by Allegra Gulino

Many of us are familiar with yoga’s stress reduction techniques. As beginners, we learn tools such as simple forward bends, or heart-openers to relieve tension in the upper back and neck, or pranayama to the slow the heart rate, calm the nervous system or for mental focus. Stress is dissolved in class by such instructions as to move slowly with the breath, have a compassionate outlook on your thoughts and emotions, ease out of the pose when you feel ready, etc. While these are wonderful and life-changing practices, however, there is one area of the body that’s frequently tense and often neglected—the face.

How many people do you know who grind or grit their teeth at night? Can you think of someone who’s face resides in a perpetual frown? Anyone who has nervous habits such as fingernail biting or pencil or gum chewing? How about someone whose occupation requires that they talk all day, or conversely, someone who cannot speak up for themselves? Maybe it’s you! When we are tense, our face, jaw, tongue and mouth can pull all
sorts of tricks, which can sabotage the most earnest stress reduction efforts and disturb our much needed sleep. We purse our lips, our mouths tug downward, we clench our teeth, we clamp our tongues to other parts of the mouth, pull our eyebrows down and together, and more. All of these habits affect our mood and energy.

As an exercise, put a small mirror next to your computer and next time you’re concentrating or getting wound up about a political rant, look at your reflection. It’s not attractive, nor does it radiate a positive message to the outside. But, more importantly, how does the frown energy affect your internal world? Do you feel heavy? Is your breath constricted? Do your emotions funnel into anger or sadness? You may notice that your shoulders automatically hunch, or your head juts forward, to match the frown. Yet, there’s no way around it, this is your habit when doing those activities – for how many hours? For another experiment, you can play with an intentional frown during warrior poses – imposing and releasing it at random moments. How does the frown affect your experience in the pose? Note the contrast when you relax your face. Which feels more open, or freer? Wouldn’t it be great to carry this relaxed open feeling into our daily lives?

Lion pose addresses habitual facial tension in a very satisfying and cathartic way. It improves circulation throughout the face and releases tension from the jaw, tongue, cheeks, lips, eyes and brow, as well as allows an explosive roar to dissolve our frustration. Finally there is the “leap” which fills the body with energy and excitement. It takes practice to master all the Lion elements, so that they flow together in a powerful, feline movement, so take your time with these exercises, even over a week’s time, or more.

Lion involves a deep inhale followed by an explosive exhale with a simultaneous facial expression and movement. This requires some coordination, so here are the separate the “Lion face” elements to practice. For the the upper face: you begin with eyes closed and a neutral expression, then suddenly open your eyes big and roll them up. Try this a few times. For the lower face: start with your mouth closed, then quickly drop your jaw wide and stick out your tongue as far downward as you can. Once you can do the upper and lower facial elements together, you’re ready for the next element: the roar. The “roar” is not a voiced “raauuwwr”, but rather an unvoiced, throaty “haaah” sound, similar to a heavy sigh. It should not make your throat sore – but, approach this phase with moderation. Inhale fully and hold the breath a moment or two, then coordinate at least the lower face part (both upper and lower would be ideal) with a powerful exhale out your wide-open mouth.

Once you’re comfortable with the neck-up elements of Lion, you can add the “leap.” There are several bodily postures to try, but the most accessible is to sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor and hands on your knees. When ready, curl your fingers and make “claws” on your knees and close your eyes. Allow your face to relax and visualize yourself as a Lion. Then, take in a deep breath. On the exhale, bend forward at the hips and quickly raise your claws overhead while making your “Lion face” and “roar.” Then return to sitting quietly and feel the fierce, masterful energy. Once you are familiar with Lion, be creative and mobile, like a cat. As long as you feel grounded during the “leap,” and you’ve chosen a movement that doesn’t hurt to do quickly, there’s no wrong position. Some other choices: from sitting on your heels to rising onto your knees with arms up, standing with bent knees and hands on knees to straight legs and arms up, or lying on your back relaxed to slapping your hands into the groundby your sides and tensing the whole body. Even better, make up your own

Lion. Don’t be afraid to ROAR!