturing the warm lighting of our bedroom and cozy feel of the bed. I may as well be there!

I believe that we are meant to yawn and pandiculate our way from night’s modest, relaxed breath into the day’s activities and that before bed is a perfect time to yawn extravagantly once again – to prepare for restful sleep and let the concerns of the day slip out from under our thickening or thinning skins.

By 9am every ‘slipper camper’ is reaching for Kleenex, blowing noses and clearing throats. Pandiculating has opened both head and chest resonance through sinuses, pharynx, trachea and lungs. This spreading out of self has gotten into our connective tissue; the delicious tonic feeling of the yawn’s stretch works to release tendons and fascia, the fabric that binds our muscles and holds our joints in place. Our voice boxes are releasing from the habitual hold of our strongly verbal wills. Sinuses are releasing, phlegm is flowing and each person is displaying untamed facial expressions not usual within our social repertoire. I am watching an episode of ‘Wild Kingdom’ in the comfort of my home studio.

I point out that each person’s voice is beginning to make sound without the mind dictating what that sound should be or should be like. This is a subtle and important observation I am asking my students to make. As the yawns progress, shyness around unintended vocal noise making is loosening. The sounds are high and low, rough and soothing, anything they need to be, anything the body is letting go of through yawning.

I can often hear – in this moment – something of the truth of a student’s voice – a sound I might not yet know even in a long-time student – a sound coming from pure instinct without any organized evaluation connected to it. I ask each person to try and see this moment, not judge it, learn to recognize it and trust its veracity.

It is sound which will teach us about free voice and connected voice. It is sound and feeling which will teach us about work and pleasure, about balance. It is sound that will help rebuild the palette of live human expression, reminding us about the value of non-verbal sound, instructing us about what it is to have fulsome communication.

Now we are intelligent beasts ready to approach the piano without the usual baggage of judgment and habitual behaviour that we typically hold in our breathing bodies.

To yawn or not to yawn…how has that even become a question?

Let the revolution begin!

[1] ‘Slipper Camp’ is my version of boot camp. It is a 45 minute vocal warm-up that draws from both the bel canto technique (traditional opera) and my synthesis of science and vocal experience.

N.B. The following descriptions are of the neurotransmitters, peptides, molecules and hormones listed in Dr. Andrew Newberg’s  yawn article embedded above.

YAWNER’S HIGH (in short)


Dopamine is a hormone and neurotransmitter of the catecholamine and phenethylamine families that plays a number of important roles in the human brain and body. In the brain, dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter—a chemical released by nerve cells to send signals to other nerve cells. The brain includes several distinct dopamine systems, one of which plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior. Most types of reward increase the level of dopamine in the brain, and a variety of addictive drugs increase dopamine neuronal activity. Other brain dopamine systems are involved in motor control and in controlling the release of several other important hormones.

Several important diseases of the nervous system are associated with dysfunctions of the dopamine system. Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative condition causing tremor and motor impairment, has been related to the loss of dopamine-secreting neurons in the midbrain area called the substantia nigra. There is evidence that schizophrenia involves highly altered levels of dopamine activity, and the antipsychotic drugs that are frequently used to treat it have a primary effect of attenuating dopamine activity. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and restless legs syndrome (RLS) are also believed to be associated with decreased dopamine activity.

Outside the nervous system, dopamine functions in several parts of the body as a local chemical messenger. In the blood vessels, it inhibits norepinephrine release and acts as a vasodilator; in the kidneys, it increases sodium excretion and urine output; in the pancreas, it reduces insulin production; in the digestive system, it reduces gastrointestinal motility and protects intestinal mucosa; and in the immune system, it reduces the activity of lymphocytes. With the exception of the blood vessels, dopamine in each of these peripheral systems has a “paracrine” function: it is synthesized locally and exerts its effects on cells that are located near the cells that release it. (Wikipedia)

from Psychology Today…

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain‘s reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses, and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them. Dopamine deficiency results in Parkinson’s Disease, and people with low dopamine activity may be more prone to addiction. The presence of a certain kind of dopamine receptor is also associated with sensation-seeking people, more commonly known as “risk takers.”


Serotonin (5-HT) is a monoamine neurotransmitter. Biochemically derived from tryptophan, serotonin is primarily found in the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), platelets, and the central nervous system (CNS) of animals, including humans. It is popularly thought to be a contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness.

Approximately 90% of the human body‘s total serotonin is located in the enterochromaffin cells in the GI tract, where it is used to regulate intestinal movements.The remainder is synthesized in serotonergic neurons of the CNS, where it has various functions. These include the regulation of mood, appetite, and sleep. Serotonin also has some cognitive functions, including memory and learning. Modulation of serotonin at synapses is thought to be a major action of several classes of pharmacological antidepressants.

