by Jeffrey Shoaf, E-RYT-500, LMBT
As both a student and teacher of yoga, anatomy, and bodywork, you might imagine my enthusiasm when I learned about an opportunity this past winter to participate with forty three other movement and bodywork therapists from around the world in a five day anatomy lab on myofascial dissection.
The entire program was so brilliantly choreographed, our mornings beginning with Elizabeth Larkham, renowned dance, yoga, and Pilates instructor for two hours of movement, focusing on particular areas of the body that would soon connect us viscerally to our lab work each day. Combining these three modalities, the classes were always a beautiful hybrid of largely unfamiliar movements (no Virabhadrasana here folks). How refreshing! Following that initiation into the program with Elizabeth’s skilled and poised direction, we then took a brief journey over to The Lab of Anatomical Enlightenment (love the name) and met Todd Garcia, master dissector and director of this unique research institution. (Todd trains medical students, scientists, yoga teachers, personal trainers, Pilates instructors, and other movement based therapists in anatomy and dissection).
This dissection lab is most unique in that these cadavers, who in life donated themselves for this research were, in point of fact, “live-tissue” cadavers. Even though this may seem like an oxymoron, the term refers to the fact the these donors were not embalmed; which means their tissues are not injected with latex or formaldehyde, a very common and unfortunate habit, but instead came to us “ as is”. Other than no longer being animated with the spark of life, their bodies’ tissues looked, felt, and responded to this “surgical” procedure they passively accepted exactly like you or I might, were we merely unconscious. To preserve these bodies for the duration of our work, they were sent to us freshly frozen from a lab in Utah, and then kept cool for three days before we all showed up for the first day’s session. Each evening after our work was complete we carefully wrapped them one by one in a layer of large thick, plastic sheeting, the ends twist tied, and stored overnight in a large refrigerated chest, where we began anew the next day.
The organization of the laboratory experience was brilliant. Rather than beginning this odyssey with lab coats and scalpels in hand, we all convened around the large sterile room as a group to offer a few moments of reverent meditation and gratitude for these generous human beings and their families. Then under Todd’s direction, proceeded to unwrap the cadavers, and take ample time to view (connect with) each one, as a way of determining which of these eight individuals we would spend then next very intimate five days with. After choosing the person with whom we resonated the most, we then listened as Todd carefully explained how to go about the skill of dissection. One of his most profound statements was “Don’t try to do too much, rather try and do one project really well”.
Joining together with the common theme of exploring fascia as it applies to movement, the art of dissection was executed quite differently than you would likely see in most anatomy labs.
And then…, well…, there was Tom Myers( bodyworker, Rolfer, fascial researcher, and author of the best seller Anatomy Trains). I have been a long time fan and student of Tom’s work. His presence and expertise on the subject was key to the success of this program. having previously worked with Todd on numerous projects to prove to the medical community that these myofascial “trains” are continuous, and how we can no longer define movement of our skeleton just from one muscle’s origin, insertion, and action on a bone.. (Tom got his start back in the 1970’s as a direct student of Drs. Ida Rolf and Mosche Feldenkrais).
Rather than isolating and removing individual muscles, we worked tediously to keep the myofascial chains or myofascial meridians as intact as possible, no small feat for the novices we mostly were. As Tom was clear in pointing out, eager students of anatomy are quick to want to dissect away tissues that were once thought of as merely inert packaging materials ( fascia and connective tissues) and get to the “good stuff”, the tissues we can easily identify and more readily understand and comprehend , like muscles, bones, and organs. However, when tissue is dissected parallel to the skeleton, rather than the old school method of our times as hunter gatherers, the myofascial chains are kept intact. In fact, Todd and Tom have demonstrated you can remove a continuous myofascial layer along many planes, one example being from the plantar fascia at the sole of the foot all the way up the posterior body, and ending at the eyebrow. This fascia, in all it’s forms and layers, forms a unitard, or biological fabric, creating the shape that is self sustaining ( for better or worse, depending upon our vocation, lifestyle, and postural “learning” from our mentors).
