Author Archives: Caprice Boisvert

Free Your Jaw, Part I

I got my first night guard 23 years ago. I remember telling my dentist that I had woken myself up in mid-grind, so I knew I had a problem. He laughed and wondered if this was some kind of Zen thing, like the sound of one hand clapping. It does sound weird. I would imagine that most grinders likely wake up their partner before they wake up themselves. At any rate, I got my night guard. At the time, I was really stressed out at work, drinking four large cups of coffee before noon, and having difficulty sleeping. Thanks to the combination of the night guard, changing jobs, and giving up coffee, I stopped grinding my teeth and put my night guard away in my medicine cabinet. 

Fast forward to my last dental checkup when my dentist told me that I have been grinding my teeth at night, and recommended a night guard. I can’t wear my old one because my teeth have shifted (as they do), so I got a new one. 

This is the dental impression of my teeth that was used to make my night guard.

Grinding or clenching your teeth is referred to as bruxing or bruxism. Having a barrier between your upper and lower teeth not only protects the enamel of your teeth and reduces gum recession, but is meant to reduce tension in the muscles of the jaw. This way, the night guard also prevents face and jaw pain. You can get one for the upper or lower teeth. It is not guaranteed to eliminate jaw tension, which means you may end up getting replacement night guards as time goes by.

Can we reduce jaw tension without a device? Yes. Refraining from chewing gum, biting your fingernails, and eating hard foods can all reduce jaw tension and pain. And, thanks to the Alexander Technique, there is another way.

How can Alexander Technique help reduce jaw tension ?

Alexander Technique is a skill that allows us to become more aware of our habitual movement patterns. If one of your habitual patterns is to clench your jaw, you may not even know that you are doing it. That’s how amazing our habits are: they become so much a part of our day-to-day, that we fail to notice them. Most of the time, habits are really wonderful things. We should embrace them and be thankful that we have so many useful patterns at the ready. That is, until we face a habit that is less than optimal, such as, bruxing. 

Ok, but what can I do about jaw tension? What do I need to know?

First: You have a jaw, not jaws. You have only one. “Jaws” only refers to the shark movie or the guy in the James Bond films.

Second: The anatomical name of your jaw bone is the mandible. It is shaped like a horseshoe. It connects to your skull via two rounded protuberances that are called condyles.  Your upper teeth are attached to your skull. 

In this photo, I have labelled the mandible (jaw bone) and the one condyle that is visible.

Third: Your jaw has a resting position. This is technically defined while you are upright (as opposed to lying down) and the condyles of the mandible are “in an unstrained position”. In the rest position, the upper and lower teeth are not in contact, but slightly separated. Your jaw may be at rest while your mouth is closed.

Is your jaw at rest now? Check it out while you are reading this. Allow your lips to close, and, at the same time, consider the possibility that your chewing muscles do not have to contract to hold your jaw in position. Allow there to be space between your upper and lower teeth. Amazingly, there are ligaments that are designed to keep your mandible from falling off, and a certain amount of muscle tone is already present that will keep your mouth from dropping open. Explore your jaw’s resting position when you are lying down, as well.

If you aren’t sure why allowing your jaw to rest would be a good thing, try this simple experiment while you are reading this. Go ahead and gently turn your head from side to side, looking left and right. Come back to centre. Clench your jaw. Try turning your head from side to side while your jaw remains clenched. Notice the difference?

Why is jaw tension a big deal?

F. M. Alexander, the creator of what is now known as the Alexander Technique, discovered that the relationship our head has with our spine is really important and incredibly influential. Because the muscles of the jaw are really close to the muscles that connect our skull to our cervical spine (this is the upper part of the spine, what we call our “neck”), jaw tension and neck tension are deeply intertwined. You discovered this yourself by doing the experiment in the preceding paragraph. If your jaw muscles are engaged, the relationship between your skull and your spine is affected. Movement will become more challenging because you have to overcome the resistance of your jaw and neck muscles that are busy clenching your teeth together. If you free your jaw, you may free your neck as well, and movement becomes easier.

Because we are not conscious when we are sleeping, we cannot actively decide to soften our jaw muscles and choose not to brux at night. However, if we spend time allowing our jaw to rest when we are conscious, our jaw muscles will be less inclined to contract all night. I encourage you to try to explore this as often as you are inspired to do so. It may sound like an intimidating task, noticing one’s jaw all day, but start by noticing it now. Maybe you’ll notice it again in an hour or two. Over time, you will develop an awareness of what your jaw muscles are doing when you are doing other activities. Be curious and be kind to yourself. Jaw tension doesn’t go away overnight. This is a journey: see where it takes you.

Right and Wrong, Good and Bad

In my Pilates classes, I teach a series of arm movements that are designed to warm up the shoulder girdle and gently increase range of motion. Today in class, Student A was doing one of the movements, but a particular detail was missing. I cued this person to do the exercise differently, and they did. I explained that in making the change, they were facilitating the movement of the arm in the shoulder joint.

Photo of my arm, extended and internally rotated at the shoulder joint, the eye of my elbow facing the camera.

After hearing me say this, Student B decided to experiment. They repeated the exercise the same way as Student A prior to the cue. I said, “I see you doing the same thing as Student A.”

“Yes,” Student B remarked, “I wanted to see what it felt like if I did it that way. And it feels bad [to me].” This led me to say something along the lines of, “It’s great that you tried it both ways, because until you know what good feels like, you don’t know how bad feels.” I may have said it slightly differently in the moment, but this is the gist of it. Needless to say, these words can be interpreted on many levels (e.g., “How can you feel joy if you have only felt despair?” my student mused).

As both an Alexander Technique teacher and a Pilates teacher, I am specifically interested in guiding my students towards the self-discovery of light and easy movement that is free of pops and clicks and snaps. (How your journey of self-discovery gives you insight into other aspects of your life is the icing on the cake.)

Photo of my arm, extended and externally rotated at the shoulder joint, the eye of my elbow facing up.

Within the Alexander Technique community, there is a lot of discussion around the use of the words “Right” and “Wrong” and “Good” and “Bad”. The issue is that these words can contain judgement. But a judgement isn’t always necessary or helpful. It could simply be a descriptive statement: “This feels good,” or, “This feels wrong.” Even F.M. Alexander said, “When you stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing does itself.” When you listen to your internal dialogue, are you judging or observing?

In Pilates, there is a correct way of doing a movement. Given enough time, maybe Student A could have independently figured out that the movement they were doing was uncomfortable (or suboptimal), and maybe they would have changed it up and done it differently. Or maybe not. Because we can become very acclimatised to how a movement feels when we do it our habitual way, we may not notice that it is uncomfortable. Maybe uncomfortable feels normal. Sometimes being instructed to make a change opens a door to considering new sensations that may, in hindsight, feel better. This is why I love bringing Alexander Technique sensibilities to my Pilates classes.