When the platelets bind to a clot, they release serotonin, where it serves as a vasoconstrictor and helps to regulate hemostasis and blood clotting. Serotonin also is a growth factor for some types of cells, which may give it a role in wound healing. (Wikipedia)

Fast facts on serotonin

Serotonin is a chemical created by the human body. It works as a neurotransmitter.

It is commonly regarded as a chemical that is responsible for maintaining mood balance.

Serotonin is created by a biochemical conversion process.

Serotonin is manufactured in the brain and the intestines. The majority of the body’s serotonin, between 80-90%, can be found in the gastrointestinal tract.

Serotonin that is used inside the brain must be produced within it.

It is thought that serotonin can affect mood and social behavior, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory and sexual desire and function.

An association has been made between depression and serotonin. Scientists remain unsure whether decreased levels of serotonin contribute to depression or depression causes a decrease in serotonin levels.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can affect the levels of serotonin in the body.

If excessive amounts of serotonin are accumulated within the body then serotonin syndrome can occur.

Other ways to increase body serotonin levels include mood induction, light, exercise and diet.

(from medical news today)


Oxytocin is a mammalian neurohypophysial hormone. Produced by the hypothalamus and stored and secreted by the posterior pituitary gland, oxytocin acts primarily as a neuromodulator in the brain. Oxytocin plays an important role in the neuroanatomy of intimacy, specifically in sexual reproduction of both sexes, in particular during and after childbirth; its name comes from Greek ὀξύς, oksys “swift” and τόκος, tokos “birth.” It is released in large amounts after distension of the cervix and uterus during labor, facilitating birth, maternal bonding, and, after stimulation of the nipples, lactation. Both childbirth and milk ejection result from positive feedback mechanisms.Recent studies have begun to investigate oxytocin’s role in various behaviors, including orgasm, social recognition, pair bonding, anxiety, and maternal behaviors.For this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the “bonding hormone”. There is some evidence that oxytocin promotes ethnocentric behavior, incorporating the trust and empathy of in-groups with their suspicion and rejection of outsiders.Furthermore, genetic differences in the oxytocin receptor gene have been associated with maladaptive social traits such as aggressive behaviour.

It is on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines, a list of the most important medications needed in a basic health system.


Acetylcholine (ACh) is the most common neurotransmitter. It is located in both the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). ACh was the first neurotransmitter be be identified. It was discovered by Henry Hallett Dale in 1914 and its existence was later confirmed by Otto Loewi. Both individuals were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine in 1936 for their discovery.Acetylcholine acts as a neuromodulator in the CNS and PNS. Rather than engaging in direct synaptic transmission between specific neurons, neuromodulators act on a variety of neurons throughout the nervous system. In the central nervous system, acetylcholine acts as part of a neurotransmitter system and plays a role in attention and arousal. In the peripheral nervous system, this neurotransmitter is a major part of the autonomic nervous system and works to activate muscles.

It is the only neurotransmitter used in the motor division of the somatic nervous system. In cardiac tissue acetylcholine neurotransmission has an inhibitory effect, which lowers heart rate. However, acetylcholine also behaves as an excitatory neurotransmitter at neuromuscular junctions in skeletal muscle.

(from about education and Wikipedia)


Nitric oxide, or nitrogen oxide,[2] also known as nitrogen monoxide, is a molecule with chemical formula NO. It is a free radical and is an important intermediate in the chemical industry. Nitric oxide is a by-product of combustion of substances in the air, as in automobile engines, fossil fuel power plants, and is produced naturally during the electrical discharges of lightning in thunderstorms. In mammals including humans, NO is an important cellular signaling molecule involved in many physiological and pathological processes.It is a powerful vasodilator with a short half-life of a few seconds in the blood. Long-known pharmaceuticals such as nitroglycerine and amyl nitrite were found to be precursors to nitric oxide more than a century after their first use in medicine. Low levels of nitric oxide production are important in protecting organs such as the liver from ischemic damage. Despite being a simple molecule, NO is an important biological regulator and is therefore a fundamental component in the fields of neuroscience, physiology, and immunology. It was proclaimed “Molecule of the Year” in 1992.Research into its function led to the 1998 Nobel Prize for discovering the role of nitric oxide as a cardiovascular signalling molecule.

