Exploring and Learning from the Gift of Life

     By Patrick Cunningham, LAc, BCST, FMT

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to teach cadaver dissection classes and workshops with Stephen Cina at the New England School of Acupuncture over the past seven years, first through the Sports Medicine Acupuncture Program and later as a NESA elective course. We use unpreserved specimens that are flash frozen with no exposure to chemical preservatives so the tissue closely reveals the reality of the living body. In our Unknown-3classes, we utilize the specimen to the fullest extent. We examine tendons, ligaments, bones, disks, and menisci in situ and in cross section. We experience the strength of these structures by placing them under stress. I once cut through a sacroiliac joint with a scalpel, it took 20 minutes and I was dripping with sweat when finished. But this joint has a demanding job in the body, so it has to be strong. It’s amazing how well we are put together and how each structure is uniquely designed for its purpose. I’d like to share with you four things that have changed the way I look at the human body.


Circulatory_System_arteries_veins_smThe first is the arterial system and the nature of arterial plaque. I had always imagined plaque to be similar to lard and you do find that, but when they say “hardening of the arteries,” it’s not an abstract concept. Our specimens ranged in age from 50 to 101, and most have had plaque, many to a degree that I find remarkable. Sometimes it forms pebbles embedded in the arterial wall, some small, some quite large and generally rough and lumpy. Sometimes it forms long needle-like shards of calcified plaque that are sharp as a needle and can easily pierce the skin through a glove. When you grasp the outside of Unknownan artery that contains this type of plaque and squeeze, you feel and hear it breaking under your fingers, like a muffled version of the sound of walking on thin ice on a winter sidewalk. Some of the thicker shards are strong enough that they are difficult to break with your fingers, and some of the pebbles are as dense as the pebbles in your driveway. We have seen arteries such as the common iliac or femoral artery, so densely filled with plaque that you wonder how any blood got through at all. In some cases, expansion of the artery during systole must have been the only way for blood to move past the obstruction.

One dissection was a woman who lived to the age of 90. I often discuss with the students what we’re going to see, and due to her age, I felt confident that we would see some significant arterial plaque. However, much to my delight, this 90-year old woman had beautiful arteries, they were clean, elastic and completely free of plaque. We removed the heart so students could hold it and feel the strong rubbery consistency of the heart muscle. When I held her heart, I was deeply moved. Time stood still and I could feel her spirit. Then it was time to pass the heart to the next person.

