The Sagittal Cut (part II) Getting to know the donors

Our donor in my biased opinion, landed in the best place one could ask for if you were to have a voice with which to do so. In Gil’s lab, the gift of body donation is emphasized often. We have an obligation to look at every aspect and wring out as much learning and discovery as we can. My group affectionately referred to our form as “Sir”, and days into the week, we were given a bit of his story: he had inhabited this body for 89 years before passing it on to us to explore. No irony for us to find out that “Sir” had been an elementary school teacher. This was the first time for me that we were given more than the age of death and the recorded cause. You can imagine the “ooooos”, the outpouring of love and acknowledged coincidence of how we called him Sir.

While we do remain quite clinical in the lab, the person, their life and personality are very close to us. We have no information, but the body tells a story. Well, we like to think it does and theorize a lot about why things look the way they do. We know these are theories but human dissection in many ways is self-dissection. When you explore something as deeply as this, it penetrates every cell. We want the donor to be a person, and we want to know them.

Day one in the lab consists of getting to know our lab mates, meeting the donors, choosing and naming one, and finally beginning our work.
Our bodies are comprised of many layers and in Gil’s lab, we look at one layer at a time.

Day one is reflecting the skin, which means we expose the underside of this elastic covering and reveal the superficial fascia that lays below. In the layer of the superficial fascia, you will find capillaries, nerves, lymphatic vessels and nodes. The face is unique in that this layer also houses the muscles of expression. These muscles have no boney attachment and are too thin to palpate but they are responsible for the unique lines and character of our wrinkles as we age. I loved exploring the facial muscles. I learned the names of the muscles as they emerged and began to look differently at the faces around me that were so animated, as together we uncovered the fatty layer of superficial fascia. Gil talks about this being the sensual, emotional and under appreciated layer. All kinds of inspiring conversations begin during this phase of dissection.

The superficial fascia (or adipose) layer we are told, is undervalued and under appreciated in medical labs. It is only seen as “fat” and the sooner it’s out of the way, the better. I have not participated in any dissection other than Gil’s, so I can only comment on this to say that when I supervise lab visits for the massage students (where the dissection is already done), there is no adipose on those bodies. I have seen enough bodies to know that its absence is not because it did not exist.

Once the superficial fascia is removed, skeletal muscle is revealed. This is an exciting stage of dissection. We get to see the muscles as they emerge. These are structures we can recognize and name, but seeing them wrap around the bones is something a textbook can never accurately reveal on a flat page. It’s a bit like going to the monuments in the countries of the world you have only seen in pictures. They look exactly like the photos, yet are not even close to what you experience.

The head, again is unique because it changes form entirely once it’s fatty layer is removed. Because there are only a few muscles in the face region that attach to bone, the skull is fully exposed along with the strong muscles of the jaw and neck.

I don’t know about you, but when I look at a skull, I find it very difficult to see a face. Since this dissection, I now look at faces differently. I see how evidence of a person’s personality shows up through permanent lines in the skin of the face as we age. I see how the strength of the masseter muscle defines a persons jaw. I see how thick and layered the muscles of the neck are organized to hold the weight of the head, and how these have the potential to change based on our habitual posture.

This dissection has only just begun… The donors, while only a small group of us get to know them intimately, continue to share their gift through our telling and re-telling of what we came to know of them. We can never know how far reaching that may be.

The Sagittal Cut (part I)

I am often asked by clients, colleagues and friends, if I am going to “cut up dead bodies” this year. This phrase is meant to be playful and poke fun at my obsession with the human body, but I believe it’s also a way for the speaker to depersonalize what it is they think, I am actually doing in the lab.

Language is important in the lab. The gift of the donor is so profoundly appreciated, none of us would dare utter an indecent word related to the work being done. The language we use defines the dissection in ways that honour structure, function and organization. It’s a language of objectivity which allows for space between my intellectual cognition and emotional self. The term “human dissection” carries with it a very different picture than “cutting up dead bodies”. You can see how the two refer to the same thing but, they are not even close.