Nitric oxide has been shown to be important in the following cellular activities:

• help memory and behavior by transmitting information between nerve cells in the brain

• assist the immune system at fighting off bacteria and defending against tumors

• regulate blood pressure by dilating arteries

• reduce inflammation

• improve sleep quality

• increase your recognition of sense (i.e. smell)

• increase endurance and strength

• assist in gastric motility

(from Wikipedia and nutrition express)


Outside the community of biomedical scientists, glutamate is probably best known as “monosodium glutamate” or “MSG” which is used as a flavor or taste enhancer in food. It is usually available together with other food additives and spices in most large food stores. Some people may also have heard the term “Chinese restaurant syndrome” which is a sudden fall in blood pressure with subsequent fainting after ingestion of very spicy food. Excessive use of MSG has been suggested to be the cause, but this is controversial. The use of glutamate as a food additive, however, is not the reason for the enormous scientific interest in glutamate.

Glutamate is the major excitatory transmitter in the brain

The main motivation for the ongoing World Wide research on glutamate is due to the role of glutamate in the signal transduction in the nervous systems of apparently all complex living organisms, including man. Glutamate is considered to be the major mediator of excitatory signals in the mammalian central nervous system and is involved in most aspects of normal brain function including cognition, memory and learning.

Glutamate is toxic, not in spite of its importance, but because of it

Glutamate does not only mediate a lot of information, but also information which regulates brain development and information which determines cellular survival, differentiation and elimination as well as formation and elimination of nerve contacts (synapses). From this it follows that glutamate has to be present in the right concentrations in the right places for the right time. Both too much and too little glutamate is harmful. This implies that glutamate is both essential and highly toxic at the same time.

It took a long time to realize that glutamate is a neurotransmitter

It may sound astonishing, but it took the scientific community a long time to realize that glutamate is a neurotransmitter although it was noted already 70 years ago that glutamate is abundant in the brain and that it plays a central role in brain metabolism. Ironically, the reason for the delay seems to have been its overwhelming importance. Brain tissue contains as much as 5 – 15 mmol glutamate pr kg, depending on the region, more than of any other amino acid. Glutamate is one of the ordinary 20 amino acids which are used to make proteins and takes parts in typical metabolic functions like energy production and ammonia detoxification in addition to protein synthesis. It was hard to believe that a compound with so many functions and which is present virtually everywhere in high concentrations could play an additional role as transmitter.



GABA is made in brain cells from glutamate, and functions as an inhibitory neurotransmitter – meaning that it blocks nerve impulses. Glutamate acts as an excitatory neurotransmitter and when bound to adjacent cells encourages them to “fire” and send a nerve impulse. GABA does the opposite and tells the adjoining cells not to “fire”, not to send an impulse. Without GABA, nerve cells fire too often and too easily. Anxiety disorders such as panic attacks, seizure disorders, and numerous other conditions including addiction, headaches, Parkinson’s syndrome, and cognitive impairment are all related to low GABA activity. GABA hinders the transmission of nerve impulses from one neuron to another. It has a calming or quieting influence. A good example to help understand this effect is caffeine. Caffeine inhibits GABA release. The less GABA, the more nerve transmissions occur. Think what too much coffee feels like: that is the sensation of glutamate without enough GABA. (Denver naturopathic)


Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), also known as corticotropin, is a polypeptide tropic hormone produced and secreted by the anterior pituitary gland. It is an important component of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and is often produced in response to biological stress (along with its precursor corticotropin-releasing hormone from the hypothalamus). Its principal effects are increased production and release of corticosteroids. Primary adrenal insufficiency, also called Addison’s disease, occurs when adrenal gland production of cortisol is chronically deficient, resulting in chronically elevated ACTH levels; when a pituitary tumor is the cause of elevated ACTH (from the anterior pituitary) this is known as Cushing’s Disease and the constellation of signs and symptoms of the excess cortisol (hypercortisolism) is known as Cushing’s syndrome. A deficiency of ACTH is a cause of secondary adrenal insufficiency. ACTH is also related to the circadian rhythm in many organisms.


The melanocyte-stimulating hormones (collectively referred to as MSH or intermedins) are a class of peptide hormones that are produced by cells in the intermediate lobe of the pituitary gland. They stimulate the production and release of melanin (melanogenesis) by melanocytes in skin and hair. MSH signals to the brain have effects on appetite and sexual arousal. Although known for its stimulatory effect on pigment cells, studies have shown that melanocyte-stimulating hormone can also suppress appetite by acting on receptors in the hypothalamus in the brain.  Melanocyte-stimulating hormone is also thought to affect a range of other processes in the body; it has anti-inflammatory effects, can influence the release of the hormone aldosterone which controls salt and water balance in the body and is also thought to have an effect on energy homeostasis and sexual behaviour.  However, further research is needed to clarify the exact role of melanocyte-stimulating hormone in these processes. (yourhormones)


These peptides act as a natural analgesic, create feelings of euphoria, and regulate appropriate stress response in humans. (f.k.)




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