Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
Yoga Journal advertising coordinator Elizabeth Regan takes a life-changing trip to a cadaver lab, where her discovery of the body’s interior fosters growth in both mind and spirit.
Last Friday I had an experience I don’t think I will ever replicate. Our YogaPod teacher training sent us to a cadaver lab run by Todd Garcia in Westminster, Colorado. To say the least, I was absolutely blown away by what I saw and learned.
Following a refreshing morning yoga practice and after a brief lesson on anatomy, we were introduced to a female cadaver, but only what I would call her “breast plate.” Collarbone, sternum, front ribs, pecs and abs. Specifically, Todd drew our attention to the abdominals, including the rectus abdominus, transversus abdominis, internal obliques and external obliques–the major muscles in my love-it-hate-it pose, Plank. Yet, I easily disassociated these parts of the body with the eerie thought of human remains because there was no head, or legs, or heart. With this initiation, I was prepped and ready to see all of her, but slightly more apprehensive than I wanted to let on.
Moments later, we were given the privilege of seeing her body in its entirety. Quite suddenly, I stood in a sacred place, completely overwhelmed by this selfless woman lying before me. There she laid, prone, face-down and missing both the right arm and right leg to make more parts of her body visible and accessible. She was nearly skinless except for her perfectly intact hands and feet which were oddly familiar and chilling. Visible were her muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones. As I peered more closely, I noticed she had not cut her toenails recently and that her cuticles were well manicured. I noticed that she was tall and seemingly skinny. I started to have questions and honestly, I just wanted to know everything about her.
Todd continued the anatomy lesson by thoroughly going through and showing us her legs starting with the three hamstrings; the semitendinosus, the semimembranosus and the biceps femoris, the major muscles stretched in Uttanasana (standing forward bend).
He continued through the hips and the back. He pointed out the rhomboids, trapezius, teres major, deltoids and triceps; major muscles in the back, arms and shoulders. These are the foundational muscle groups in yoga’s cornerstone pose, Adho Mukha Svanasana (Down Dog). He then uncovered the neck, revealing the sternocleidomastoid and the splenius capitis, my favorite muscles to have massaged during Savasana (Corpse Pose).
And then we got to the cranium. Todd withdrew the brain from her skull and guided us through the unique physical structures of the brain to include the pituitary gland. This pea-sized gland emits dopamine, a chemical that assists in sending messages to the part of the brain that controls movement and coordination. This struck a chord with me, and I drifted into thoughts of mortality, not of my own but of my father’s, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Recent studies have linked the failure of the pituitary gland and the disease. The magnitude of the situation suddenly engrossed my thoughts. I wondered when my father would pass away, and I again saw this dead woman lying in front of me for what she is; a once-alive maybe mother, maybe friend and maybe confidant who hopefully led a very full life. In that instant, I imagined and recreated the entirety of her existence. Todd replaced the brain with the greatest reverence as I stood there lost in my own world of thought about life and death. After flipping the body to lie face-up, our model was displayed for us sans organs. I saw her face and wondered about her past. Where did she come from? What did she think about? Did she have a family? Was she loved?
As our instruction came to a close, I became aware of the profound impact this experience had on me. I found appreciation and peace. After he reconstructed her internal cavity, he enclosed her heart by restoring her chest “shield” to its origin, and with that we were done.
This unveiling changed the conceptual framework of how I view every human body I encounter. Our organic machines are all beautiful in their own way. I now see through the outside layer of the body and appreciate the mechanics of the inside. I want to understand the alignment of the body and of the Atman (inner self or soul). Nothing could have ever prepared me for this experience.
That evening I stood before a mirror as I got ready to shower and considered my own organic machine and the universe within. An inner cosmos that I will never know. A body that I need to take care of and appreciate. A brain composed of my deepest energies, thoughts, and convictions. A womb that may one day carry my children. A heart, the center of my existence, open to give and accept love and knowledge even after my body dies. I am grateful to YogaPod for facilitating this venture; to Todd for such a wonderful presentation, his patience and his depth of knowledge; and to my classmates for sharing in this experience. We were blessed with this woman’s body which fostered a growth of both mind and spirit.