In April of this year, I participated in my favourite dissection to date. For the first time ever, I entered the lab with a plan of what I wanted to see. I spent all 42 hours engrossed in one project: the head and neck.
It is typically more of a challenge to objectify this region and the physical work of dissecting here is difficult because of the delicate structures involved. This made it easy for my lab mates to give me exclusive access to our donor’s cervical spine and cranium.

I had planned to explore the facial muscles, blood and lymph vessels, the muscles that move the eyes, the deep sinuses and how they connect to one another, the muscles of mastication, the bones and joints of the cervical spine and the muscles that traverse between the skull and the mid back. I wanted to see the passages of nerves into the brain, the glands of salivation, the trabeculae of the bones and the structure of the intervertebral discs.

Forty-two hours is not a lot of time, but I tell you, the wealth of information I took in during those hours will probably take me more than that time to write out. So here is your introduction to the writings to follow.

I have a feeling that there is a profound curiosity beneath the inquiries about my work with “dead bodies”, and those of you who have caught yourselves asking… You should read on.

The REAL Reason I Practice

Practice is not about improving my asana. It’s about seeing who I am and grasping an opportunity to explore my tendencies, emotions and reactions. As children, our parents navigate life and relationship for us; we learn these things for ourselves first by mimicking them. Without knowledge or intention, we become mini versions of our role models.

The beginning breather knows only the inhale and the exhale. A practiced breather learns to explore the spaces between. I begin each day as a beginner in this realm, and as I unlock the space between, I open up the potential for calm action. Like an exhale is the response to an inhale, I move through life on auto-pilot.

My asana practice gives me the experience of space. With space, I can choose when the next breath comes. In the space, I enjoy the bliss of presence and witness. I don’t have to live in a reactionary way. I am training to be the observer first, rather than having my reactiveness tell me without process, how I feel. In this, I am seeing the opportunity to change the patterning of my family. To re-wire the emotional tools I was given and have them better reflect who it is I am constantly becoming. I am not done. I will never be done becoming. “We are growing younger towards death” (words often heard in the lab of somanauts). The best way to connect to the experienced breather is to begin each day by moving my breath.

With practice, my chances are better for success.

Savasana for Beginners

What could possibly be so difficult about savasana (corpse pose)? Physically, it’s about the easiest position to get one’s body into. All you have to do is lay down on your back and decide whether or not you need a lift under your head or knees to ease any low back or shoulder pain.

For most beginning yogis, everything seems backwards when you are upside down, and it’s tough to decipher right from left. This is sort of the brilliance of yoga, it distracts your mind with the details of the body. Forced to investigate a sensation or movement within the confines of a few breaths can be all consuming, and It confuses you into complete presence of the moment. Whatever you were doing before you began your yoga practice, is nowhere to be found in your mind. That is, if you set yourself up well for the experience.

Going through the motions of asana when you have distractions close by, will usually end in a shortened practice or one that leaves you unsettled and anxious to get on with your day.

Creating adequate space in your day is the key to a yoga flow uninterrupted by the mind. I find my practice is best before my day begins, (and my day is best when it begins with yoga). When I come to my mat, I always begin by chanting OM three times. For me, this signifies that something deeper is about to take place, it warms up my diaphragm and creates space for deeper breath, which steadies me to begin.

Throughout my practice, I am observing my mind, my breath, my body sensations. If I don’t task my mind with these observations, I could easily stop to water the plants, check my email, attend to that thing that I just suddenly remembered I forgot… ‘Cause as soon as you begin to turn the volume of life down, you remember the things that you forgot.

This is why it’s called “practice”. Because we are never going to get it right, this is a lifetime journey. In order to actually turn down the volume, you must practice turning down the volume. The initial question: Why is savasana So. Damn. Hard? Because we have no experience with turning down the volume. Most of us can do ON or OFF, but to lay still idling? That’s a skill.

To get more out of savasana, first it’s good to know that without rest, your body cannot heal. Healing refers not only to physical injury/pain, but emotional unease, hormonal imbalance, digestive issues, anxiety… You name it. The body needs stillness and silence to recuperate. This is not the same as sleep, (a topic that deserves a separate post), also chances are if your are experiencing something you need to heal from, you probably aren’t sleeping all that well.

