For the second year in a row, I am doing Gil Hedley’s six-day, hands-on Dissection Workshop.
Gil is a true teacher—humble and self-effacing, he looks you in the eye when he talks. He listens, has a clear passion for his work and you feel calm around him—he is just brilliant.
Day 1: The first day, we dissected skin from superficial fascia.
What was interesting to experience was how skin does not want to be separated from fascia. Our scalpels became dull in the process of dissection because they are one layer. It is only the anatomist who chooses to separate them, thereby creating relationships between the layers.
It is interesting to note that the word “anatomy” is Greek for “to cut up.” Therefore, how you cut determines a new reality of relationships. How someone chooses to cut creates and sustains a model, dissolving other ways of viewing the body.
Here at this workshop we are going with the model of skin, superficial fascia, deep fascia, muscles, organs and bones.
Whatever model you have is a way of looking at the world; when a model stops working, you discard it for another.
It takes a while to get used to the intensity of standing for long hours each day, dissecting a cadaver. You tend to focus so much that you literally need to step away from the cadaver and look around the room, go outside, take a walk.
At the end of the day, Gil told us that we needed to have a “change of state” and go to a park, take a shower and rest. He also mentioned that the color yellow (the color of superficial fascia) stimulates the nervous system and that we needed to look at other colors and see other things.
This is great advice in any intense situation: step away, take a breath and change the scenery.
Day 2: The body is one.
All of the anatomy books we have are in many ways an illusion—you open a book and the muscles are fascia-free; they are colored, labeled and easily discernible. In reality, muscles are interpenetrated by fascia. They are unnamed, bunched up and are not distinct.
Thus when we touch someone—say we are massaging the upper back—we are not just rubbing the upper trapezius muscle. We are massaging skin, superficial fascia, deep fascia, and traps. It is all one.
You can try to isolate as best as you can, but inevitably you will come in contact with skin, superficial fascia, deep fascia, muscle and bone.
It is impossible not to touch the entire body when touching one part.
Last year at Gil’s workshop, I focused on the leg. This year I chose to focus on the shoulders. I have been painstakingly and lovingly dissecting away.
Today, I was at the deep fascia layer and underneath the filmy fabric I saw the many muscles of the shoulder awaiting the decision of my incision.
I paused, put my scalpel down and grabbed our cadaver’s arm (we named her “Pearl”). I started to move it as if she was doing “Cactus arms.” As soon as I lowered her arm back down, I saw the fibers of her triceps move simultaneously both up and down. I called my friend over to confirm what I was witnessing.
Afterwards, I thought about how I had been trained as a yoga teacher to think of muscular engagement as going one way, from insertion to origin—yet I saw with my eyes how muscle fibers of the same muscle were going in varying directions. Some of the fibers were going towards the origin of the muscle, while others were going away from it.
I thought how often our muscles harden when we do yoga asanas.
I wondered how much softer and more powerful our movements could be if instead of thinking of energy going only one way, we imagined a dance of fibers happening multi-directionally and multi-dimensionally.
Day 3: Today, we dove into the muscle layer.
I found myself falling for the five-finger spread, fan-like pectoralis major muscle. I pulled the filmy clear cotton candy fascia for at least an hour with my hemostat and scalpel. I revealed strands of muscle fibers (which extend from sternum and clavicle) and traced the muscle, looping and inserting itself with a firm tendon onto the humerus.
I paused to stretch my own arm and imagined the muscle underneath moving from clavicle and sternum to humerus.
Later, when I got to the hotel and was glove-free and clean, I placed my right hand over my pec, feeling the insertion points. I closed my eyes, reveling in how the hand looks like the muscle; then I traced my hand towards the insertion point at the arm bone and continued to open, feeling my whole chest stretch.
What joy in learning muscles this way—no boring memorization, but rather observing, palpating, watching muscles move and then embodying them.
