Anatomy Train Epiphany
I was lying in a backbend, supported by a chair. It had been beastly hot in Los Angeles, and Karin, my yoga teacher, had given our class a number of supported asanas to cool us down. But I was resisting: I had let my yoga practice lapse for a number of months and hadn’t been in that upside down position for a while. My throat felt taut.
Trying to find the source of my discomfort, I zeroed in on my tongue. Sure enough, loosening it helped me settle into the posture. But why did my shoulders release so dramatically, just from softening my tongue?
The image that came to mind was anatomical: a myofascial train from the tongue to the shoulder blade via the hyoid bone. In the drawings from Gray’s Anatomy, hyoglossus, colored in magenta, reaches from the hyoid bone under some neighboring muscles to the base of the tongue. Omohyoid, shaded red, arises from the upper border of the shoulder blade and swoops up to the hyoid bone. Together these muscles make a curved line when looked at from the front. When the head is aligned with the trunk, they lie in the same coronal plane.
Your Hyoid Way Station
I began to contemplate the hyoid—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 mandible (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 waggle (gently!) side to side. You can feel it go up and down when you swallow. The hyoid is 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. What a way station that little bone is.
When I relaxed my tongue, I undoubtedly also relaxed others of the hyoid group of muscles, although the profound sensation at the moment was that my shoulders settled back. I’d written and taught about tongue tension in relationship to the neck many times, yet here it was in a new manifestation—tongue to shoulders.
A Quieter Brain
That day in class when I softened my tongue, I also felt a subtle intensity in my brain dissipate. Of course! The tongue gets ever so subtly activated when we are engaged in thought. It's involved in the incipient formation of words even though we aren’t actually speaking. To feel what I mean, relax your body as deeply as you can and then start adding numbers in your head. Most people will feel nano movements of the tongue.
The purpose of yoga asana and pranayama (breathing regulation) is to achieve a clear, calm state of mind. But even if you don’t practice yoga, I’m sure you appreciate any tip that can relieve unnecessary mental chatter and ameliorate your posture as well.
A Looser Tongue
If you’re not used to doing yoga you can approximate the supported backbend effect as in the picture to the right. Experiment by purposefully tensing your tongue and then releasing it to perceive the connection I’m describing. Then see whether you can feel the same connection when you are upright. This should give you some useful insights about your posture.
As I write this—my tongue eager to help chew my thoughts and words—I try to keep a soft tongue-to-shoulder connection in the background of my awareness. This gives new meaning to the phrase “loosening the tongue.”
Here is a video you've seen before, but with this new detail in mind you may find something new for yourself in the exploration.