At Healthista, we have a fascination with the human body. So when yoga teacher and Healthista blogger Genny Wilkinson-Priest mentioned attending a human dissection class as part of her anatomy training, we had to find out more
It’s not as if I haven’t seen a dead body before.
As an American Catholic I’ve been to my fair share of wakes where the deceased is laid out in an open coffin, facial features frozen in a neutral expression and cold hands clasping a crucifix. My mother likes to tell the story of how at five years old, I climbed into my grandfather’s open casket, nudging him to wake up so confused was I about the finality of death.
I wanted to learn up-close-and-personal how the human body is built
My interest – morbid or not – with the body continued into adult life as I became a yoga teacher, so fascinated was I in how and where muscle attaches to tendon and then to bone, and how all this interconnects to form the greater working, moving body.
To build upon what I think is rather dismal anatomical training in most yoga teacher training courses, I signed up for human dissection classes, which the Imperial College at Charing Cross Hospital offer to just about anyone who has a professional interest in how the human body is formed and how it functions. For my purposes, I wanted to learn up-close-and-personal how the human body is built to move into the backbends, twists and even the legs-behind-the-head postures I teach my students.
But on the day as I walked through the Margravine Cemetery – how apt you must weave your way through hauntingly beautiful gravestones to get to the hospital – I was seized with disquiet. I was about to spend the next seven hours picking apart a dead body.
After storing my personal items – no cell phones with cameras allowed – in a locker room stacked with coffins, I walked into the dissecting room and steeled myself against the overwhelming smell of formaldehyde. The room was on the cooler side of chilly in order to preserve the dozens of bodies wrapped in yellow bags that rested on rows of stainless steel dissecting tables.
My class was formed of a small group of eight – some massage therapists, an osteopath, an MRI technician and a few other yoga teachers and one Pilates teacher. You could sense anticipation of what was to come, even as we gathered around an anatomical model skeleton to be led through some admin with our teacher Professor David Davies, a faculty member and professor of anatomy at Imperial College. He gave a brief talk about what we would be covering (in this session, the lower spine and pelvis) and importantly, what to do if you felt queasy. (Tell someone, and then step away from the dissecting table so that when you faint, you don’t smash your head on the table on your way down.)
The atmosphere was hushed and respectful, as was appropriate My eyes kept darting to the bodies draped in yellow waxy sheets
My eyes kept darting to the bodies draped in yellow waxy sheets.
They had quite selflessly donated their bodies for study so that medical students and body workers might learn their trade better. I considered my own qualms about letting complete strangers hack into my lifeless ribcage and saw through my sternum. Would I? Could I?
With the admin out of the way, we dressed in aprons, donned goggles and gloved up. Things were getting serious. With an almost theatrical flourish, Professor Davies swept the yellow cover off our first specimen – an older male without much fat as, ironically, bodies must be in good health before they die as obesity (or accidents like car crashes) hamper healthcare professionals’ abilities to develop skills and procedures that would benefit current and future patients.
we dressed in aprons, donned goggles and gloved up.
What I noticed first was the colour of the muscles – a light, putrid brown. The bones, by contrast, fairly glistened. The skin retained its fleshy colour though of course it lacked the glow that comes only from life.
For the first hour, I was a quizzical bystander. My hands resolutely clasped behind my back as I peered in over the shoulders of bolder students who peeled back the psoas muscle (which runs obliquely from the belly to the spine) with tweezers to see what lay beneath. I kept looking at the man’s face. His eyes that sunk back into his skull. His lips that parted to reveal bony teeth, one of them gold. Shamefully, I glanced at his penis, which was roped up against his thigh. (Truthfully, wouldn’t you look??)
What I noticed first was the color of the muscles – a light, putrid brown.
I realized that in order to gain anything from this experience, I had to stop looking at the body as a whole, as a person, and look at it from its parts. I had to stop seeing the forest and look only at the trees. Only then was I able to step up to the body and palpitate the bones, manually rotating the ball of the femur bone within the hip socket, or acetabulum. I rubbed the piriformis muscle (a large muscle in your bottom) between my fingers, marveling not only at its density but also its length – much wider and shorter than I had anticipated given all the attention this muscle receives in the running and yoga community.
I became engrossed and so long as I looked at the small picture, I was OK. And yet, Professor Davies kept reminding us that we had to consider the body as a whole. Everything from the tongue to the stomach to the genitalia was connected in some way and we had to consider it as a whole, not as individual units functioning independently of one another.
I considered whether a day dissecting a human body was enough to put this committed meat eater off it for life.
Bizarrely, I was famished at lunchtime. This was to be expected, Professor Davies said, as the formaldehyde used to embalm the cadavers stimulates the appetite. What then, to eat?
Meat was out of the question. At the local deli near the hospital I watched as the chef carved up a ham in a meat slicer. That’s when the nausea hit and without anyone to turn to ask for help, I moved away from the counter so as not to smash my head on it on the way down.
I grabbed a chair, buried my head in my hands and considered whether a day dissecting a human body was enough to put this committed meat eater off it for life. Not only has the dissection altered my eating habits, it’s also informed the way I teach.
For instance, I no longer instruct hanumanasana (the splits) with the upper body in an upright position. The femur bone of most people, I learned, isn’t built to extend back in the direction of the spine. I tried. I mean, I really forced it back with all my strength on that cadaver and there was very little give.
You can’t learn that from a book or on a floppy anatomical skeleton. It’s only in real life – or in this case real death – that you really learn that kind of stuff.
Read more Healthista blogs by Genny here.
Genny Wilkinson-Priest is a yoga teacher and journalist who lives in London with her four (yes four!) sons. In The Yogi, Genny brings you insights into the world of yoga to that are at once funny, informative and inspiring. Genny teaches at London studio Triyoga, The Life Centre and Hiitgirl. Find out more at gennyyoga.com
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