Wednesday, September 25, 2019


I didn’t do a great job cutting his left hamstrings from the bone. Once I reflected back tissue deep enough and could tell which nerve was his sciatic, I did okay separating it from the surrounding musculature. While I think I totally screwed up reflecting back his quadriceps muscles, I did decent work on his IT band.

I think when I told my people that I was going to a cadaver dissection as part of my yoga teacher continuing education, they didn’t realize I would be doing the cutting myself, not just watching someone else expose our parts or viewing an already-dissected body. Instead, three hours into arriving at the dissection lab in Boulder, Colorado, I was one of 30 lab gear-clad yoga teachers handed a scalpel and hemostat and told to begin reflecting back the skin.

Eight of us stood around a metal table, tools raised, looking at each other across our assigned cadaver, a man we decided to call Bruce, whispering, “So, we just, like, start? . . . Anywhere? . . . We just, uh, cut now? How?” 

Familiar with the hesitation, the lab director reiterated to his room of stalled yogis, “Cut only as deep as the sharpened edge of your scalpel and reflect back to the hypodermis.”

Right. Okay. Hypodermis. Which is what, again? 

Team Bruce. Last day, after our last dissection. 
I made my first cut down the outside of Bruce’s right shoulder. 

Back in 2017, when I first heard other Yoga Medicine teachers talking about their cadaver lab experience, I had to physically extricate myself from the conversation. One gal told us that her cadaver “still had nail polish on.” It was too personal. I was only a year past Jim’s death and the idea of seeing a dead body when I hadn’t been able to see his before burial was too much to consider. Two years after that conversation I still wasn’t sure I was ready, but my desire to know firsthand what’s inside us eclipsed the nerves I had about the possibility of an embarrassing public demonstration of grief.

I did cry. But it was quiet. I don’t even know if it was related to Jim. I mean, yeah, probably it was, but I can’t pinpoint what was I thinking specifically as we went around the lab and met each of the five anonymous cadavers for the first time. Suddenly it got hard for me to swallow. Tears blurred my vision and slid under my protective eyewear, dripping onto the collar of my lab coat.

It was three days before I cried again. “Come see her brain,” one of my tablemates said, “They took out Elsie’s brain.” I released my scalpel and hemostat next to Bruce’s ankle joint I was scraping at and made for for the next table. Split up the middle and set out flat like a butterfly lay what was Elsie’s everything: ideas, memories, fears, decisions. Seeing the substance of who this woman had been overwhelmed me. There she was, an organ dissolving on stainless steel.

When not fixed in preserving chemicals, the brain liquifies quickly upon its release from the skull. The bodies we worked on were unfixed, un-treated, chemical-free. We took them out of the freezers in the morning and, a little lighter from the stuff we’d removed during the day, wrapped them in plastic and returned them to their personal freezers before leaving for the evening.

Yes, they still had faces and we left them uncovered. We didn’t have their real names, medical histories or personal details, but Vivian’s nails had been painted recently. Elsie had scoliosis. Bruce had false teeth and only remnants of a thyroid. Grace had mysterious sutures up her stomach and three pins in her left hip. None of the woman still had their uteruses.

When they donated their bodies, these people gave us consent to slide under their first layer, cut past their muscles, remove their organs, expose their joints, and see that though we all have the same things under our skin, we are unique. It’s not just our thoughts or diets or upbringings that make us distinct; it’s the shape our of pelvis and how that affects the movement of our legs. It’s the adhesions between our lungs and ribs, the thickness of our psoas muscles, and the ratio of our tibias to femurs.

As a yoga teacher, that reinforces what I know about the uniqueness of my students, and it informs the way I teach to try to help students individualize their physical yoga practices. As a human being it reminds me that we are all made of layers, firmly stuck layers of self, set in a shell we didn’t choose. We are meat. We all hurt. We all heal. We never return to being the exact same thing we once were; constantly, we’re new. And while it’s work—often exhausting work—scraping back someone’s layers to find what’s next in your discovery of who they are, as it turns out, I know that it's work worth the effort.

No comments: