Lessons from a Cadaver Lab

My love for human anatomy is a recent phenomena. Growing up I loved learning but much of my curiosity was isolated to book learning the humanities and social sciences. I found delight in the pages of Thoreau, The Bhagavad-Gita, and Whitman. Poetry, philosophy, and literature were more my speed than the nitty gritty of the natural sciences. Physics held some appeal for it’s broad stroke of relating to the cosmos. I mean, black holes, you guys! If I didn’t immediately understand or relate to a subject, I just tuned it out.  Chemistry, biology, and the like, I spent most of my time reading a book under my desk.

My interests subtlety changed over time as I began to explore and travel the natural world. For example, climbing mountains peaked an interest in geology. Direct experience with science made me want to understand it on a deeper level. This is also true of my newfound fascination for understanding the human body. The gateway was yoga.

I was initially drawn to yoga as a physical practice with philosophical application. For me it was a means to reach and nourish the spirit without the entanglement of religious dogma. As Gloria Steinem says, “Religion is just another form of politics you’re not allowed to argue with.” And I wanted to argue, investigate, and dive in deep using all the tools of examination. After 6-7 years of practice, my awareness of my physical body completely changed. Born with zero coordination, I felt more balance, control, and understanding of my body from the inside-out.

I wanted more tools to deeply understand and take care of the physical body. That was when I sought out a yoga teacher training that I knew would emphasis anatomy, biomechanics, and alignment. When I sat down in our first lesson, however, I was totally overwhelmed. I felt like my teacher Caroline was speaking a completely different language, and she was! Medial, lateral, adduction, abduction, and there were so many muscles! After 6 months and 200-hours I knew I had barely scratched the surface.

So, I kept going.

I studied physiology, biomechanics, and repeated anatomy. I began to integrate the basics, and with this new language am now able to translate our human physical architecture.  I also realized the study of the human body never ends! It’s expansive and all encompassing and so freaking cool. My complete overwhelm shifted to total absorption.

Most recently I was afforded the great privilege to view and investigate human cadavers in a life sciences anatomy lab. And oh man, it was incredible. I was both humbled and inspired. I was able to peel back muscles, trace the human spinal cord, and investigate the valves of the human heart. The lab put a whole new spin on my study of anatomy. My close up view filled me with awe. As I continue to absorb the experience, I find my reaction is more philosophical than scientific, bridging the gap between my old love of poetry and my new love for biology. Here’s five takeaways from my first human anatomy lab.

1)   Everything is connected

When you see a body up close, it’s immediately obvious that everything is connected. From your big toe to your brain, you are a latticework of interwoven and layered pieces that form a complex and intelligent machine. Not only that, your design mirrors the design of the natural world. Streams become creeks become rivers, become the ocean. Inside you the design of veins, arteries, and the heart. Bone to tendon to muscle to tendon to bone. And then there’s the brain. The brain lives in every cell of your body connected through the spinal cord and invisible electrical impulses out to your fingertips.

The takeaway here for me as a trainer and yoga teacher, along the chain of the body there’s innumerable opportunities for stress, strain, and tension. Ultimately, there’s also no way to treat just one symptom of acute or chronic pain in the body. The trigger of your physical pain may be quite distant from where you’re actually feeling that pain. It’s critically important to treat the system and not just the symptom.

2)   The brain is a muscle

With any muscle, the brain must be trained. Stretching and strengthening the mind is critically important for the function of the rest of the body. The brain is in charge of everything else. Since you can’t do curls for your brain, it’s imperative to treat the body to stillness so you can focus totally on what’s going on in your brain. It requires quietude to sense the sudden undulations of your brain waves. Meditation, meditation, meditation. Train the brain to treat the body.

3)   Within you there is space

The most stunning example of this is in the human brain. An axial cross-section of the brain revels space. Scientists will tell you there is fluid and reactions and all kinds of wild stuff happening in those regions. As a yoga practitioner, I see potential!

Space is an opportunity to transform. Space is a reminder that the possibilities are infinite. You are light matter and dark matter and grey matter and SPACE! Inside every CELL of your being, there is space. In your heart, space. In your muscles, space. Inside your bones, SPACE!

Don’t believe the illusion that you’re a solid, immoveable mass. Within you there is only space to shift, grow, and transform.

4)   You are not your body

“There’s no one here.” That’s what really struck me when investigating these human bodies. They are devoid of personality, spirit, color. Whoever occupied the space before, they’re gone.

 Whatever your belief system, it’s worth investigating the question of the soul. Maybe you’ll decide that you’re just a brain in a body coded by DNA and socialized by your environment to be who you are. Maybe you’ll decide that you’re propelled solely by heartbeat and breath. Or maybe you’re something else entirely. I’ve been long on the question of the soul. And I’ve poured through many a religious and philosophical text to see what I can figure out about it. I’m still undecided. It’s just too early for me to say for sure.

One thing, I do know for sure. I am not my body. My body is just a suit I’m wearing for a brief time before my spark of life goes out or moves on. Even as we take care of the body to prolong our spark, it’s important to remember that having a body is just a convenient way to experience life. We must balance being in the body without being of the body. Truly, you can’t take it with you, folks.

5)   You are a freakin’ miracle

A freakin’ muscle with a huge psoas. I mean, seriously, the psoas is huge! The sciatic nerve too, so much bigger than I thought. The difference in texture space and size of our arteries versus our veins is astounding. The human heart is perfect! Seeing how it all fits together up close is a true marvel.

It’s a great gift to wear these incredible bodies in this lifetime. The fact that these bodies exist, the fact that we’re alive; it’s a miracle. Let us not take this experience of being alive for granted. Live boldly in respect of the miracle.

One final note: To those who commit their bodies to scientific research after passing. Your gift to humanity is great. Thank you for this incredible learning opportunity.