Pucker Up!

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Because it was highly recommended by another Yoga Tune Up® teacher, I listened to speaker Julian Treasure give a ten minute talk on TED titled How to Speak So That Others Will Listen. Of course this is something I would like: to talk and have people listen. Doesn’t everyone? So, I tuned in with intrigue. About three-quarters of the way into his talk Julian Treasure gives his audience various ways to warm up their voices. He suggests doing these exercises before an important message is to be given. Pretending that I was sitting there in the front row, I followed along like a schoolgirl. Exercise #1: nailed it. Exercise #2: check. (Piece of cake. I can do these.) Exercise #3: epic fail. (Um, wait, what? Show me again Julian. Pause; rewind; repeat.) To my amazement, I could not do it. Exercise #3 seemed simple enough: pucker and press the lips together (a combination of a kiss and a pout), forcing air and a hum to pass through the lips as the lips waddle, or flap up and down, like you’re blowing bubbles in the bathtub and humming at the same time. It’s the same thing a small child would do while making a chug boat sound. I was dumbfounded. I could not do it.

Once the talk was over, I questioned every family member in the house, and even some on the phone. They all could do the movement – no problem, and they were perplexed that I could not. “You’re trying too hard.” “Relax your lips.” And so the suggestions went. I knew that I used to be able to do this lip movement since I used to zerbert the bare bellies of my children when they were little. (A zerbert is when you press your lips against their belly and blow, making farting sounds and eliciting giggles from the receiver.) No matter how hard I tried, I still couldn’t do it. Since I was stumped as to which muscles around my mouth weren’t firing, I turned to my faithful anatomy book.

According to The Trail Guide to The Body, the facial muscles can be divided into four groups: muscles of the mouth, nose, eyes, and scalp. I had always heard that frowning required more muscles (up to 20) than smiling (8), but I had no idea that the head is home to 30 muscles. The mouth alone contains 11 mimetic muscles, meaning they form expressions of and around the mouth. Since all these muscles are bilateral (meaning both sides) on the face except one, they create an astounding sum total of 23 expressions of the mouth!


Determined to get to the bottom of my zerbert dysfunction, I tested these 11 muscles, using my anatomy book as a reference while standing in front of the bathroom mirror. I palpated and massaged each muscle. Then I contracted and relaxed them. You can try this too. Using this chart, stand in front of a mirror to engage the muscles for each expression:

To try some moves specific to the mouth only do these:

  • Pull down both corners of your mouth to make an inverted clown smile. This engages the depressor anguli oris muscle. Is your upside down smile symmetrical? Now trying doing one side at a time.
  • Do your snarl-like upper lip curl, you know Elvis style. Try one side and then the other. Now do both. This movement activates your levator labii superioris which elevates and protrudes the upper lip.
  • Make your best pouty lips, protruding the lower lip and dimpling the chin. You have just turned on your mentalis muscle which is located to the right and left of midline of the chin.

Although I did fairly well engaging these muscles separately and together, I did find a few blind spots – areas that were more challenging to propriocept or engage than others. For example, I can do a really good Elvis lip impression on the right side of my mouth, but not so good on my left. It’s not uncommon for this to happen. Muscles that are underused or sleepy can become more active with practice. Even the act of trying to engage the muscles is helpful. Something worth noting too is “when facial muscles are contracted involuntarily by emotion, they are more symmetrical, while deliberate or voluntary expressions often produce a more asymmetrical contraction.”

In the end, I decided it was much more complicated to administer a zerbert than engaging one muscle alone. It appears to take a combination of at least three, one of them being the orbicularis oris, which is notably the one mimetic muscle that is not bilateral. Join me next week as we dive a little bit deeper into this muscle that allows us to pucker up!

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