Your avenue of expression includes your jaw, tongue, throat, and the surrounding muscles and bones that support you in making sound to communicate your thoughts and emotions. Physical movement in your avenue of expression creates sound. Immobility is silent.
The mouth is a gateway to breath, nourishment, verbal expression, sensing taste and texture, and connecting to others through kissing and oral touch. Infants and young children enthusiastically explore their world by putting everything in their mouths. They freely express their emotions through crying, babbling, and eventually, words and song.
As children grow, most encounter healthy limits on their exploration and expression. They learn about boundaries:
- when to use an “inside voice”
- when to explore with eyes and fingers instead of lips and tongue
- when to choose words to honor privacy and kindness
- to check with the recipient before bestowing affectionate kisses
- to listen to their bodies about what and when to eat
- to manage emotions internally in addition to letting them spill into sound
Healthy limits leave the avenue of expression lively, open and available.
Unhealthy limits and abuse
Too many children also encounter unhealthy limits in the form of punishment and shaming for their choices and expressions, silencing them. Family secrets, including abuse, are kept inside at all costs. Abuse may affect the mouth directly through forced feeding, blows, or oral rape. The whole body restrains the avenue of expression out of shame and fear. Jaw muscles become tight and resistant to relaxation.
Check in with your jaw. Are your upper and lower teeth touching? Dentists remind us that our teeth only need to touch when chewing or swallowing. A clenched jaw can result in chronic TMJ (temporomandibular joint), neck, and head pain, as well as damaged teeth. A sling of muscles comfortably supports the jaw in a slightly open position.
Gently open and close your mouth a few times. Notice what happens in the rest of your body. Do you continue to breathe easily, or do you hold your breath? Do your neck and throat relax into the motion, or tighten? Are your shoulders resting down and back, or are they “helping” to move your jaw? Welcome anything you notice, including any judgments that pop up.
Movement from the inside
Your jaw is an open V shape that angles up at both ends to connect to your skull. Your mouth floor is filled by tongue root, not bone.
With friendly curiosity, experiment with movement in your jaw. Let your fingers ride along lightly just in front of your ears on your TMJs (jaw joints). Your jaw drops and slides at these joints. Your upper teeth are fixed, part of your skull. If the movements are jerky or asymmetrical, try moving more slowly or for a shorter distance.
Drop your jaw a little to create space between upper and lower teeth. Gently protrude your jaw forward away from your ears, and retract it back toward your ears. Move it from side to side. Let your mouth drop open, and close it again, maintaining a gap between your upper and lower teeth.
If you clench your jaw or grind your teeth at night, a few gentle movements at bedtime can remind your jaw that it has more options.
The temporalis and masseter muscles (see figure) pull the jaw closed. They often like massage. Rub from the bottom of your jaw up to your cheekbone near your ears on both sides. The masseter is one of the strongest muscles in the body and might like a lot of pressure. Remember to touch with kindness as you experiment with deeper pressure.
To soothe the temporalis, rub up from your cheekbones and let your fingers fan out behind your eyes, above your ears, and along your temples. Move your fingers in different directions, and make little circles. Let your muscles tell you what feels good. Do you notice any difference in your jaw, head, or neck afterward?
Movement from the outside
Now put a friendly hand on the front of your jaw and wiggle it from side to side and up and down. Does your jaw allow the movement, or does it need to be in charge? What if your jaw and hand move together? The movement might be very small at first. Are other muscles, perhaps in your neck, shoulders, or belly, trying to help control your jaw? Open the door to relaxation with kind attention, rather than using force.
How does your jaw feel now? If it relaxed a little, you may notice yawns, deeper breaths, or borborygmus (belly rumbles). You may also notice emotions or thoughts associated with the tension. Do any judgmental voices arise? If you feel intensely negative about these experiments, those feelings might be stored in your jaw. Continue to extend kind attention to whatever you notice.
Safe space for expression
The avenue of expression becomes a battleground between authentic sound and silent self-protection. Our need to be heard struggles with our needs for approval and safety. As we listen to all our needs without taking sides or demanding change, we create safe space over time for relaxation, movement, and expression.
Barbara Conable’s How to Learn the Alexander Technique is a compassionate, accurate manual on how to move human bodies, including the jaw. It is useful for all humans, not just Alexander students.