I’d like to talk about the spine. There is such a remarkable difference between a healthy spine with thick disks and a spine in the advanced stages of degeneration where the disks Unknown-1have compressed and dried out. Healthy disks have thick, strong rings of tough annulus fibrosus with a nucleus pulposus that looks like thick creamy yogurt. In a spine with advanced spondylosis, you see the bone spurs that have tried to shore up the spine, while the disks are thin, dry and brittle. Stretching and exercising the spine is so important,
keep your disks supple and hydrated with movement and fluid intake. Sit less and move more.
I’d like to talk about fascia. Through the work of Luigi and Carla Stecco (1) and many others, fascia has been analyzed to a degree never imagined just a few decades ago. During dissection, one can simply marvel at the interconnection and at the endless variation in how fascia responds to movement and muscular contraction. Fascia creates a complex web of connection throughout the body, and provides sensory and proprioceptive hqdefaultinput to the nervous system. Fascia allows us to be far stronger than we would be with muscles alone. As many have said before me, traditional anatomy books were made by people who removed the fascia to get at the muscles, never appreciating the interdependent relationship between them.
Some muscles, like the erector spinae, vastus lateralis, and gastrocnemius have strong thick bands that resemble strapping tape. These structures provide great tensile strength and store energy when elongated, only to release it upon shortening. Fascia responds to the stresses it encounters, including elongation, compression and torsion. In one male specimen the suboccipital muscles had numerous thick bands of supporting fascia so strong they were like thin pillars of bone. I wondered if he had been a wrestler as I could imagine him doing neck bridges. In others, the suboccipital muscles are soft and almost mushy. Muscles will atrophy when not put to use. A recent specimen was from a woman inactive at the end of life, her multifidi were about 70% fat.
Unknown-1The infraspinatus muscle is one of my favorites for observing fascia. I always look forward to carefully exposing its surface where you often see circular swirls and curving lines of fascia going out in many different directions, to accommodate complex, multiplanar movements.
Let me briefly mention the organs. The stomach wall is much thinner than I had imagined it. It’s thin and stretchy and the mucosal layer internally is also much less formidable that I expected. I’m more careful now not to stuff my stomach with excess food. The Chinese have a saying “eat until 80% full.” It’s good advice. The intestinal walls are much thinner than the stomach, thin enough that you can easily see through them to the waste within. When you see the intestines in all their blue-collar glory, fasting and cleansing seems like a smart idea. Abdominal fat stores toxins to a greater extent than fat in other parts of the body. People who had chemotherapy shortly before death often have greenish abdominal fat with a toxic chemical smell, while fat on the rest of the body appears normal. The greater omentum also seems to reflect overall health. It too absorbs Unknown-2chemical toxins, and in smokers is gray, dry and shriveled, when it should be moist, yellow and bright. In smokers you can smell the cigarette smoke as you expose the greater omentum, almost as if someone in the room were smoking. There is a vast difference in the appearance of healthy and unhealthy organs. Healthy organs are brightly colored, there is a vibrancy and integrity to the tissue. They look beautiful.
Changed My View
I lead a healthy lifestyle, but doing dissection has changed how I look at myself and how I look at others. We all have an inner reality, but we focus on the outer. At this moment, your bones, muscles, organs, (3) nerves, and arteries all have a reality that is partially hidden from you. We’ve all heard stories or had patients who suddenly experienced chest pain, went to the doctor only to find that their coronary arteries were 90% blocked. Maybe they were feeling fine up to that moment. The body does a remarkable job of coping with the constraints and stresses of life and lifestyle, until it can’t.
I’ve always been a people watcher and as a structure and movement specialist I look at how people stand, sit and move. Now there’s an added dimension, I picture what people look like on the inside. I visualize spinal degeneration, picture the pitting of osteoarthritis and the joint destruction of rheumatoid arthritis. I have seen metastatic colon cancer that colonized the entire abdomen, and the blackened lungs of smokers who died of lung cancer. I picture the many different kinds of fat in the body, how different it looks in different areas, and how much it varies between body types. I feel and imagine the fascia, resilient and protective in active athletes and less than it could be in sedentary individuals.
We begin and end every class with a ceremony of gratitude for the individual who donated his or her body to further the education of others. Maybe they did it years before death, maybe shortly before. These people took the time to think of others not only in their lives, but afterwards. If I can see into the body it is because of these generous individuals, and I am forever grateful.
1. “Fascial Manipulation: Practical Part,” Luigi & Carla Stecco, Piccin, 2009.
Patrick Cunningham is chair of the manual therapy department at the New England School of Acupuncture. He specializes in orthopedic and myofascial acupuncture, zhenggu technique, craniosacral and visceral therapy, chronic pelvic pain, and manual lymphatic therapy. He can be reached at livinganatomy@gmail.com.
 (Editors note: I have known Patrick for many years and have been the grateful recipient of many hands-on sessions with him. I was also privileged to attend one of his dissections and am still absorbing lessons from that amazing day. Those of you in the Boston area have an amazing resource in him. This article was originally published in Acupuncture Today.)
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Patanjali on the Mat

An embodied yoga practice allows the possibility of decoding the Sanskrit lessons imparted in the Yoga Sutras without too many trips to the imagesdictionary, because yoga is ultimately experiential and not a collection of ideas.

There are two great discoveries offered by Patanjali. First, we are always in direct connection with the infinite Ground of Being, known in the Yoga Sutras as Purusha, or drashtuh, the Seer. In Vedanta, this discovery is known as atma-jnanam, knowledge of the true nature of the Self. However, as humans, we tend to forget this reality, stop feeling whole and at peace, and become spiritually confused.

Therefore, Patanjali’s second great revelation is that there are many psychological, emotional and spiritual practices or disciplines available to us to help dissolve this confusion and help us return to feeling whole. These skillful means or upayas are cultivated by tapping into the wisdom of life itself, awakening the innate intelligence, aka buddhi, and discovering that embodiment of the Divine, whether as a galaxy, a star, or a human being, always involves a balance of complementary forces and energies, known as yin and yang, or the dvandvas. (II-48, tato dvandva anabhigatah)

UnknownPatanjali does not spend many sutras on atma-jnanam. He mentions it at the beginning in I-3, as drashtuh svarupe avasthanam, returns to it in the very last sutra, IV-34, and that’s about it. (The Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita offer very rich and metaphorical descriptions of embodying Self Knowledge, so perhaps Patanjali did not feel the need to replicate those.) But he does an amazing job of offering maps and models of the mind states that create problems, and practices to heal the ones that are dysfunctional. Our on the mat practice will be samyama in asana.

