Updated: Nov 9, 2021
Jaw tension is the bane of many a singer's existence.
If you feel like you've tried every jaw stretch and relaxation method under the sun with no progress, there is a connected body part that you may have easily overlooked.
Image: Tara Winstead
Believe it or not, our jaw has a very close relationship with our pelvis.
Sounds pretty wild, right? If, like me, you thought that sounds too bizarre to be true, read on!
Whilst the jaw and pelvis are not in close proximity at all, these structures that book-end our spine share many structural similarities, are strongly connected by chains of muscles and fascia, and the relationship between the two develops in embryos as early as 15 days old. These two areas are also home to where we may commonly feel the physical manifestation of stress reactions.
I was finally able to put two and two together about my SI joint pain and the asymmetry developing in my jaw, which was creating some "side mouth" happening when singing. With regular hip stretches and vocal massage, this issue has almost completely resolved.
It has also been observed that many people who suffer from TMJ issues also have issues with hip mobility or pelvic floor dysfunction. Oftentimes physical therapists will work on the hips of a patient with jaw issues, and vice versa.
Looking at these images, we can easily see the structural similarities between the pelvis and the jaw. The structure is somewhat like a muscular nest or bowl.
They are shaped similarly because they have a similar function. When we think "diaphragm" (especially as singers), we often think of another muscular bowl, our respiratory (or thoracic) diaphragm! But these areas are also considered diaphragms which divide the body into various cavities where we can balance the internal pressure.
If we start from the top, the network of muscles under our jaw is called the cervical diaphragm and makes up the roof of the thoracic cavity (where our lungs and heart are located). Traveling down we come across the next divider which is our well-known thoracic diaphragm and enter into the abdominal cavity (home of our digestive system). Lastly, we enter the pelvic cavity (where the reproductive organs, bladder, etc are) via the pelvic inlet. The floor of this cavity is, well, the pelvic floor.
Over on my YouTube channel, Singing for Self-Care, I have videos explaining what breathing actually is ("I used a lung trainer for 30 days"), along with the mechanics of appoggio, or breath support ("Explore the core"). In these videos we inadvertently explore the relationship between the three ventral body cavities.
Breathing, and therefore singing, is a dance between the pressure in each of these cavities. As the thoracic diaphragm descends, it creates negative pressure in our thoracic cavity, which is what actually sucks the air into our lungs. When we exhale and engage our breath support when singing, we use muscles in our core and pelvic floor to impact the ascent of the diaphragm. Essentially, what we are doing is using the muscles to regulate the amount of pressure within the different cavities. In this sense, what we do with the pelvic floor will affect the cervical diaphragm, all those muscles under our jaw.
Muscles and Fascia
Let's try something practical.
1. For a count of three, engage the nest of muscles under your jaw. You may feel it as closing your throat. What can you sense in your pelvic area? Do you feel your pelvic floor engage also?
You may also like to try it vice versa. Engage your pelvic floor, either as a kegel or reverse kegel. Do you feel engagement in the muscles under your jaw?
2. Now close your mouth so you feel your teeth gently touching. Jut your butt out to create a sway back, you will be tilting your pelvis forwards. How is your jaw compensating for this action? Can you feel the position of your bite has changed?
Why is it that we can feel such a strong connection between these two areas?
The answer is muscles chains and fascia. Whilst it's common knowledge that movement requires coordination between muscle groups, you may not have heard that there is a direct fascial link between the two areas. Fascia is connective tissue that is predominantly made up of collagen, which has a spiderweb-like consistency. This tissue stabilizes the muscles, bones, organs, nerves and blood vessels throughout our entire body.
Fascia runs in lines, and the connection between the jaw and the pelvis is linked by two of these lines, the superficial front line, and the deep front line. Whilst the jaw and pelvis seem anatomically far apart, they are in fact directly connected.
Structurally, the jaw and pelvis both pass the mid-line of the body, which means there are balanced joint and muscle groups on each corresponding side. When we have muscle imbalances trying to compensate for over-activity or under-activity in certain areas, it is common to experience referred tension. This is why if one side of the pelvis is tighter than the other, that same side of the jaw is commonly effected.
Deep front line and superficial front line of fascial connection
Back when you were a 15 day old cluster of cells, you started to undergo a process called gastrulation. Up until this point, you were just a series of cells self dividing from two, to four, to eight, to sixteen, etc. During gastrulation these cells start the process of being organzied to resemble a human being.
Two little dents start to form. One of these dents begins to form the mouth (the buccopharyngeal membrane), and the other forms the openings to the reproductive, urinary and digestive systems (the cloacal mebrane, which will later be the location of the pelvis).
Keep in mind, that this is way before you even resemble a little jelly-bean human. During this stage, the axis of the body is being developed, which way is up and which way is down, so to say. In a way, the pelvic area and the jaw area are the first signs of our humanity. So it's no coincidence that this phase of embryonic development is often hotly debated as a bioethical issue when it comes to what constitutes a human life.
Given we've now explored some of the ways the jaw and pelvis are connected and tension is often referred through the two areas, it likely doesn't come as a surprise that we commonly experience physical symptoms of stress responses here also.
Jaw tension is one of the most widespread symptoms of stress. Stress directly causes muscles to contract, and when a muscle is contracted for a long period of time without release, it results in tension. During periods of anxiety or intense focus, you may be holding your jaw tight without even noticing. This may contribute to teeth grinding or TMJ issues. Subconsciously, you may clench your jaw if you feel like you need to hold something you would like to say, or perhaps if are suppressing anger or fear.
Whilst is makes sense our jaw tension to be physically referred to our pelvis, we also have the tendency to experience bodily manifestations of emotional stress in our hips as well. Anxiety commonly can result in clenching the pelvic floor or buttocks. It's often linked to our feelings of safety and survival.
Some things to try
If you suspect that some tension in your pelvic area, whether it be in the musculature of your hips or in your pelvic floor, might be contributing to your jaw tension, you can try some of the following techniques.
- Mindfulness meditation
Something as simple as taking a few minutes of meditative time for mind-body connection can be very effective. As you breathe deeply, move your focus towards softening your hips further with every breath.
- Progressive muscle relaxation
Another meditative practice, first you engage the muscles in your pelvis as tightly as you can for 10 seconds (like you are clenching your buttocks together), then fully relax. Make sure that the release of muscles is immediate and not gradual. Observe how the relaxed sensation feels.
- Yoga and stretching
Poses that can open up your hip flexors and stretch your pelvic floor include pigeon pose, cat-cow, prasarita padottanasana I, malasana and supta sukasana.
- Movement when singing
It is difficult for muscles to grip when they are busy moving. I often encourage my students who may be struggling with pelvic tightness to either gently sway their hips as they sing, pretend they are using an imaginary hula hoop, or even take a little stroll around the room as a means of relieving this tension.
Jaw-dropping info, right? Have you experienced matching jaw and pelvic tension before? I'd love to hear your experience!
Livia Brash, Singing for Self-Care