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"Being in the dissection lab does for manual therapists what looking under the hood does for mechanics."

How I learned dissection

Not long after graduating with my license, it became evident that a strong working knowledge of anatomy would best serve to help me solve difficult anatomical problems. I signed up for a lab which featured both fresh and fixed (traditionally formalin-treated) full-body cadavers.

Over the course of five days, working in teams of six to eight, my fellow attendees and I went from skin down to bone, sometimes charting our efforts and discoveries in notebooks and on whiteboards. We were given thorough instructions on the ethics and safety parameters within the lab, but surprisingly, little guidance on exactly how to make our cuts. This ended up being a blessing — without someone else’s overlay or influence, our choices of what to explore and what to sacrifice in favor of that exploration became entirely our own.


I settled in quickly to the autodidactic task, and my original goal of pure anatomical exploration quickly became a study in chasing and connecting patterns in the fresh tissue cadaver we had. We were not given any personal information about the donor, so when curious pathologies made themselves evident as we (literally) went deeper, I spent the last two days of the lab researching well into the night to try to piece together what had happened to this person.


The experience at that lab — of independent exploration, considered experimentation, and ultimately, detective work, was a definitive window into the way I would go on to conduct my day-to-day manual therapy practice. 

My Mentor

One of the questions I get asked most frequently is about my education, specifically how someone with a degree in English would get such ready access to a full-body dissection lab.


My foray into this arena is thanks to my mentor, Tom Myers — integrative manual therapist, teacher, and author of Anatomy Trains. After taking a couple of classes at his Maine campus, I knew this was the professional I wanted to hitch my wagon to, and finding out that he routinely offered dissection lab access once or twice a year was all the confirmation I needed to dive in head first.  

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Tree Texture

My Fascial Plastination Work

Not long after joining the Fascia Research Society, there was a post on their Facebook page calling for dissectors. We were asked to have a certain number of fascial dissection hours under our belts, as this type of dissection requires significantly higher fine motor control than standard educational dissection — where mistakes can be both made and forgiven. Tom encouraged me to apply, and I was accepted after a couple of rounds of interviews. 

The aim of the team was to create the world’s first fully plastinated model of the human fascial tissues, and while enthusiasm was high, confidence was, behind closed doors, relatively low. The process of plastination is resource intensive, painstakingly detailed at every step, and fairly savage on the tissues themselves. After months of proof of concept pieces showing that the varying types of fascia could withstand the multi-staged process, the decision makers at the Plastinarium in Guben, Germany green-lighted our vision and selected a cadaver for us, who would come to be known as Freya (not the donor’s given name in life; there is a tradition in dissection labs of naming your cadaver to honor their humanity).

Several design iterations later, a team of sixteen professionals from the Fascia Research Society would volunteer our time over the course of four years to bring Freya’s form to fruition, and the Fascial Net Plastination Project was born. Now called FR:EIA (Fascia Revealed: Educating on Interconnected Anatomy), she has over forty fascially centered features that highlight the prevalence and investment of this previously understudied tissue. 


Committing to this process was an intimidating decision. Every choice, every cut of the scalpel, every structure highlighted and sacrificed would be permanently reflected in the specimen that will outlive all of her contributors. Each of us exercised our craft with care, precision, and by relying on the holistic eye of the team to ensure that our map would truly carry us to where we needed to be — to create a model, the first of its kind in the world, to educate, fascinate, and set a precedent in anatomical study.

The Unveiling of FR:EIA

My Body World Work

What I learned in the Dissection Lab

Being in the dissection lab is like drinking from a fire hose. Day to day, I see skin and the outlines of muscle and bone underneath, but not the thousands of structures that make up our forms.


One of the most salient lessons I have learned in the lab is the connectivity of these structures. The children’s song about the head bone being connected to the neck bone and so on down the line has it right. You can’t escape yourself from inside yourself. 


For example, did you know your hip flexors are connected to your breath? It’s true. Your psoas muscle, known to some as the human tenderloin, raises your thigh (amongst other actions). Its lower connection points are on the lesser trochanter of your femur (inside thigh, way up close to the pelvis) and its upper connection points are on the back of your respiratory diaphragm, also known as the muscle you really need to breathe. 

How could this possibly relate to you?

Well… are you sitting down right now? Your psoas is shortened. Do you know where in your rib cage your breath shows up? Most people are shallow breathers. Any lower back stiffness, tenderness, or pain? It might do you some good to start breathing more deeply, more often, and to open up the tissues of your poor, contracted psoas. But now — do a quick Google search for psoas muscles. I’ll bet that 99% of them show zero or minimal connection to the diaphragm. That’s why laboratory exploration is so critically important for all clinicians — you may not know what you don’t know, and there is a practical application for every lesson learned in the lab.


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