Exploring Inner Space

Human Cadaver Study for Bodyworkers

By Mary Kathleen Rose

Originally published in August/September 2004 issue of Massage & Bodywork magazine.

It was a life-changing event — like walking into another world. It shattered my illusions.” “It was the most profound experience of my life.” “The experience was awesome. So much input — visual, kinesthetic — experiencing and exploring with other adventurers. I feel privileged to have had this opportunity.”

What are these people so excited about? The answer might surprise you. They are all bodyworkers trying to put into words the incredible experience they had participating in a human cadaver lab.

Cadaver study is becoming increasingly popular in massage school curriculums as an option for both current students and those seeking continuing education. Massage schools around the country are increasingly finding ways to give students the benefit of seeing the anatomy of the human body in a cadaver lab. Most of these facilities are operated by universities or medical centers that utilize the cadavers for their students first, before allowing visiting students to see the already-dissected human form. The Somanautics laboratory in Boulder, Colo., offers not only these introductory viewings, but provides much more extensive opportunities for hands-on study and actual dissection by bodyworkers from a variety of backgrounds and levels of experience.

The study of human anatomy is a standard part of all massage school curriculums. Along with a basic understanding of physiology, it is well-accepted that grounding in these sciences contributes to a massage therapist’s skill level and quality of professionalism. It is this understanding of the structure and function of the human body, along with the skilled application of touch, that has so greatly enhanced the status of our profession in recent decades.

Massage schools have, in fact, been instrumental in developing ways to teach anatomy and kinesiology to students who excel in kinesthetic learning. The study of muscle anatomy is often coupled with the practice of hands-on palpation skills applied to the living body. For example, the Anatomiken™ system, created and developed by Jon Zahourek and Kenneth Morgareidge, uses specially designed plastic models of the skeleton. Using clay, students build muscles and other soft tissue structures, applying them to the skeleton as they learn about their form and function. This approach enhances the students’ experience of the dimensionality and movement potentials of the muscles. Still, cadaver labs offer an even greater hands-on approach to this important learning process.

Visiting a Cadaver Lab

As massage schools have formed connections with cadaver labs, new options have been created to augment the student’s learning. Over the past several years, I have observed and participated in a number
of these labs. The first lab I visited was in 1996 in a medical center that offered a four-hour workshop. I was part of a group of approximately 20 massage students who were able to view a prosected human cadaver (one that is already dissected for purposes of demonstration).

Addressing a group of students all wearing latex gloves, the teacher of the lab encouraged us to touch the muscles and organs if we wished. Some students were enthusiastic to participate. Others looked a little wan, barely remembering to breathe and perhaps wondering why they signed up for this experience. The head, hands, and feet of the cadaver were covered by cloths to hide the personality of the individual. In that lab, I noted my own curiosity and eagerness to learn all I could. Though I had studied anatomy and had been a practicing massage therapist for more than 12 years, I felt I was seeing the body in a whole new way: “So this is what the small intestine and the mesentery look like!” The anatomy books and charts just could not convey the beauty and multidimensional complexity of even that single organ.

A New Approach to Anatomy Cadaver Study

I was hooked. I wanted to see more, know more, feel more. Then, in the summer of 2000, I was able to attend a six-day, hands-on human dissection workshop held at Regis University in Denver, Colo. The creation of Gil Hedley (who had traveled the country offering these workshops for several years), this course was an opportunity to experience the complete dissection of a cadaver in a week’s time. Hedley, with a doctorate in religious ethics, was trained as a Rolfer. He had experienced conventional medical dissection labs, and in the course of his own experimentation and study, decided it needed to be taught in another way. By the time I attended his class, I was the beneficiary of his years of learning and teaching. He was assisted by a number of people including Todd Garcia. Together they continue to offer these workshops.

Hedley was influenced by the work of Emilie Conrad, the visionary founder of Continuum Movement whose work has inspired an international audience of therapists and movement educators. Hedley coined the word “somanaut” to describe Conrad: “Like an astronaut who navigates outer space, a somanaut is a person who navigates the inner space of the body.”