The most important sutras come right at the beginning, I-2 through 1-4. We will change the order slightly, (as this is how we actually experience them), and then expand upon them a bit to give us a basic overview before we get into practice. (Please refer to the Yoga Sutras Study Section for the more literal translation and additional commentary to these and other sutras.)

I-4 vrtti sarupya itaratra: Being human is not easy. Our thinking mind complicates the world unnecessarily and this leads to what the Buddha referred to as the state of suffering, or dukkha, where we forget our own infinite spiritual nature. Identification of the self with dysfunctional beliefs and thoughts is the source of this suffering, or to use Patanjali’s terminology, of not being “in Yoga”. This creates a self sense that is inadequate, constantly needing to either add or subtract something in order to find inner peace. This is of course an impossible pursuit and shows up in the body/mind as tension, fear, anxiety, stress and trauma.

NeurobI-2 citta vrtti nirodha: This dysfunctional mind activity can be transformed by resolving the energies of these activities back into the flow of aliveness. This harmonious, elegant movement rooted in the eternal is known as the Tao in Chinese and is described in the Tao Te Ching, the famous treatise attributed to Lao Tzu. Patanjali offers many skills and practices that can be called upon to alleviate the distress and shift the self identity and we will focus on one today, samyama, described in Patanjali’s third chapter, the Vibhuti Pada. We are becoming more and more clear about the neuro-science and biology of fear, anxiety and trauma, the roots of suffering, including how they arise and how they can be healed, and we will use this to inform our practice.

70px-Satori.svgI-3 tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam: When the dysfunctional activity ceases, the Infinite Ground of Being shines forth, the “I AM”, the sense of self, dissolves into this, and remains stable there . There is an ‘Awakening’ to the fact that ‘I am wholeness’ that is both unimaginable and indisputable. In the Zen tradition, this glimpse into one’s true nature is called Kensho or Satori. The Japanese character for satori is depicted on the left.

However, the identification process, a specific type of mind activity, (ahamkara) often eventually reverts back to its habit of feeling separate and lacking. Thus the ‘Awakening’ is often unstable in the beginning. It may last minutes, hours, or even days, but can’t quite stick. Thus Patanjali requires the stabilizing of the awakening to be considered “being in Yoga” by using the term ‘avasthanam’. In sutra IV-27 and IV -28, Patanjali returns to the process of stabilizing the awakening.

500px-Michelangelo_SündenfallThe spiritual irony of this is that we are always connected to The Ground of Being, because that is all there is, there is only wholeness. We forget, get distracted, and before we know it, are totally lost in delusion (avidya). This is the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the “Fall from Grace” as depicted here on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Our practice on the mat is to re-solve the dysfunctional mental patterns that manifest as thoughts and beliefs that have an immediate affect on the cells, tissues and organs. If we carry the water image further, we are dissolving, like salt into water, these patterns Unknown-3of mind activity (citta vrttis) into the feeling of Oneness. It is tangible, visceral opening that emerges when the organism feels totally safe and very awake. Usually our being awake carries fear or anxiety of danger, as this is the biological priming of our nervous systems. Danger lurks, and you will survive if you are on alert. And feeling safe by itself usually doesn’t take us into the spiritual breakthrough. There has to be an openness, alertness, curiosity and intention to stay present to whatever is arising known as mindfulness. Mindfulness, a mind state that gets stronger through practice, will allow us to sustain our practice through the moments when we do not feel totally safe and will allow the samyama in the postures to also strengthen.

Our first exploration on the mat will be finding the balance of weight and lightness.
(Follow the link!) From the perspective of the organism, the first question of safety is ‘where am I’. The first orientation, where to bring attention (dharana), is to the felt sense of weight. Find the felt sense of weight. Stay there. Live there. Patanjali calls this embodied state of  being grounded ‘sthira‘ and is deepening our connection to Mother Earth, at all levels of reality.