Something interesting happened at the lab; I noticed some fibers of the pec major inserted onto the deltoid muscle as well. I kept checking my anatomy book. How could it be? The book says it goes into the humerus, not the deltoid.
I often don’t believe my eyes or trust my gut, so I called over some other somanauts. They agreed—my eyes were right. There were fibers of the pec going into the deltoid making the two muscles look like one.
Gil often says to “let the cadavers correct the anatomy books” and not the other way around. What a wonderful teacher to remind us of that.
I thought of how often I see things and keep quiet because I don’t trust myself, even when the evidence is there and I literally choose to “go by the books.” May I trust what I see and feel!
What a privilege to be with a group of people who are trusting their intuition and the evidence in front of them, enough to “correct the books.”
Day 4: Today, I spent a long time with the shoulder, dissecting away the deltoid, serratus anterior and rhomboids.
Then, I revealed the four rotator cuff muscles and their tendons. The rotator cuff muscles all emerge out of the scapula and join in at the head of the humerus. The subscapularis literally lives inside the anterior shell of the scapula.
I closed my eyes for a second and imagined the back of my lungs breathing into my subscapularis. They all wrap themselves tightly at the head of the arm bone, securing it in place like four friends making a pact to keep the most mobile joint of the body—the glenohumeral joint—in place.
I look forward to exploring this joint even more tomorrow at the lab and with my own arms!
In the afternoon, we got to the viscera and entered a surreal country. I was looking forward to seeing my favorite organ: the greater omentum.
I never heard of the greater omentum before I did Gil’s workshop. Homer wrote about it in The Odyssey. Nineteenth century surgeons referred to it as “The Abdominal Policeman,” and yet most of us have little awareness about this organ.
Every cadaver that is dissected will show this organ in a different place. The reason it changes position is that the greater omentum floats towards places where there is infection or trauma in the body, inserting itself there as a way of relieving whatever illness exists.
One of our cadavers (named “Victor” by the group) died of septis and his greater omentum was wrapped under his liver, like a blanket. Another cadaver had it on top of his intestines.
“Pearl” who died of pancreatic cancer appears not to have it, which is very common; Gil explained that often many surgeons will take it out.
“There are two kinds of surgeons,” Gil said: “Cowboy surgeons and anal surgeons. You want the anal surgeon.”
To know that we have an organ that literally glides around the abdominal cavity like a traveling mendicant in order to relieve pain fills me with hope and awe. It reminds me of the goodness of the body; it reminds me of how friends and loved ones can become like the greater omentum, wrapping words and energy around one another during times of grief.
Day 5: Today we continued to plunge into the depths of the human form.
For some it meant focusing on the brain, for others it meant the lungs, for me it meant the heart.
I came this morning with a diagram on how to unwind the heart from Dr. Torrent-Guasp’s Helical Heart. I had seen his video and was blown away by how the heart is a spiral, which can be unraveled literally with just the hands.
I invited my table to join me in this exploration. We all started together but then Yuko (a lovely and wise acupuncturist from Japan) and I spent the rest of the day figuring out how to unwind the helical shape of the heart.
We separated it from the chest and then from the lungs. Then we removed the atria, aorta, pulmonary and coronary arteries, as well as some superficial fascia (yes we all have fat around our heart).
After several false starts, asking for help from our fellow somanauts and approaching Gil about four different times, we were ready to give up.
We were also distracted by Gil’s speeches. This was not just a dissection workshop, but in many ways a philosophy workshop.
Dr. Gil Hedley will often go off on a tangent about myriad topics and believe me, you too would want to drop your scalpel and hemostat and head over to hear this man speak.
Finally Yuko and I each took a breath, looked again at Dr. Guasp’s instructions and tried once more. We pressed our thumbs gently against the trail of some downward pointing fibers and the heart began to reveal itself to us, literally unraveling, like a fist relaxing onto an open palm.
There we were, winding and unwinding the heart with tears in our eyes.
