“This is good use of a Saturday.” Todd Garcia told us as we met with other curious souls from around the world at The Laboratory of Anatomical Enlightenment for a dissection of fresh tissue from frozen cadavers with fluids intact, to “see for ourselves”.
And so it began. I was about to embark on a journey where all I could do was surrender my expectations and allow myself to be completely present and open to everything I saw. I felt safe; I have done this before. And yet, I felt vulnerable. I was going to see everything inside of another human being’s body. How they lived, how they ate, how they moved, how they cared for themselves. Who they were and where they came from was going to be bluntly presented to me. It is a very humbling experience. In fact, we were encouraged not to “check ourselves at the door”, but rather to come with all of our fears and to leave nothing outside, to enter fully and to experience wholly at every level of our being what we were about to become a part of. We were about to see someone on their “least viable day”. Of course, we only saw the shell. But human nature allows us to weave our own stories and thoughts and to whisper gratitude to the soul who inhabited that body. It is almost as though the soul was watching and guiding over us, “be careful here”, “it hurt there”, “I never told anyone this but…”. I was given a rare opportunity to get to know someone more intimately than is ever possible in a living being. It is a scientific exploration as much as it is an emotional journey and a glimpse into life in its rawest form. This time I felt more of a psychological connection to the body I was with. She taught me something. She taught me many things. She taught me more in 8 hours than many teach us in a lifetime.
Todd Garcia, who gives us this opportunity, in conjunction with Thomas Myers, author of Anatomy Trains, and Michol Dalcourt, founder of Institute of Motion, along with two other brilliant woman who assisted us, told us in the beginning, “Everything that I say must allow everyone to speak for themselves.” Say that again slowly to yourself and enunciate it differently each time. And now, gloves on, masks on, safety goggles on. We were about to take our scalpels to bodies donated for the pursuit of learning through the University of Utah donor program. Todd expertly showed us the best way to travel through the body and glide along the fascia lines. He commented, “the deeper we go, the younger they get.” When we ran into something curious, out of the usual and unexpected according to the laws of science, it was so reassuring to hear Todd murmur, “that is God’s miracle”. We cannot explain it all nor do we have to. It reminded me so much of my dad. His heart was weak and yet it was so strong as a result of God’s miracle. My father’s arteries wanted to shut down. But because of his fortitude and commitment to living, he worked out every day. And when his heart had a hard time pumping blood through blocked arteries, it created its own new pathways to push the blood through. His body found a way; he was resilient. It couldn’t be explained by his doctor, it was God’s miracle. It kept him going and he continued to work out every day until the day he died. It still makes me smile to remember holding his hand so hard and pretending that my pulse could awaken his pulse and look down at his form and see him lying in the hospital as a result of the massive heart attack that finally took his last breath, to see his workout shoes and gym clothes were on.
The body I looked at lying in front of me was as vulnerable as I was. She looked tiny from the outside. As we journeyed deeper and deeper inside, she grew more and more immense. I shared my experience of her with three other wellness professionals all from New York City. They had something in common in that they were all also massage therapists. I missed my old table-mates from last year, and yet, I knew this was meant to be different. Everything about it was different. The men in our group were decisive in their approach and sometimes even too quick to uncover her layers. I thought to myself, “sometimes the journey teaches us more than the destination”. But there was also something about her. She was tough to work on. She was closed and challenging to break through her surface layers. Her skin was very tough. And as we made our way through, it was sometimes very messy. The layers were less distinguishable and fat spilled out from everywhere we went. It seemed impossible that so much fat could come out of a form that did not look that large to begin with. Her head did not lay at rest because her back was so rounded that it held her head up off of the table. It had to tilt unnaturally back in order to find a place to rest. She had beautiful hands and long limbs. But she also apparently had much pain. There were many times, we got tired, and commented to each other how tough she was. I thought to myself, “is she hiding something inside of her body?” She was special. She looked so small, but her presence grew as we uncovered her. The deeper we got, the younger she did become and it made me smile. But there were also times, many times, when she would not let us in. She had beautiful, dark, curly hair, her hunched back, and uneven hips. The pelvic bowl was broad and beautiful. Her colors inside seemed more “baked” than many of the others, tougher and leathery, and like the colors of a Southwestern tapestry. Her head having no where to go with her back so lifted made her seem unsettled. Again, I wondered, “is there something hiding inside of her?” She gave us so much and asked for nothing in return. We questioned, “could it be cancer?” Everything inside of her organ cavity felt sick, and looked blackened. Her omentum was sticky and large and her organs difficult to separate. With all of the fat present in her body and woven through her muscles, I was intrigued to make my way to her heart, but that was not part of the plan. It was hard enough to get through her organs and when we thought to cut the ribs to begin a journey towards her heart, we were met with resistance to the point that we gave up.