The second orientation is to the space around me. I need to feel safe in my environment. I find this in movement, and through the felt sense of lightness or levity which allows me to float in grounded-ness, like a fish in water. I become 3 dimensional in perception and action. Patanjali calls this ‘sukha‘. Thus, to be fully embodied is to be both sthira and sukham, as Patanjali describes in II-46. Staying in this dynamic state of balance, of weight and lightness, roots and wings, with action, perception and intelligence flowing as an single stream, begins the samyama.

Take this awareness into the standing poses (follow the link), and we will add one more clue from Patanjali to integrate into the samyama. The first two practices Patanjali introduces, even before samadhi, are abhyassa and vairagya. OnKate- revolved triangle the mat these are related to how we use energy in the poses. Abhyassa is the disciplined and conscious direction of your energy towards healing. In asana, it means to deepen the stability of the samyama by bringing more cells, organs and tissues into the conscious flow. It is a choice to bring your attention to a highly refined state. Vairagyam is the complementary practice. It involves withdrawing of energies away from patterns that are hyper-tonic (excess rajas) or hypo-tonic (excess tamas). Where in my body/mind am I overworking? Too aggressive? Overly contracted?  Where in my body/mind am I dull, unconscious, asleep? Take from here, add to there, all the while monitoring action and perception to feel how the changes are actually manifesting.

And all the while feeling the ever-present Divinity radiating with more and more brightness from your heart out into the world.

Chakras, Vayus and Asana in Awakening

The Big Picture

Yoga is the exploration of:   Awakening and stabilizing that Awakening, aka: Enlightenment, Self Realization, Moksha, Freedom from Suffering, etc, and involves Awareness, Attention, Intention, and Identification. This awakening allows our own unique creativity to emerge as a crucial component to the on-going planetary and Cosmic awakening arising in the fullness of this moment.

This exploration requires:
1. an ability to: differentiate the two perspectives available to humans:
Purusha and Prakriti, Being and Becoming, Luminous Emptiness and Creation, Now and Time, The Changeless and Impermanence, etc; cultivate each as a proficiency or skill, and integrate them into …

2. the realization of Oneness, of Non-duality, Advaita. That the two points of view, while differentiated, are never separate from each other. Purnamadah, imagespurnamidam.

3. the recognition that the “I am”, the Self, Atman, ‘drashtuh svarupe‘, where the Infinite emerges into form as Soul, is eternally unbounded, luminous and the source of all creativity.

4. the understanding that life conditions, experiences and karma have created patterns of belief, thought and emotional reactivity that can obscure or completely hide the inner light of soul and inhibit creativity.

5. that there are skillful means, upayas, that specifically address these obscurations and reveal the inner light. (Citta vrtti nirodha, sthira sukham asanam, Mindfulness, etc.

6. that these obscurations appear as either rigidity, an imbalance of tamas, or chaos, an imbalance of rajas;  or possibly combinations of the two. And they all involve a confusion of self-identity. (vrtti sarupyam itaratra.)

7. Somatic practices such as hatha yoga transform these imbalances back into coherence and harmony, sattva, by bringing attention/awareness to the deeper structures of the nervous system, including the gut body and cardiac nervous system, as well as the other physiological systems, which have their own inherent intelligence that moves toward healing and wholeness. Surrender into this awakened intelligence ( ishvara pranidhana, II-47: prayatna shayithilyaananta samapattibhyam) dissolves (nirodha) the self confusion (avidya), and allows the light of the soul to shine clearly (I-3: tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam,) and Divine creativty to emerge as your life journey.

8. This process of healing and awakening creativity is an evolutionary impulse rippling throughout the entire Universe. (I-40: paramaanu-parama-mahattvaanto’sya vashikaarah

                              The Details

How can we work with chakras and vayus ‘on the mat’ to transform psychological/emotional/spiritual confusion into light?

There are seven major energy centers in the human, known as chakras or energyimages-8 wheels. As somanauts, we bring the buddhi (as light) to each and explore them as regions of movement and coordination of movements. This allows ‘enlightened posture and movements, or imagesmovement/posture as Divine Prayer. When all seven have been turned on (lit up), there is a clear sense of the spinal axis as emerging from the chakra line, like beads of light on a string. This of course, is refined in tadasana.

