Like so many instructors, I have asked my students to look up, raise their chests, drop their shoulders, etc. etc. for years, with varying results. I first came across mention of the hyoid bone and the hyoid muscles when I read Tom Nagel’s book “Zen & Horseback Riding”. Feeling the need to know more, I started doing some further research to find out more about this little bone and these muscles. The more I read about the hyoid, the more I realised its’ importance to riders.
Like the psoas the hyoid bone/muscles are a bridge. In their case they are the bridge that connects our skull and the floor of our mouth, with our chest (sternum) and our back (tip of the shoulder blades).
The hyoid bone itself is that little U-shaped bone that is suspended between your chin and your Adam’s apple. If you place your thumb and index finger onto your throat just under your jaw (and just forward of the place where your glands get swollen when you’re ill), your finger pads contact a delicate horseshoe that you can feel go up and down when you swallow. The hyoid is actually anchored to your jaw, sternum, shoulder blade, thyroid cartilage and tongue by nine short and slender muscles that modulate the relationships between your jaw, tongue, throat and torso.
Traditionally we are taught that the hyoid muscles are used to open and close our jaw. But current studies seem to show they are responsible for so much more. When the hyoid is moved gently back towards the cervical vertebra (as in sucking and swallowing) it provokes a reflex that draws the abdominal muscles backwards towards our spine. At the same time, this action also raises the sternum towards our chin, levels our chin and allows our shoulder blades to drop! This is, as Tom Nagel so succinctly puts it, ‘an “inside out” explanation of chest out, shoulders back and chin in’!
When our hyoid bone drops down and forwards, our chin juts out and our neck and upper back respond by collapsing and curving forward.
Strong hyoid muscles result in a graceful, uplifted posture. But modern living does not lend itself to strong hyoid muscles. When misalignment occurs there are often a number of forces at work. In the case of so many of us, forced to sit at a desk all day, the sunken posture of the shoulders and chest occurs when the muscles between the scapulas become weakened while the chest muscles become constricted. Since the upper chest is largely supported by the neck muscles beginning at the base of the head, the weight of the front body can cause the head to be brought down, increasing the burden on the neck muscles. When these muscles at the back of the neck are activated, it allows a proper upright posture, freeing the front body for proper breathing, speaking, and eating.
Sometimes in an attempt to fix this postural imbalance, one actually does more harm. The head and shoulders should not be pulled back to be “straightened up” because this tightens the upper back muscles and shortens the neck even more. Another incorrect strategy is pulling the chin in. This only acts to flatten the neck adding more tension. The issue with these attempts is that the head and chin are moving from the outside in. True realignment moves from the inside to the outside.
Finding proper alignment from the centre, or hyoid, allows for the head and neck to extend, creating stronger core muscles from the inside out. The strengthening of these muscles counter acts the shortening at the back of the neck, revealing posture. Interestingly enough, it is pretty much the same for our horses – we need a relaxed jaw, to get the correct lengthening and lifting of the spine seen in true collection.
To activate these core muscles, longus colli and levator scapulae, lie on the floor. Extend through the crown of the head. As the muscles contract the neck will elongate as the head slides along the floor.
Our neck is connected to our hamstrings! For example, if the deep core stabilizing system of our body is unstable; our nervous system will simply recruit more superficial power amplifiers to take over. One of the most common relationships is weakness of the deep neck flexors to tightness in the hamstrings. And we all know just important the hamstrings are to riders
Lack of stability in the neck causes a reflex compensation in the hamstrings to take over the job of the neck flexors. This relationship can commonly be seen in the standing to touch toes test.
In this test, our feet should be together and our legs are straight with no knee bending. Look down at your toes (neck flexors) and then flex forward at the waist to touch your toes. If your neck flexors are weak, our nervous system senses the threat and our instability, so on the way down to touch your toes it stiffens the hamstrings so you don’t fall forward hurting yourself and you can’t reach your toes!
Another exercise you can do to check your alignment and strengthen your hyoid muscles is the Yoga asana, the Tadasana. To do this: go and stand with your back to a wall, with your heels and back against the wall. When you line up your upper body, the back of your skull should be up against the wall. Yes, all the way back there. Hold the pose for 30 seconds and then relax. Remember to breathe!