On Dissection and Wholeness

In April 2015, I took a dissection course with the remarkable anatomist Gil Hedley. For six days, a group of us dissected four cadavers. It was one of the more intense weeks of my life. I got a miserable cold on my second day there; six nine-hour days in a row is a lot regardless of what you are doing; and we were taking apart cadavers, which is both miraculous and plenty of work.

After a few months of reflection, here are some impressions that have stuck with me.

1) I have a new appreciation for my body. I experienced a very visceral wonder for the thousands of things that happen in my living body each day without my knowing. As I swallowed handfuls of vitamins to combat my cold, I was very aware that I- my conscious brain- actually had no idea what to do with the vitamin C pills. But my digestive system and liver did. And I spent a week in profound, grateful awe for the vibrant aliveness of my body, full of movement and warmth, in stark contrast to the cadavers. Upon return, I paid close attention to clients’ malleable, living tissues. Your life force exists in every cell of your body.

2) I loved the parotid glands. These are the salivary glands located near the hinge of your jaw. They are much larger than I thought (the cadaver I worked on had glands the size of small apricots). And they’re beautiful! I’m not sure why I was so entranced with these small, wrinkled, pink glands, but perhaps it was because they were so simple to dissect and came away uncomplicated and whole.

3) Speaking of which, “uncomplicated and whole” does not really describe most of the body. I had thought that it would be simple to separate layers of tissues and see, once and for all, what was really going on in the front of the hip, shoulder joint, jaw, or along the spine. It’s actually incredibly complex, and layers of muscle tissue, fascia, tangles of nerves, and adipose (fat) cells all jumble together. My attempts to neatly compartmentalize layers and distinguish borders (and some anatomy atlases do this brilliantly) failed.

4) Bringing the experience back into my work, there is a vanishingly small amount of exact carryover. I spent a good long time one afternoon with the posterior knee joint. With a client on the table, is it much clearer? Not really. But I do have a larger sense of the whole (layers of tissue and an approximation of their textures in a cadaver), and snapshots of individual structures that come to mind quite frequently. My very favorite (of many astonishing moments) was getting to see and feel the falx cerebri, which is a strong ridge of fascia that separates the hemispheres of the brain. Along with the tentorium cerebelli, these fascial webs keep your brain in place while you ride roller coasters, do headstands, and generally move in the world. I think they’re wonderful, and it’s actually possible for a skilled practitioner to work on them with subtle, indirect methods.

Our bodies are worthy of awe.


Kyra Ahlstrom