We went to another area of her body and when we did uncover muscle and began to follow the fascia lines, we had to be so delicate to see the layers that lie underneath. Some of the layers of muscle had so little tone and definition that if we went too fast, we would miss them and end up cutting right through them. With a lot of time and patience we did dissect through her hip girdle to reveal her gluteus maximus covering the medius and eventually making way to the minimus. As we journeyed deeper, we were able to reveal her deep external rotators and found the origins of her sciatica. She was special in that she had a bi-forcated sciatica, meaning instead of one thread travelling down her body, her sciatica had split to reveal two paths that travelled down her leg.
When we turned her over, so much beauty was uncovered in the lines of her back. It was strong as though she shouldered great burdens. Her apparently small frame became large as we literally spread her wings and her arms extended to reveal an enormous wingspan. Although the back was hunched, this is where we saw raw and unexpected beauty. The layers of her back muscles separated and glided to reveal deeper layers glossed over in a silvery, white color that reflected a rainbow of colors. Her wings became mobile in such a graceful pattern as we freed her lats (latisimus dorsi). It was amazing to touch and caress her upper trapezius that showed themselves to us clearly. My fingers ran over them and could feel the tension in them. The other woman working by my side instinctively and lovingly touched and massaged the beautiful layers we uncovered. Her colors here were more vibrant. Her spine revealed itself and I ran my fingers over each vertebrae. They were so close to the surface and there was a lot of space between each of the upper vertebrae. Unexpected beauty.
Similar to her back, her lower legs were layer-upon-layer of alternating fascia, white and silvery and slippery with harder white tendons and soft pink crural nerves running through. It struck me that where she was apparently healthy and strong, her body invited us to touch and explore. And where she was perhaps unhealthy, she did not let us in. Did she live like that? I felt as though I were letting her down when discoveries were being made at other bodies and we were called over to see. She was left open, exposed and alone.
Seeing the other bodies gave perspective. They were all so different and yet the same. Men and women become indistinguishable. The things we judge, rate and worry about are meaningless underneath it all. What struck me was the toe-nail polish on some of the other women, glittery and pretty. But on the inside, cancer riddled them. Since we could not break through the ribs on the woman I was working on, the table behind us gave us the opportunity. As I cut this other woman’s rib, I was surprised by how easy it was. It had red marrow still present in it. But when I grasped the rib cage as a whole, it was incredibly strong. What lie inside was like nothing I ever imagined and yet exactly how it is depicted in commercials. Her lungs were white and bubbly sprinkled with black, that looked like pepper, and to the touch, were full of nodules, hardened fibroids. Underneath the lung was all black and the exposed rib cage was covered in what looked like soot. Again I was reminded that all the things we talk about feeling in our bodies, are real. We saw more cancer in another woman who’s uterus had a smooth tumor the size of a baseball along the back side of it. What struck me was how much sickness we saw. What also struck me was how much beauty we saw. In another body, we were able to remove the organs and differentiate them. Inside the organ cavity we dissected and identified the diaphragm, saw the dense strands of the tranverses abdominis, followed the path of the psoas, and were able to see the quadratus lumborum. This body also appeared to go on forever and the depth of it was amazing. When it is said in meditation that the entire universe lies inside of us, I have a deeper appreciation and image in my mind of what that looks like.
Each and every one of us is so unique. Our potential vast. How we care for our bodies creates our shape. We are responsible for our architecture. One of the first questions I asked my cycling class upon returning from my weekend experience was, “Are you living in a way that you would invite someone to look inside of your body?” I notice a lot of people very concerned with how they look on the outside. But I wonder, in the same way that we clean our houses to have company over, are we keeping the insides of our bodies up as well as the outsides.