We Called Her Alice

Carrie Owerko, Tue, 15 Jan, 2019

(Carrie Owerko has given YOGA INJURY PREVENTION excerpts of her experience dissecting a cadaver. The study of anatomy is crucial for anyone who is a serious yogi, for those who teach and for those who are yoga therapists.)

She was seventy-four years old and 119 pounds at the time of her death. We did not know how she died. We did not have her story, only the story of her life, written in her body

We were a group of about forty people. There were massage therapists, physical therapists, chiropractors, yoga and movement therapists, exercise physiologists and personal trainers. We were all there because learning is, for some of us, what gets us up in the morning, what keeps us up at night.

The master dissector at our table felt that Alice might have been obese at some point in her life, perhaps losing a lot of weight before her death. Her muscles were almost non-existent – practically translucent with patches of red. And there was so much fat, gobs and gobs of bright golden yellow fat… We were shocked by it all, but were reminded not to demonize adipose tissue (fat) and we all need it! But this body was so different than our other cadavers in that way. All were unique. All so miraculous – and I know this might sound strange, but so very beautiful.

I remember vividly a moment during our first day of dissection. It was when I saw her hand. HER hand. It might seem obvious and sound even silly, but I kept thinking: THIS was a human being who did things with this hand. She touched other human beings with these fingertips She used this hand to hold the hands of others. Who held this hand of hers before she dies? Her hands touched me – though they did not move until we started pulling on tendons in her forearm. We watched the fingers move. We giggled a bit and fell silent again.

I told my teacher, when he asked about our first day in the lab, that I experienced both attraction and aversion—two pillars from my yoga teachings that took on a new level of humanness now. The notion that the body is merely a bag of noxious substances, which is how the physical body is sometimes described in some of the yogic texts, struck me again as disrespectful and grossly inadequate. In Yoga as in many religious traditions the spirit or soul (whatever that is …) is considered to be the pure, eternal, indestructible part of us, and the body an impermanent cloth or bag containing noxious substances.

I found myself looking at Alice’s eyes often through the entire process. Even after we (basically) removed her face. I felt myself communicating to her, reassuring her, and reassuring myself. “I am here with you. We are here with you. Thank you. Thank you.”

No – not a bag of noxious substances.

Dear Alice,
Whomever you were, wherever you are. Thank you. You gave us a window into what it means to be called human. You changed us. You most definitely changed me. Our teachers told us this experience would change us. I will admit that though I believed them, I also thought their claims might be a big exaggerated. Well – they were right. I am not the same person I was before I met you. Your life, which for all practical purpose had already left your body, changed forever a group of people you never met. Exactly how we have been changed is hard to articulate, except to say it is a felt thing. This language of love, like the language of movement, is spoken in feeling. And I feel my body I am so lucky to live differently now.

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