“Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.”
― Barry Lopez
I first began studying yoga back during my days in graduate school in the early 1990s, while I was training as a dance/movement therapist. I realized very quickly that my understanding and perception of the world were both expanding courtesy of my yoga practice. Seeing anything on a more profound level is similar to opening one’s eyes underneath the surface of a lake. Suddenly, the idea of what exists is extended. A whole other universe appeared, and a literal deeper understanding of what the world contains made itself known. Every area of yoga has allowed me entry into another place, whether it was the revelation of a well-executed pose or the world of meditation.
Similarly, deep diving into anatomy has given me a path into a different level of understanding and an ability to look at an entirely diverse and yet connected universe. I initially studied anatomy in the standard form of parts and pieces, learned the names of bones and muscles, and spent quite a lot of time memorizing from books, until I knew I had to learn directly from the body itself. While I was first wary of human dissection, I had to discover for myself some of the mysteries under our very thin layer of skin. I found the inner world was full of mountains, rivers, and valleys, just like our larger world outside. I initially planned to do only a few dissections as a means to enhance my knowledge, but I found I had some skill level and talent at dissection in showing a story. Since those early days, I have assisted and taught hundreds of dissections, and each body has been a gift of learning that I take back to the living.
Dissection is, after all, also taking a viewpoint on what structures to see and how to see them. The traditional words of anatomy become more interesting when one learns that many of the Latin and Greek origins used describe a picture, such as the coracoid process of the scapula--named for the crow’s beak shape--or that tuberosity described the shape of a bump that forms on a bone as an attachment point. As I dove further into myofascial anatomy, my interest shifted away from purely muscles and bones and toward fascia, a biological fabric of connection that traditionally has been ignored in many books, but is having a moment in the movement world. What I wanted to see reversed itself, and having additional names helped me see what I had missed previously, or simply hadn’t noticed due to a lack of awareness.
The choice I have made to be an anatomy dissector might seem an odd co-career for a yoga teacher, but I have always been interested in exploring the inner and outer world, which reflect each other in so many ways. I find that poets and anatomists alike ponder questions of form, beauty and perception.
The idea even of misperceptions and correct perception can be thought of in terms of the Sanskrit avidyā (“ignorance” or “incorrect understanding”) and vidya (“understanding”). Sometimes translated as “absence of correct knowledge,” avidyā is also categorized as a klesha, which causes human suffering. While we cannot avoid all suffering, we can learn to soften suffering through a shift in perspective.
In my own teachings, I often quote the Barry Lopez passage at the beginning of this article, because in dissection as well as in life, one can only ever know part of a story, of any reality. When I see someone on my table, I can guess at body patterns and surgeries that may or may not prove true as we dive deeper into the body form. However, I cannot know for sure if this was someone who was in pain or comfort, or what his or her own perception of his or her life was like. What is left behind is like a seashell--a beautiful remains of a life carved into shape, but not the actual existence itself.
Yoga and anatomy both have taught me compassion, and, above all, that we have to practice that compassion every single day. We all make daily mistakes in our perspective. The danger is clinging to avidyā, and professing to understand absolute ideas of knowledge. Science, like yoga, is questioning and curious and willing to be wrong. Taking time to focus on our perspective, and being able to change that in light of new ideas or knowledge, can help expand our ways of working in anatomy and in life.