                    Our spiritual home base.
4th chakra: 
The center of our universe, where love, wisdom and compassion are awakened and sustained and all the chakras learn to work together. We begin here, and return again and again until we are rooted here as a felt sense in the body deeply linked to Mother Earth and Father Sky. It also supports heart and lungs, and feeds energy to upper limbs and head for movement and support and integrates the subtle spinal movements with the breath. Feel the heart chakra as a point where the infinite expands into form and keeps going. It’s a continuous opening.
                                              Lower chakras:

1st chakra: tail and legs: the three pillars of support in tadasana, and the anal mouth, the root of the gut body. The first cosmic gate, opening a connection to Mother Earth.  2nd chakra: Sacral region: small movements at sacro-illiac joints and the bladder as an organ of support and vibrancy. 3rd chakra: upper abdominal region: liver, kidneys, spleen, stomach, adrenals, descending fibers of the diaphragm, T10 – L3 and more. Modulates spinal curves where the lumbar undergoes large changes in shape. We’ll see more below when we get to the samana vayu.

                                          Upper chakras.
5th chakra
: continues support and movement of head, jaws, mouth, and tongue. Integrates cervical and thoracic curves in movement and support. 6th chakra: inner ears, third eye, pituitary center. Subtle movement of skull on C-1, a place often stuck. Cranial-sacral work involves integration skull and sacrum, 6th and 2nd chakras in subtle inner waves and inner energy fields. 7th chakra: crown, above the skull, organizes movements that totally release neck. The second cosmic gate, opening connections to the heavenly realms/Father Sky.

Now we add to the mix the physiological/spiritual organizing energies of aliveness known as the Five Prana Vayus. These are:
Prana = what we take in / expansion / upper body centered
Apana = what we get rid of / condensing / lower body centered
Samana = what we choose to keep / the balancer / middle body centered
Vyana: distributing the good stuff to all cells and tissues
Udana: growth and development on biological, emotional/psychological/spiritual levels.

Can we ‘feel’ these five organizing activities as movements of energy and energetic fields? Can we integrate these with the chakras? This will bring us to the basic laws of living structures and the effortless support they offer. Then our poses and practice in asana become divine prayers, healing and awakening creativity.

images-3The primary organizing activity in the Universe is the balance between expanding and condensing. This is the yin/yang of Taoism and Chinese medicine, and also ‘Tensegrity’ as articulated by Buckminster Fuller, Tom Myers etc. In a tensegrity structure, like the human body, the compression elements push out against the tension elements, which in turn pull in against the compression elements. B.K.S. Iyengar describes asana as the balancing of centripetal (toward the center) and centrifugal (away from center) forces. (Light on the Yoga Sutras on Patanjali). A star, like our sun, is delicately balanced between the intense condensing caused by gravity and the equally intense expansion created by the nuclear fire. Our life flows from this dynamic relationship at all levels of reality.

As the prana vayu governs taking in, we can experience it as an expanding energy field centered in the chest (fourth chakra) to open heart and lungs. It is the yang, or centrifugal energy.  Imagine this as a radial expansion, like the Unknown-2opening of the hoberman sphere. In kinesiology, we feel prana also in supporting the action and movement of the arms, ribs and head.

The apana vayu governs releasing out and thus is a condensing or squeezing field centered in the lower body (first and second chakras). It is the yin, or centripetal energy. When functioning in a healthy manner, apana squeezes out solid and liquid waste from below, but also helps to squeeze the air out of the lungs. Kinesiologically, apana can be felt supporting the action and movement of the pelvis, legs and tail, maintaining grounding energy in posture and movement.

UnknownSamana is the balancer. It integrates the upper body action of taking in with the lower body action of squeezing out. Usually described in digestive terms, as it is a third chakra energy, somanautsimages-1 explore the samana’s role in balancing the upper body and lower body in movement. It’s role is to integrate the movements of upper body/head and arms with movements of the lower body/legs and tail like in the cheetah. Notice the cheetah is actually flying more than running. Notice also the coiling and uncoiling of the core as it oscillates between flexion and extension. This is the mammalian action will will explore first in the asanas.

Ideally there is a single integration of all five vayus, the prana, apana and samana riding on vyana and allowing udana to function at highest most refined level possible. Iyengar describes this as samyama in asana, where organs of action, organs of perception and intelligence (buddhi) integrate into a single conscious movement in the entire body.

Now we add the poses. Take what we have covered above and integrate with what follows.

                     Integration through the Standing Poses

Lesson 5 of the basic course in my home study section of the site covers this,
(and saves me the need to rewrite it all! ) so please click here to continue.

Flipping the Dog  (Please click here.)

Into Inversions

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Preview of Coming Attractions