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Exploring the Hyoid Bone

Serving as an anchor point for various muscles involved in swallowing, speech, and resonance, the hyoid bone plays a pivotal role in regulating vocal tract shape and overall tension. As the only floating bone in the body, the hyoid's mobility and positioning directly influence vocal quality, resonance, and pitch modulation. Through targeted exercises and manual techniques, we can optimize hyoid function, enhancing vocal efficiency and preventing potential voice-related dysfunction.

Palpating the hyoid and feeling its motion

Let’s first find the hyoid bone on your own body. With your head in a "neutral" position, use your thumb and index finger to gently find the thyroid cartilage (Adam’s apple). From here, place your fingers on each side of the cartilage and slide them superiorly (upward toward your tongue) by 1-2 centimeters to find the hyoid bone. You will feel the hyoid floating at the level of the root of the tongue. To feel its motion and function, simply swallow. The hyoid will rise toward the soft palate when you swallow and return to its neutral floating position afterward. Next, you can create a yawning feeling to notice the hyoid drop and throat open. The key point here is to notice that the bone slides within the neck.

The fascia and myofascial considerations

When we look at the neck overall, we see that it is a bunch of tubes sliding relative to other tubes, relative to muscles and bone. This leads us first to understanding the role of fascia in movement. In layman’s terms, fascia is the tissue and the cells that bind and web together our anatomy. All muscles, blood vessels and vasculature, viscera, nerves, and literally everything is wrapped and layered within the fascia. We can see through this lens that the outer layers of the web can influence the deeper layers of the web. Fascia helps everything stay connected and move in the most balanced way relative to each other.

One visual that can be helpful for how this relates to the throat and hyoid is to imagine a really dense spiderweb filling the inside of a cylinder from top to bottom. Interwoven and suspended in the center of this webbed cylinder is a straw. When the straw is pulled from above, the entire cylindrical webbing moves upward given it is attached to the straw. When the straw is pulled down, the entire cylindrical webbing moves downward with the straw. Now just substitute the straw for the throat and hyoid. As the hyoid moves upward when we swallow, the entire webbing moves with it, and vice versa.

Interwoven within this webbing are muscles. When muscles contract, they pull on the web and influence its entire movement. There are the muscles above the hyoid called the suprahyoids and those below called the infrahyoids. When the hyoid moves upward, as in swallowing, all of the suprahyoid muscles pull on the webbing to contract and lift the hyoid upward. This means that the infrahyoid muscles and lower fascial webbings stretch and resist and counterbalance this motion… which is great because otherwise our hyoid and throat would shoot out of our mouth. Not ideal.

The suprahyoids and infrahyoids are collectively referred to as the extrinsic muscles of the larynx. The relationship between these two groups of muscles and their deeper relationship to the entire fascial webbing and all its layers will play a significant role in the function and quality of the intrinsic muscles of the larynx that we use to directly produce sound.

The anatomical considerations

The fascial webbing also transmits force. This conversation around force is too detailed for our conversation here, but all force can be thought of as tension, and tension gets translated throughout the entire web. When looking specifically at the hyoid, this mechanical webbing forms into tendons that attach to denser structures (which are also fascia) called bone.

The suprahyoids, which primarily consist of pharyngeal muscles, floor of the mouth, and the tongue, attach to the jaw and skull. The infrahyoids attach to the sternum and scapula. I could also argue that when we look at the cervical and clavicular fascia we see a direct relationship to the hyoid and upper rib ring, and thereby a direct mechanical relationship to breathing, but I’ll save this anatomical argument for another time.

Here is the key point of all of this and where to start on your hyoid journey:

How your skull, upper cervicals, jaw (and tongue) are positioned relative to your hyoid will directly influence tension on the suprahyoids. How your sternum, shoulder girdle, and rib cage are positioned relative to your hyoid will directly influence tension on the infrahyoids. How the suprahyoid and infrahyoids are relating tension (force) throughout the entire cylindrical webbing via the relationships between the shoulder girdle, sternum, skull, and jaw will impact overall hyoid function. If the structural anatomy is not integrated and capable of moving dynamically with one another unproductive tension can find its way into the vocal tract. Simply put, when the primary muscles of phonation can't engage properly, secondary muscles turn on to support. Most often in pathology, we would see this as "muscle tension dysphonia."

In your vocal play, can you explore the ranges of motion of your head and jaw as you make sound? What does it feel like to hold a yawn and move your head and jaw? Does moving your shoulder blades or rib cage as you make sound produce feel-good changes in your voice? Can you move your skull and sternum independent of one another? There are so many questions and perspectives you can play with to influence hyoid function. Playful movement exploration is a great place to start when exploring everything hyoid.

These insights and questions are meant to expand your knowledge and open pathways and perspectives to fuller embodiment and vocal integration. Please remember that the foundation of your body-based work is to love and respect your unique anatomy. Approach this integrative work with a sense of continued curiosity and playfulness rather than doing something “right” or “wrong.” The moment movement becomes too serious, especially with regards to our voice, we will lose the ability to feel safety within novelty. Given our body is changing every day, experiencing novelty is key to embodiment.

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