Somanautics Article

In the Land of Cadavers
My Experience with Somanautics-
a 6-Day Cadaver Dissection Class

From May 5-10 I attended one of most gratifying learning experiences in a long while; a 6-day cadaver dissection class. Now you may be asking yourself, what is an herbalist doing messing around with an embalmed person’s innards?  I cannot accurately identify why I have been wanting to do this class for the past 10 years or so either, but my fascination was there. And through taking this class, I have gained valuable information in my quest to understand the human body.

A little about the class. Somanautics ( is the name of the program which has been developed and run by Gil Hedley for many years. Gil’s experience, passion and skill for gross anatomy are obvious in his classes. He approaches the teaching of the human body from a body workers perspective of respect and looking at the nuances that make humans tick. And while we were dissecting the various aspects of the human body his train of thought clearly goes beyond any simple mechanistic approach on how humans work. He has many unorthodox ideas on how the body communicates with itself and different views on organ function. An example of this is the complex way that fascia (an enveloping layer of different tissue types) is a major aspect of the body’s interconnectedness. That is, it serves as a communication vehicle for the various ways our body passes information around; in daily and extraordinary activity.

Now most bodyworkers already have a respect for fascia’s role in the body, but as a more physiologically-minded person, it was interesting to hear this idea expounded upon (the students in the class were all generally already enamored with fascia, the class had the air of a fascia-ist cult). And of course looking at it ‘live’ helped to demonstrate these purported properties.
Gil also shared his ideas of how the heart as not merely a pump, but rather as a contiguous organ with the blood vessels and how its main functions is not ‘pumping’ blood, but the importance of how it ‘turns’ blood as the heart beats in a spiral twisting action.

While these and Gil’s other holistic, non-traditional-mechanistic views were not all new to me, to have someone so immersed in physically cutting people open and looking at the ways these muscles, tissues, organs, and other body apparati operate lends credence to his ideas. Plus his respect and sense of humor make him easy on the ears.

There were times I would have liked for him to have said that these unconventional ideas are a different strain of thought that are at strong odds with the more orthodox approach to how these organs and tissues functions are viewed. Perhaps the group was already of one mind on this, but the more conventional part of me feels like it is important to discuss and distinguish these opposing thoughts, even if one firmly believes in their viewpoint, this lets attendees who are not in-the-know to know there are very divergent beliefs here.

Details of the class. For the first hour or so we sat in a circle and expounded on whatever notions were animating us. Gil would take these ideas and expand them further. One of the things that I learned early on was my place in this group. At first I guess I felt a bit cocky having taught anatomy and physiology to my herb students for the past 12 years or so. But it soon became apparent how little I really knew about the non-organ anatomy of the human landscape. In other words, the students were going into details about muscle groups, nerve complexes, various plexuses and I realized that I was a bit of an outsider to this group of intellectual and experienced Structural integrationists, Pilates trainers, Rolfers, and body workers. Their attention to anatomical distinctions and details put me in my place fast. And so for the first couple of days as we peeled off the outer layers of tissue, and I listened to the enraptured voices of teacher and students painstakingly teasing apart various human features and naming them, I felt lost and a bit of a dummy. Later we came to the organs and I breathed a sigh of relief as the names began making sense to me, but I am getting ahead of myself here.

Back to basic details. The class was held in Newark, New Jersey. Much can be said (or left unsaid) about Newark, so I will let others fill in the details of this city. I stayed with my brother in Manhattan. My routine was to rise at 6:00 am, and walk to Herald Square to the PATH train to Newark, and then walk to where the classes were held. Coming home was basically the reverse. This afforded me a few miles walking every day which was helpful to think about what we were doing and just plain old exercise in this most urban of environments. It also made travel costs inexpensive, as the train to NJ was $3.50 round trip, and this was the extent of my daily commuting costs.

Back to the class. As stated, the first hour of each day was discussion. On day one we had a preliminary lesson on how to use the tools of the trade; scalpel and hemostats. And then were shown how to dissect through layers of tissue. One of the things I most admired about Gil is adeptness at teasing apart tissue. I was very impressed at the ease in which he separated the various layers throughout our time there. Watching him with the scalpel (and later with pruners and hacksaw) was a lesson in the way he was able to manipulate various layers in a sensitive and seemingly intuitive level. He is gifted in this department.

The class had 15 students and 2 cadavers. Each of the cadavers was older (70’s plus?), male and female, whom looked in reasonably good shape (that is, with no obvious gross deformities). The class divided itself into two groups, half with the female (May) and half with the male (Georgi). I (along with all the other males and a few women) chose to work on Georgi, though people continually walked around to see what the other group was doing. Some of the students whom attended have been to this class a number of times before and clearly had an agenda. They might spend hours of each day separating the muscle groups of the hands or searching for specific nerve complexes. I was much more of the generalist, wanting to see a bit of everything. About the students, they were a great group of people to be around, kind, smart and respectful. They added greatly to the class experience, along with Gil.

