This article is about giving your face a lift! It's kinda like "put on a happy face," but from the inside out. I want to share a unique way to train your nervous system to relax and be open to joyful connection with others and with life through your face.
This practice that I will share is inspired by a lovingkindness meditation for the body
from Sharon Salzberg's book Real Love. It begins with "may my face be happy, may my face be peaceful." And then you continue moving through each body part wishing them well in this way... "may my neck be happy, may my neck be peaceful...may my shoulders be happy, may my shoulders be peaceful," and so on. You open your heart's kindness to your whole body (including to your own heart).
After doing this meditation while sitting, I took it on the road as I found myself repeating this phrase SPONTANEOUSLY while biking. As many of you know from previous columns or meeting me at Kripalu while teaching YogaDance or Shake Your Soul, I love dancing! However truth be told, I'm not fond of exercise for the most part. It's not really joyful to me (except for a few sports like tennis, skiing and on a good day, golf), yet I often find myself taking the pill of exercise. Well something happened and my "exercise" bike ride became a relaxing and fun bike ride, like when I was a child popping wheelies on my Sting Ray (I'm dating myself) and my bike was a way to be free and have fun!
On this ride, I found myself focusing on lovingkindness JUST to the face, including my forehead, eyes, temples, jaw (also the scalp and skull). My face said "stay just with me," so I did as I invited happiness and peacefulness into the muscles of my face.
What could be a "grinding out my exercise experience" became a playful time where I found myself smiling at joggers passing by and stopping to talk to other bikers.
Towards the end of the ride, I had a "Eureka" moment. I thought, "I'm training my vagus nerve that governs a primitive urge to find safety and loving connection with others as I focus on happiness and peace in my face".
A brief moment of science (not silence) here: the vagus nerve is a core part of our parasympathetic nervous system that has two branches. One branch is associated with surviving in a perceived life or death situation where our whole body slows down, feigning death (a primitive survival mechanism). The other branch is about helping us relax and soften into the loving support of others and is associated with the release of oxytocin (the cuddle or bonding molecule). Both branches are about our relationship to "others": dangerous "others" or safe and loving "others."
Here's the kicker: the vagus nerve has many fibers that connect to our facial muscles where we reveal our emotions through a plentitude of expressions. Scientists have logged 21 different emotional expressions that register within the face and there are 8 universal emotional facial expressions that you don't need a translator to interpret.
So our face can register the vagal response from shock and terror, like a deer in the headlights of a moving car (survival vagus nerve), to happiness and peace, like a contented Buddha face (loving vagus nerve)! However, we can also create the response as we bring happiness and peace to our faces!
So the KEY point here is that as you invite or train your facial muscles to discover happiness and peace you are strengthening the relaxation response that's linked to feeling supportive or loving connection with others -to feeling safe in the world.
In our current national and world affairs, feeling safe and loved can be a struggle. So we all may need a dose of loving connection by inviting a happy face!