The following became Hedley’s invitation: “Somanautics workshops — dedicated to exploring inner space. Dissection is an act of introspection. By unwrapping the layers of the donor gifts, participants uncover hidden layers of themselves.”

I attended the workshop with others who had responded to the invitation, ready to embark on this adventure of introspection and discovery. The group included people with backgrounds and experience in massage therapy, structural integration (Rolfing), anatomy and kinesiology instruction, energy work, and acupuncture. Hedley calls his approach to anatomy study “integral anatomy,” saying that “the cadaver reflects the self. The truth is recognized in contrast and similitude.”

The standard charts hanging in most massage and bodywork classrooms might have you believe that the form of the muscles themselves defines the shape of the body. These charts are, in fact, stylized renderings of muscle anatomy placed within the outline of a human body, devoid of skin, adipose tissue, and deep fascia. Likewise, in many cadaver anatomy labs, the skin and fascia are removed without regard to their function, so that the student can study the muscles and organs of the body. But what about this skin and fascia?

Hedley emphasizes that the cadaver itself is only a model of the living human body. It is chemically preserved, which affects the textures and some of the shapes of the body structures. However, unlike the medical model of cadaver study, with its emphasis on the parts of the body, the somanautics approach gives us the opportunity to explore the multidimensional relationships present throughout the body. As we see and touch each part of the cadaver, we are encouraged to relate it to the experience we have of our own bodies.

Introspection, Dissection, and Relationships

Introspection is the act of looking inside,” Hedley says. “What we dissect are relationships: skin to superficial fascia, superficial to deep, tendon to bone, heart to lung. Our bodies are nests and networks of relationships, some of which can be worked through easily and without struggle. Others require our utmost commitment and attention for a deep understanding to develop. Life’s like that!” He encourages students to look inside and feel and listen at many levels. In this integrated approach, it is acceptable to notice and acknowledge our own feelings and reactions about the work we are doing. In this highly cooperative learning environment, we also note our relationship to the others who are present in the lab — the donor cadaver, the other students, and instructors.

During my Somanautics experience, the first day of the intensive was for learning to use scalpels and hemostats — the tools of dissection — to remove the outer layer of the body and the epidermis and dermis of the skin. This experience was dramatic. We gratefully acknowledged the anonymous donors who gave their bodies for this study. Respectfully, we took a look at what few people ever see — a view never seen in the anatomy books. We saw the entirety of the superficial fascia, the glistening layer of adipose tissue that insulates and protects the body, holding pathways for myriad glands, nerves, lymph, and blood vessels. The breast tissue lies entirely within this layer of the body.

Most of us who have trained as massage therapists have learned the muscle anatomy of the body in great detail, with emphasis on the attachments (origins and insertions) of the muscles to the bones. With images of the muscles and tendons taken from our anatomy texts or experiences with building muscles from clay, we assume we are contacting those muscles when we apply our massage techniques to the individual. When I saw the richness of this layer of loose connective tissue beneath the skin, I had to ask, “What are we really palpating? And if we do actually manipulate the muscles, what is happening with those layers above the muscle — the superficial fascia and layers of the skin? What have we been missing in our awareness?”

The first day ended, and somehow I felt that I, like the cadaver I was getting to know, was picked apart, dissected, reflected, inspected, and respected. I consumed so much input — visual, kinesthetic, mental, and emotional. I felt privileged to have this opportunity. It seemed bizarre — strange and unfamiliar — yet so very familiar.

Cooperative Learning Environment

The week progressed with each day allowing us to enter new terrain. Up to seven people worked on one cadaver. Dissection involves various processes as participants learn to observe, palpate, differentiate, reflect (meaning to “bend back”), or remove a tissue. Like adventurers traveling down a river canyon, there were times we traveled together as a group while Hedley shared his wit, wisdom, and insight. There were times when various somanauts explored in one direction or another, discovering the intricacies of some aspect of the body’s anatomy.