We passed the heart around, showing it to people. I memorized how the heart unfurled and created a little dance with my hands so I could share with others back home.
At the end of the day Yuko and I hugged, our hearts resonating with one another. We thanked “Pearl” for the many gifts she had given us in the most generous act of her life, letting go of her human form and letting strangers soak in her beauty.
I left tired but grateful for such a privileged experience.
I kept thinking about one of Gil’s speeches today about “how movement is the orientation of form.” How—as I understood it—it is the movement of the fluid that inspires and creates the form.
As Gil was talking, I shouted without thinking,
“Form Follows Flow!”
He smiled and said, “Yes.”
I thought of how whatever pulsation we are experiencing inspires the next form our lives will take.
I am curious and hopeful, as whatever is happening right now in our lives is going to create our next unknown form to come.
Day 6: At first it seems like six days is a long time for a dissection workshop, but in truth I wish we had a year to explore this magnificent body.
On the last day, we spent a lot of time on the brain—looking, peeking and exploring deep into the grey. I traced my fingers through the labyrinth-like rivulets hoping to find a way in our out.
Gil dove us deeper through the layers that covered the brain and opened it to find the pineal and pituitary gland. We stood for a moment, our white lab coats by now soaked in formaldehyde and blood, as Gil guided us into accessing these two glands in our own bodies. To me, the pineal felt more grounding and stabilizing, while the pituitary felt more uplifting and effulgent.
In this workshop you not only see and palpate where things are, but you get to embody the inside.
Every now and then, I would go to the next table and find “Pearl’s” arm. I continued, like a diligent monk reciting his prayers: peeling muscle, superficial and deep fascia, to reveal the bones.
I found what I was longing for since the last workshop: the elbow joint. There is no greater beauty for me than to watch the way the radius literally rolls over the ulna as you supinate and pronate the arm. It is a wonder of mechanics, an answer to solving the problem of giving and receiving.
I held “Pearl’s” arm and bent it as I pronated and supinated her forearm. I looked at the elbow joint for a long time, how it rolls over with such ease.
“Maria Cristina,” I kept saying to myself, “Please remember this moment. Please mind, please body, remember.”
I showed my fellow somanauts; one of them actually thanked me for clearing for him how the radius rolled over.
Gil taped me moving “Pearl’s” elbow joint for his recordings. I kept walking around the room, table to table, “Would you like to see the elbow joint?”
Everything was shared, everyone receptive to the gifts we helped uncover.
I then moved my attention to the scapula, the boldest bone I know. This is one strange bone. It is triangular at the bottom like Africa, and upstairs the spine of the scapula creates a ledge large enough for a bird to perch on. The supraspinatus muscle also has a nice trench for itself that fingers can run to and fro. The dents and hills, cliffs and surprises continued onto the coracoid and acromion process.
My hungry hand kept exploring, touching, sensing. I got closer to it with my eyes and saw rivers of veins forging through. At one moment I held the scapula against the light bulb above and behold, I could see through it! It was translucent.
Now when I wave, grab, reach, and move my hand I think that sunlight is moving through my bones, illuminating each movement.
At the end of the workshop we had a closing ceremony where we made a circle around the dead and then shortened the circle so it only held the living.
We said goodbye, hugging, making promises of staying in touch and seeing each other next year.
As I hugged Gil and my fellow somanauts, I imagined light pouring through our shoulder blades, straight into the heart.
Maria Cristina Jiménez (ERYT 500-RYT 500) first learned yoga from her beloved grandmother growing up in Puerto Rico. Then years later from her body as it healed from a horrific car accident that almost killed her, which broke her spine, hip and leg. She’s been teaching yoga since 2001. She studies with many different teachers—no gurus. Her teachers include Nature, the ocean, her students, her yoga practice, cadavers, myriad books and this moment; right here, right now.
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Asst Ed: Terri Tremblett/Ed: Kate Bartolotta