Six of the group ( including me) of forty three students found a collective interest, both from intuitive resonance with “Martha*”, and commonality in our anatomical leanings. Each of us intrigued by the myofascial connections of the diaphragms of, as they relate to breathing; these being the pelvic, respiratory, and vocal membranes, and their direct (and in some cases indirect) and continuous connection to the pericardium, spinal ligaments, and iliopsoas complex. (Being a student of Yoganand Michael Carroll, this stroll into the anatomy of the tissues of breathing and bandhas was just my thing!)
One of my fellow students in the lab, “Brea” offered this beautiful blog to all of us in an email about a month after the training. Here are those words, from the heart about how this experience affected, her. I can’t imagine how those words could have been crafted any better….
“Sitting on a plane on my way to Phoenix back in January this year, casually chatting with my seat mates, the inevitable question arises: “So, what will you be doing in Phoenix”? I take a moment to decide if I should tell him the truth, if I want to open that “can of worms”. I go ahead anyway. “I am taking a cadaver dissection course, said with a slight smile. He pauses and looks at me again. “Really? are you a forensic scientist”? No, not at all, I am a yoga teacher. I’ve been asked many times; Why would a yoga teacher want to do something like that? Do I have some perverse Dexter-like curiosity about the human body? Curious about the human body, oh yes! Serial killer potential? No..…
After five intensive days both on the body and the mind, and yet it was one of the best experiences of my life, I quickly realized this was a rite of passage, one that forever changes all who go through it. We went from skin to bone, head to toe on eight un-embalmed, or “live- tissue” cadavers, people who graciously donated their bodies so that we (mostly novice dissectors) might learn. There were about six of us per cadaver doing the dissections. I won’t go into all the details out of respect for the donors and for those of you who are squeamish, but I wanted to share with you the deeper lessons that I’ve received .
They were our silent teachers, an immeasurable gift, one they chose while living. The anatomical understanding and learning was incomparable.
As a visual and hands on learner, this was a wonderful opportunity to enhance my learning. On the other hand, there was no way this was going to be just another anatomy course. Just as we cut through the layers of the cadaver to uncover the whole, so too was the layering of my experience. There was a dynamic transfer of information happening on all levels; kinesthetic, intellectual emotional, and spiritual. All the questions, all my painfully human wonderings, were laid there bare on the table before me. As I cut away each layer of tissue, I was cutting too, into my own awareness, cutting into my own assumptions about this human life. The human form before me was everything and everyone. That was “me” lying on that table. that was “me” offering myself up for greater exploration, offering up my secrets for further excavation, for the great unveiling. There was no separation between me and that knife, cutting away…, cutting away, to the bone, to the core of it all. Inside the body I found treasures, discovered nuances, patterns, and repetitions.
In many spiritual traditions they say, we are not this body. But how can we be anything else while we are in it? It is through this body that I am me, all of me. It is through the offering of another human that I found the deepest sense of the layers of who I am, what I am capable of, and most importantly all that I do not know. Who are we if not this body; this vessel, this storyteller, the keeper of secrets and recorder of life. Who am I if not this body; this mover this heart, heart feeler, and sensual receiver. Who are you if you are not this body; this teacher, this offering laid down in simple supplication. Every cell in our body tells a story, every layer has something to say. The offering from these eight silent teachers has granted me access to the simplest and complex of miracles, and I can’t wait to do it again”!
(used and printed with the kind permission of Brea Johnson @ Heart and Bones Yoga, Calgary Canada). www.heartandbonesyoga.com
This was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my career as a yoga teacher, therapist, and bodyworker. And Elizabeth was phenomenal, using movement to connect what we had discovered the day before to the one ahead. This way what we saw in “Martha’s*” body landed fully into our own.
The experience was overwhelming, in all the best ways. So Tom and Todd’s advice to wait a couple of years before taking another training was well advised. Each day since, that five day experience continues to color my world, both professionally and personally, allowing me to see, feel, and understand the human form in ways I never would otherwise. I am forever grateful for this opportunity, as this learning continues to both enhance and inform my yoga teaching and bodywork practice in immeasurably positive and wondrous ways.
Martha was the name we chose for our beloved anonymous donor. The real names and histories of these eight generous human beings were never revealed to us, nor should they have been.