Throughout his career, Ashland-based yoga teacher and anatomist Paul Grilley has done extensive research on how our different bone structures affect range of motion for different yoga practitioners. Recently, he’s been turning his attention toward gaining a deeper understanding of fascia, and what its connection might be with the meridians and nadis, which are seen, in the Chinese and Indian systems respectively, as the channels through which our life force flows.Grilley has been studied with Gil Hedley, who teaches increasingly popular anatomy workshops that are held at medical schools, but are not for medical students. Participants who come from various body-related fields dissect cadavers that have been donated to science. The Sacred Cow talked to Grilley about what he’s been learning about fascia and meridians, what this has to do with yoga, and what it’s been like to work with dead bodies.
Pranamaya: Tell us about the anatomy workshops you’ve been taking with Gil Hedley.
Paul Grilley: They are anatomy workshops for people who are not medical students and would not otherwise have an opportunity to do cadaver dissection. There are body workers, academics, yogis, acupuncturists.
PM: What drew you to study with Hedley?
PG: Hedley’s approach to anatomy is exploring the various levels of fascia of the body, and this attracted my interest because I subscribe to a theory that fascia is conductive to chi flow, meaning that fascia is somehow connected to the meridians of the acupuncture system.
PM: Why is this important research?
PG: Acupuncturists and the medically trained doctors who use acupuncture have been working very hard to try to establish what the meridians are. There are these beautiful drawings in Chinese medicine books, but then when you do a cadaver dissection and you’re looking for the meridian, you don’t see it. So that leads to some skepticism about acupuncture.
PM: When we talk about meridians, are we strictly talking about the Chinese system?
PG: In my view, the meridians are Chinese and the nadis are Indian, and they are the same. So exploring one system and how it works is essentially exploring both.
PM: So, how exactly is the fascia related to the meridians or nadis?
PG: There hasn’t been much research done on this previously because fascia was just seen as a connective tissue, an inert substance that just holds organs together. When you do surgery or dissection, it’s mostly fascia that you’re cutting away so you can see the organs or the blood vessels that you’re interested in. Now, with the age of electronics and more sophisticated electrical devices, we have come to understand that the fascia is doing much more than gluing things in place. It’s actually electrically conductive. One of the very probable extrapolations of fascia is that it is the conductive network that the Chinese and the Indians describe in the ancient text, that the meridians are inside the fascia.
PM: If this turns out to be true, that the fascia is what houses the meridians or nadis, how is this connected to one’s yoga practice?
PG: I believe all styles of yoga affect your meridians and your energy body. So, according to this theory, stretching the fascia would send and encourage the flow of electrical and other influences through the meridians, which affects every system in your body. The Chinese viewpoint is that all of your organs and life functions—digestion, breathing, emotion—are all controlled by chi or a life force. It’s the same in the Indian viewpoint. They call it prana.
PM: This research sounds fascinating. But what’s it been like to dissect cadavers?
PG: There’s always a little bit of a shock of working with real dead human bodies, but I got initiated into that as a university student. So, revisiting the lab all these years later wasn’t a huge issue for me … but it can be hard for some people. How many times do you see a stranger naked? How many times do you see an old person’s body laid out naked? How many times do you see a dead body, old or young? Gil is fully aware of the emotional confrontation here for Westerners in our sanitized society. We spend a lot of time discussing our reactions to what we are seeing, how we feel at night at the end of the day, how we react to human bodies and human forms, and how it affects our beliefs about body and mind, spirit and soul. Are we just a body? Are we more than a body? It’s a very healthy exploration … We’re coming from professions like yoga and acupuncture and massage and our interests are very much rooted in the psycho emotional experience.
PM: How does this intimate contact with cadavers affect you on a psycho-spiritual level?
PG: It makes you confront your beliefs about whether you think there’s a soul and an experience beyond the physical form. If you really do believe that, then you have to ask yourself why it is so disturbing to confront a human form. Why are there very primitive reactions again slicing open an abdomen? Why does this bother us? You come to a very deep, less theoretical, less abstract confrontation with your beliefs about mind and body. It’s one thing to say “I am not my body”. It’s another thing to feel resistance and even repugnance to slicing into a human form with a sharp instrument. Yes, we’re all there learning about what a ligament and a muscle looks like, but you cannot ignore the process of our emotional, spiritual confrontation with death and mortality and physical embodiment … it’s been illuminating.
For more of Karen Macklin’s work, visit her website at www.karenmacklin.com.