A neuromuscular therapist meticulously dissected and reflected the muscles and tendons of a limb. Two people pursued the removal of the heart with attached major blood vessels. With another woman, I began to excavate the pelvic area in pursuit of the female reproductive organs. With Garcia’s able guidance and assistance, others carefully worked with the head, venturing toward the removal of the brain and spinal cord.

It was all difficult work, requiring focus and concentration. The joy of this process was that we were free to learn as we wished, at our own pace, unencumbered by the prospect of grading or examinations. We came together periodically to share our discoveries and benefit from the work of others. This high level of cooperation and respect for the work and each other was rewarding in and of itself.

Professional and Personal Lessons

Bonnie Thompson, a certified neuromuscular therapist and instructor, says she has benefited greatly — both professionally and personally — from her studies in the cadaver lab. “I have become more confident with my palpations for individuals and also as an instructor. Believe it or not, I am a better slow dancer because I feel the fluids of the body move.”

Barbara Leach, a Rolfer, says, “I apply what I have learned every day in touch and in attitude. I am more confident of my touch and of what I am feeling in the tissues. Working with the cadaver allowed me to be more accepting of my own superficial fascia.”

Massage therapist Jodie Lee says, “Having a visual memory of the body’s interior landmarks serves as an informative professional reference when working as a massage therapist or doing any kind of bodywork. It deepens your intention and awareness as a practitioner.”

Acupuncturists Jeffrey Dann and Robin Zdravkovic vouch for this study, saying it has increased their confidence and accuracy with needle placement. Dann discusses the possibilities of further research in exploring the relationships between actual somatic structures and classical energetic concepts. He is impressed with the extent of the superficial fascia, saying he was “surprised to reflect on this fatty insulating layer holding the structural-emotional patterns. My colleagues (practitioners of structural integration) were amazed at the extent of this layer. While contemplating how this exterior boundary defined the shape and texture of self more than we had thought, they also realized how quickly they would sink through this rich layer while rushing to get to the more gritty tissue structures that they could pressure into change and alignment.”

Dann notes less variation among the bodies in the muscle layer, and then again more distinct variation in the organs of each cadaver. “The organs told of their deepest personality, how they lived, and even how they died. For example, one body had a liver that was green with cancer, another had a ruptured aortic aneurism, and another had chalk-filled kidneys.”

Hedley reiterates this point. “The liver expresses the personality of the individual,” he says. “So does every other part of the body.” Yet, in this workshop, nothing of the cadaver was masked, as was in my first medical lab experience. A cadaver is not a person, but is instead a palpable record of a human being’s existence. The individual’s stories leave with the life force that informs the body, but the impressions are left like a fossil form.

“Being in the class, it is obvious that the cadaver is not a person,” says Thomas Myers, author and developer of Anatomy Trains, a revision of musculo-skeletal anatomy that shows how the muscles are linked via the fascia into longitudinal myofascial meridians. “In fact you are viewing the body on its least viable day on the planet.” He sees the somanautics experience as being useful on a cosmic level — to see the dead body and acknowledge the whole spectrum of birth and death.

The Boulder lab has a reverence for the process that Myers finds notable. “I appreciate that Somanautics makes this a sacred event. I’m impressed with the spiritual side and the way feeling and knowledge are combined. They keep people steady emotionally.”

Myers sees the advantage of doing the actual dissection, which allows participants to see the connections between tissues in the body. In most other cadaver labs, the dissection is already done, so you only see prosection. Myers also encourages another experience he sees as valuable for the bodyworker. In his classes in Germany, students dissect a freshly-killed sheep. “This gives a better idea of the feel of the various tissues of the body closer to the living state, rather than the preserved state of the cadaver,” he says.