A word on embalming fluid, it is stinky stuff. Anyone interested in doing this class should be aware that their nostrils and eyes will be assaulted by the off-gassing, especially the first few days, when the fumes are at their strongest. One could wear a respiratory mask and/or goggles, but few did. I think it was just too cumbersome, as well as adding a degree of separation that the dissecting students didn’t care for. We did wear doubled-up disposable gloves each time we worked with the cadavers.

On day one we spent the rest of the day separating the skin from the superficial fascia. It took me a while to get the feel of how to remove tissue from tissue. In this case, skin from superficial fascia. Also, I was just nervous and determined to do it correctly. This didn’t help my method, and over the next 6 days, as I lightened up and realized that it was more of an exploration rather than a dissecting test, it became easier as well as more fun and interesting.

Our group tried to take the skin off in one whole piece rather than just snipping it off in bits. There was no real reason for dissecting in this manner, just an odd native desire amongst the dissectors.  We were partially successful in this, and laid out Georgi’s skin flayed and unfurled in one of the empty humidors (stainless steel containers that the cadavers were held within).

Day two was removing the superficial fascia from deep fascia. As I alluded to previously, I felt like I had entered the Cult of Fascia. It took all day to remove all the layers of this aspect of the human frame, and uncover the deep fascia, which is a thin layer of tissue covering most of the body as well as slipping in between other muscle and tissues. Day three was spent removing the deep fascia and eventually starting to separate individual muscles, very exciting for many of the participants.

Day 4 was when we began to delve into ‘the package’ (different from I normally refer to the as ‘the package’). This package was referring to the organs. Now it was my time to start getting excited (and feel a little less stupid). First we explored the greater omentum, an apron of tissue draped over the peritoneum, and learned some of the interesting ways it moves about within the body cavity. Next was the peritoneum itself and delving into the abdominal cavity. And here they were, all the organs that I spend so much time treating and thinking about. It was enthralling to hold the intestines in my hand and see how they were attached to the mesentery and observing all the organs relationships to each other, as well as seeing their textures and shapes.

One of the excellent parts of this class was not only the dissecting but handling the different human body parts that we exposed. It was an extraordinary learning experience to be holding a colon, heart, brain, kidney, adrenal gland, and other organs and tissues.

Day four through six were my favorite days as that now that the organs were exposed I could explore and dissect them individually as well as considering their relationship with the rest of the body.

Gil was generally available throughout the classes for the student’s questions and needs. As mentioned I was frustrated with my dissecting abilities, especially in the beginning of the class, but Gil was patient and showed me how he teased apart the different layers. While I don’t think I will ever have his finesse (nor be a gross anatomist) it was helpful to watch him and have him help guide me through the process. Occasionally he would lose himself into some specific dissecting detail, but even then, he was affably available to answer questions.  He would perform dissections for whomever was interested and describe the details of what he was doing and sometimes his views and theories and how the body works. An interesting speaker is he.

During the last few days we eviscerated the remaining parts of the body, with people focusing on their particular interest while often sharing what they were doing and seeing with others whom inquired (which I often did). Some folks were delving deeper into muscles, nerves, lymphatics and circulatory branches, one person sawed a femur lengthwise to display the inside of this long bone, while others removed various organs and tissues. My personal interest was the male reproductive anatomy. And the price of the class ($1500) was worth it for this alone. We removed the penis from the inside cavity so that one testicle was still attached along with one kidney, ureter, bladder, prostate (with the associated seminal vesicles and vas deferens still attached) and the internal root of the penis. This was an incredible learning experience for me. After years of teaching male reproductive anatomy, to be holding and dissecting the various aforementioned structures helped me to greatly understand their place in our bodies. I am grateful for the experience.

The brain was a close second in the fascinating organs department. One of the cadaver’s skulls was cut off at the top to expose the top of the brain, and the other was cut sagittally through the middle. Both were revealing. And holding a human brain (in all its jelly-like consistency) is an experience I shan’t soon forget. As well as to see and touch the various aspects to this well-hidden part of our anatomy.

Dissecting and holding a heart was also a visceral event for me as well as the other tissues, organs and muscles. The experience gave such a depth of understanding that I would suggest for all interested to consider attending this hands-on class or something similar. It is very different experience than the gross anatomy classes that one attends in medical schools.

One of the major themes that I began to grok was the variability of humans. It seems obvious to say so, but looking at the various tissues of both May and Georgi showed some quite specific differences highlighting how individually different it is on the inside of all of us.

I’d like to use this last paragraph to thank Gil for sharing his skill and enthusiasm. He offers an extraordinary encounter not often offered to persons not attending university classes. Thank you Gil and to all those people whom donate their bodies for us to learn from.