Yoga Medicine’s cadaver dissection lab is a game changer as a person, as a yoga teacher and as a health professional. So much so that I came back for a second dissection!
My first time in the cadaver lab, I was full of mixed emotions – excitement, self-doubt, hesitation. I stood back hoping someone else would make the first cut. The second time, however, I was hungry to learn, eager to explore, driven to make the most out of this opportunity, appreciative of the experience, and fearless to the process. One similarity between both experiences is to walk into a room and dissect a human body is not an everyday or ‘normal’ activity, so there remains a feeling of complete vulnerability.
Seeing a cadaver for the first time was captivating and overwhelming. I was drawn to a cadaver by their appearance, by their uniqueness, questions running through my mind, and by my desire to know more about what I saw. The first year I chose a female because I selfishly wanted to learn more about my own gender’s musculoskeletal system. At first glance, she was healthy with perfectly manicured hands and feet. She resonated with me. In the second year, I worked with a strong-looking male because this is the demographic I work with in yoga and physical therapy. Regardless of having specific goals, I approached both with an open mind.
The intrigue of the cadaver and the intricacy of the dissection took my focus to body parts that I previously did not have much interest in and to dissect areas I never thought would be possible.
The first incisions into the skin are technically among the simplest cuts you will make, but emotionally, it’s the most grueling. While I expected the skin to be tough and the motion of cutting to be challenging, my first incision into the cadaver’s body was surprising. I felt like the cadaver was taking me on this journey and it felt intuitive where to move the scalpel. And after the initial self-doubt dissipated, my mind became captivated by the unique texture and I was taken over by the curiosity of what I was seeing and feeling with every stroke of the scalpel.
With each anatomical structure exposed, I grew more comfortable with the cadaver and my sense of awe for the complexity of the human body grew. The hours seem to fly by inside the lab despite the time and team work required to cut through the skin, remove the adipose tissue to expose fascia, carefully identify the muscles, and dissect small structures like blood vessels, lymph nodes, and nerves.
As you peel the layers of the body, you realize how interconnected the whole body is, how each organ and each system influence the others. There are always more body parts to find, adjacent cadavers to compare unique differences, or to see a more intricately dissected structure.
Universally, one of the best ways to learn is through real-life experience. As a new yoga teacher, we learn the most by getting out of the teacher training and teaching our first class with real students.
Being able to see, touch, and move the musculature of a human cadaver creates an interactive learning environment with hands-on experience that brings learning full circle. In contrast, textbooks can give the impression that each muscle, bone, and organ fits neatly into a distinct, separate space.
Handling human tissues and organs establishes vivid memories and draws your awareness to your own body, like x-ray vision. Surreal moments in the lab brings anatomical theory into practice by:
- Holding organs in your own hands
- Finding an illness (arthritis in a joint, gall stones, etc.)
- Moving the cadaver through yoga poses and seeing muscles contract or stretch
- Removing fascia or muscles to increase range of motion
- Pulling a tendon and flexing a joint
- Following the path of nerves from the spine down a limb
- Seeing the lungs inflate and the diaphragm massage the vagus nerve and stimulate the organs and tissues
These experiences allow for a deeper exploration and challenges preconceived ideas about the human body.
Personally, dissecting a cadaver has been the most effective way to learn and embed my knowledge of anatomy and physiology. It is one thing to learn from a text book, plastic modules, a lecture, or online but seeing the complex and intricate architecture of the human body as it unravels in your own hands solidifies the learning. It changes you as a yoga teacher by reiterating the significance of understanding the human body and how important it is to design your approach with this knowledge.
These cadavers open their lives to allow us to discover their anatomical stories that we may be the only ones to ever know. They allow us to open their bodies, trusting that we enter with intention to explore and educate. It is humbling how the gift of their donation is entrusted to me, to Yoga Medicine, and to the good of society.
It is important for me to share that you emotionally become connected with the cadaver, and it’s hard not to have sympathy or wonder what pain they experienced and how their lifestyle was negatively impacted. The cadaver lab taught me to not judge a body, not to draw conclusions, or have expectations of how a body should respond. Although anatomy was what I went for, the cadaver dissection held more lessons that I never expected – understanding the powerful mystery of the human body and learning to balance empathy, judgment, and objectivity.
As a yoga teacher and health professional, this experience reiterated that we don’t need to have all the answers because each person is unique in their body and their experiences. There is no right or wrong, but more the desire for each person to observe the sensations. There doesn’t need to be reason why someone has a bi fabricated piriformis and another is missing psoas minor. The body is full of mysteries that we may never know so it is important to move past pre-conceived ideas.
As yoga teachers, we can facilitate students to adapt, feel, and explore what they can’t see. We can offer powerful tools through therapeutics, focusing on movement patterns to empower students and instill the importance of observation, modifications based on experience level or body types.
The two cadaver labs have reminded me of the importance as a yoga teacher, exercise physiologist, yogi, and most importantly, as a person, to continually push the knowledge boundaries on a physical, emotional, and intellectual level. This experience has given the idea of the human body as a perfectly imperfect or imperfectly perfect mystery and as a yoga teacher we have the power to empower our students to believe the same through education and empathy.