Somanautics Research Lab

In spring 2003, Garcia and Zdravkovic opened Somanautics in Boulder, Colo., dedicated to the scientific research and continuing education of hands-on healing professionals.1 This cadaver lab is the first of its kind, operating independently of a medical school or educational institution. Garcia is certified in structural integration (Rolfing), with experience in massage and physical therapy. Zdravkovic is a licensed acupuncturist and registered yoga instructor. Both bring expertise from their varied backgrounds, as well as a palpable level of enthusiasm to the exploration of new insights and awareness in the study of anatomy.

Somanautics Workshops Inc. continue to offer six-day human dissection workshops around the country and abroad, but they have expanded the opportunities for bodyworkers to design their own research projects and teach within the lab. It is used by people in many professions, including Rolfing, massage, craniosacral, acupuncture, movement therapies, and artists. They are held in high regard by the medical and educational communities. “University professors compliment us on the quality of our dissections,” Garcia says. “This lab makes everyone work better. It supports the whole bodywork profession. In this Somanautics lab, anatomy is a living, evolving science, involving new ways of seeing things in terms of relationships and functions.”

Dancers, movement therapists, and artists have all benefited from the study of the cadaver. Zia Parker, movement therapist, speaks enthusiastically about her introductory visit to the cadaver lab: “I am enamored with an inner process that is going on in my body — instigated by Emilie Conrad’s Continuum Movement. I’ve entered into a new world of body awareness ... allowing movement in parts of my body that have been paralyzed for years. I have a much clearer visual access to the world within.” Another student remarked, “The body is the ultimate work of art. Dissection is, of itself, a creative expression.”

Personal Transformation

Visitors to the lab are touched by the atmosphere of sacredness and respect. “The experience here is a rite of passage for many — a transformative experience,” Zdravkovic says. “It allows one to live by the experience of death. Our society keeps death at a distance.” Perhaps by acknowledging death, we are better able to embrace life. Hedley says, “For me this work is very grounding and humbling. To stand before the human form and examine it carries potential for personal transformation. To merely know the words for the parts of the body is not the same experience.” Other visitors to the lab spoke of humility. One said, “This is how we all end up.” Another student said, “You see all that stuff and think there must be something that makes it work.”

Roger Jordan said, “We fear death in modern life. For six days, ‘Red,’ ‘Eve,’ and ‘Lucy’ (names given to the three cadavers in the weeklong workshop) walked me through an underworld simultaneously thrilling and repulsive. If I return to another dissection, a deeper allurement than the acquisition of knowledge will call. It will be because I learned something about living by opening the hearts and bodies of the dead.”

Undoubtedly people are changed by the experience of participating in a cadaver lab. In their work as professional bodyworkers, they are aware of new information to influence their craft. They may feel challenged by this new input, or they may feel validated. Whether they visit a lab for a few hours or a few days, the effects are lasting. “The experience doesn’t leave you right away. I wasn’t emotionally distraught, but it did make me think,” said one man. By experiencing the reality of death in a graphic way, the individual may feel the preciousness of life ever more keenly. One participant said, “Personally, I think I have a greater appreciation for the human form and love touching my partner now more than ever.”

The transformative experience and mind-altering effects of cadaver study can be summed up in these words by Denise Deniger: “After the lab, as I was seeing people on the street, I would see their livers, hearts, etc. I felt displaced — my perspective and priorities changed. I wondered what really matters. We treat our bodies as hindrances, burdens. We are so separate from them. I realized I needed to slow down and acknowledge I am part of humanity and that I do have a choice of perspective. I feel more compassion for myself and for others. I have the same physical elements as everyone else.”

Mary Kathleen Rose, CMT, has more than 25 years experience in the holistic health field, focusing on nutrition, massage, and expressive arts. She is the developer of Comfort Touch, a style of massage appropriate for the elderly and the ill. She supervises the massage therapy program at HospiceCare of Boulder and Broomfield Counties in Colorado, and teaches in various massage schools and medical settings. She can be reached at 303/449-3945 or www.comforttouch.com.

* Rolfing(R) (as well as Rolfer(R)) is a legal service mark of the Rolf Institute(R).


  1. As of the printing of this article, a second Somanautics lab has been opened in Westminster, Colo.