Lifting the Veil.
The body is a wondrous and holy thing. Broken, healed, or wounded in the spirit or in the flesh: we are miracles. Our capacity to repair and recover, to move, to jump, to think, to laugh at a bad joke—even to be still in quiet contemplation—is extraordinary. The simple act of wiggling a toe requires a sequence of events that reach from our tiniest phalanges to our brain and back again in the time it takes to bat an eyelash.
I believe that now more than ever.
There was a time, however, when I needed proof. My knowledge of anatomy and physiology was limited to plastic skeletons or what I read in textbooks. I needed more.
In August 2010, while attending Paul and Suzee Grilley’s Yin Yoga Teacher Training in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I was introduced to Gil Hedley’s Fuzz Speech. That was the moment I knew I’d found a teacher devoted to studying anatomy in heart and soul.
By October of 2010, I was registered for Hedley’s April 2011 six-day cadaver intensive in San Francisco. I was convinced this workshop would provide a hands-on experience that left clinical conditioning behind and opened the door to a more profound relationship with the inner space of the body. What I couldn’t know at the time was that this journey toward the body’s inner space would force me to confront where my own journey was leading.
On a gorgeous spring day five months later, I picked up a scalpel for the first time since seventh grade biology class and made a tentative incision. I retracted the skin of the cadaver’s shin with my hemostat and examined the superficial fascia.
Six days later, I held a brain that my fellow students had meticulously dissected with the spinal cord intact. The bundle of nerves in our lower back—the cauda equina—was exposed and the white filament in the middle of it all—the filum terminale—was teased into view.
It was like looking into the center of the universe. It was the Source: Absolute Inner Space. It was the proof I’d been waiting to see, the proof I needed to believe in miracles. And for a few moments my gloved hands held it all.
Our teams were chosen by resonance: we simply walked to the cadaver who called to us. Eight students gathered around a form. A fitted rubber sheet was stretched over the dissection table, and together we lifted it as the cadaver’s shape was revealed to us for the first time. It was covered in layers of white gauze. Each layer of gauze wrapped around the body like a long veil. I was surprised (and admittedly relieved) that any sense of spirit this form once had had disappeared. This was a human body and we treated it with respect and dignity, but the essence of who it was had passed.
But then the unexpected happened: we were asked to bring our cadavers to a standing position. Then I saw her. I saw how she moved through the world. She was a daughter, a mother and then a grandmother. One by one, the weight of each cadaver was taken and held. We saw them all for the first time. A swell of gratitude moved through the room as the living acknowledge the gifts we’d been given. As the days progressed, I became more protective of our cadaver. We’d named her Isabel.
Every day we removed layers: skin, fat, tissue, viscera, bone, brain. Each layer was another beautiful veil and each time a layer was eased away, a new secret was revealed. Sometimes the veil was thin and delicate—the webbed fascia between muscle fibers—and sometimes it was dense and compact like the kidney or spleen.
Our reactions to these experiences—whether it was the cognitive response to seeing the latissimus dorsi attachment on the humerus or the emotional awe and wonder of seeing the tiny, mushroom shaped pituitary gland—was silent and personal. We might have tried to share during Morning Circle, but words were inadequate. As the veils on our form were drawn back, so too were our own veils. How we perceived the world, our beliefs about death, our longing, our hopes and our pain—it all floated to the surface, taken up as the next layer was revealed. We were using scalpels and hemostats to examine the woman on our table, and the questions we asked of ourselves probed as deeply the tools in our hands.
My fellow Somanauts (the term, coined by Gil, refers to our exploration of ‘inner’ space) were a mix of 28 yoga and Pilates teachers, body therapists and Rolfers. Most of them chose to work clinically. They were precise and devoted to their agenda.
Preparing for this workshop, I believed my intentions were clinical and imagined myself staying focused and working with surgical accuracy to wheedle a small vessel into view or coax the retinaculum across the wrist to loosen its grip. But as I worked my intentions changed. I no longer wanted to be focused to the point that everything else around me disappeared. I wanted to see the big picture. In order to do that, I perched on one of those stools we all remember from 10th grade chemistry class and took a good look at the view.
We were a group of men and women from Canada, Brazil, Australia and America, ranging in age from 20 to 60. Fat, thin, tall and short. Quiet, loud, polite and funny. Whether we were working with pinpoint accuracy or reckless abandon, we all had one thing in common: we wanted to be first hand witnesses to the miracle of the human body.
Even after 20 years, Gil Hedley wielded a scalpel with fluid grace. On the last day of our workshop, he deftly opened an enlarged heart and revealed the beautiful flower that is the tricuspid valve. He talked about the valve and how we mistakenly think of it as a mechanical pump. Gil explained that it’s really the relentless flow of blood that causes the tricuspid to open and close. For a moment we stared at the heart in silence. Gil began to describe how a healthy heart floated between and was supported by two beautiful pillows, the lungs. He described how the heart is not only a pump we find in the center of the chest, and the brain is not only in our skull.
“The heart is the shape of the body,” he said. “The brain is the shape of the body.”
I didn’t know what to think of this at first, until I considered the veins and arteries, the nerves and the spinal cord that I had held in my hands an hour earlier. He was right. The heart and the brain were so clearly the shape of the body. And then he added, “You don’t need to choose between your heart and your brain. They’re intertwined. They’re braided together.”
After a week of looking through inner space, I knew Gil was right. It was true: As we struggle with decisions, hopes and despair throughout our journey, we don’t have to choose between our heart and brain. When we pay attention to what they have to say to us, we discover that they are working together. His final words to us were, “We resist the life we’re given. When will we dare to embrace our power?”
Sometimes the truth can be boiled down to one simple cliché: We are all connected. This truth was evident when I stood on that lab chair and looked across to my fellow Somanauts. We were connected by bones and blood, vessels and organs. We were connected by singular intent, by life and death.
Sometimes, if we are lucky, our connections are heart to heart. I mean the unseen heart—the mythic heart. The dancing heart.
I believed I chose to study with Gil Hedley to learn about the human body. That was the intention I set. But it only took a few hours in the lab with Gil to know something else was happening. Even before we began to dissect the viscera, I knew I was learning about the heart. Not the cadaver’s heart, but my own.
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Asst. Ed: Katharine Spano/Ed: B. Bemel