Through the yoga practice, you are already setting yourself up to be able to slow down. You are giving your mind stimulation and learning that is fully from the body; the place you are disconnected from in your day and work. For the first while, your mind will pipe up as soon as your body is quiet because, that has been its role. With practice, your mind will slip into a place of waking dreams during savasana. That place where you are hovering between a conscious and unconscious state. Where you are dreaming, but you can hear everything going on around you. This is the place where the greatest rest and healing occur. It feels a bit like magic (and happens all too rarely).

Keep at it. The learning is huge. You’ll see.

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Not completely unrelated: I had a epiphany while writing this. I had more to say than I thought, and it took some time to compose. I got hungry!
I paused to put together a plate of garlic stuffed olives, cheese, peppers and crackers. I wanted so badly to shove a few olives in my mouth while I prepped the plate, but talked myself out of it so I could fully enjoy the spread as a whole.
As I fished the olives out of the jar, I began to salivate PROFUSELY. Then I flashed back to my physiology studies where I learned that digestion begins in the mouth (with salivation). Had I have immediately gulped down the olives, I would not have salivated. The process of digestion would have had to correct itself down the line because I missed the salivation step.
Hm.
That is all.
I will leave this analogy here for you to run wild with 😉

Therapeutic Yoga

There are three types of stress that wreak havoc on our bodies: Physical, chemical and emotional. How does yoga actually work in reducing the effects of these stresses?

Although the method of each type of stress varies greatly, the impact on the body’s chemistry is the same. A physical injury, chemical reaction to food or drug, and emotional challenge all cause chemical changes within the body as it strives to repair damaged structures and return to balance. When the body is under constant stress (any of the three types), our immune response can become overworked, confused, and ineffective.

Your body has a way of maintaining balance under normal circumstances, and excessive stress can upset the controls of this balance resulting in pain, digestive issues, mood swings, fatigue etc.
Yoga, believe it or not, is actually stressful for the body – in a good way. We’ve all heard of good stress but what exactly does that mean?

Yoga challenges both the body and the mind by putting you in uncomfortable body positions, stimulating mental activity that can show up as elation, frustration, curiosity and maybe even provoke feelings of sadness or anger. While this emotional event is taking place, your body is responding by releasing a flood of hormones and chemicals that are part of the fight or flight response. The goal is to restore balance to our body’s physical, emotional and chemical state. For most of us, the fight or flight response can not discriminate between a real threat or a perceived one, and our body responds too strongly to small stimulus which eventually leads to burnout.

In a yoga class when you are holding a long pose and your muscles begin to shake and burn, your heart rate increases and you might even begin to panic (while your brain screams profanity at the instructor). This intentionally induces a stress response in a controlled environment and you are actually learning on a cellular level, that the stress and panic are not life threatening. Over time, your nervous system learns to discern the difference between major and minor stress and deploys the appropriate response. It’s no secret that those who practice yoga regularly are less affected by the small stresses, and the reason is in your body’s chemical response. Yoga retrains your response to stress.

Some of the wonderful side-effects of yoga include increased strength & flexibility, decreased physical and emotional pain, a stronger immune system and a more balanced nervous system.

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Christine Anderson RMT:
Supported by two decades of yoga experience, coupled with an extensive knowledge of functional anatomy and movement mechanics, I have created this two-part yoga series aimed at giving you the tools to put an end to common body complaints related to office work.

Classes at Algonquin College. Register in person at the Fitness Zone A125 (613-727-4723 x7294

Part One: Stress, Upper Back & Neck (Thursday’s from 11:45am to 12:45pm) May 3, 10, 17, 24
$80+HST Register at the Fitness Zone
A-125 ext. 7294
No experience (or gym membership) required.

Part Two: Stress, Lower Back, Hips & Legs (Every Thursday in June from 11:45 to 12:45pm) $80 +HST
No experience (or gym membership) required.

Included with each four week series are four short practices you can take home. You will leave with the knowledge of where to focus your strength and where to gently stretch, enhancing any yoga class you attend.