Christine Wushke writes about her experience and insights gained from studying with John Sharkey at this summer’s Human Anatomy Dissection Course at Dundee University, Scotland. The featured photo (above) shows a group of students, including Christine (third left), at work in the Dundee lab.
I recently had the amazing privilege to study with John Sharkey in his biotensegrity and fascia focused dissection seminar at Dundee University.
This course emphasised understanding fascial connections, viewing tissue-sparing dissections and the importance of the biotensegral (1) application to human movement. We sat through fascinating presentations, and in the lab we were able to see (and feel!) mind-blowing examples of tissue continuity. Course participants ranged from yoga therapists and manual therapists to pathologists, surgeons, acupuncturists, medical doctors and so many more. The conversations with other professionals in complementary fields of study rounded out the informative course, lending it a strong sense of community.
What stood out for me the most, as a yoga therapist, was the focus on wholism and continuity, and how/why it is relevant to all of us in both our personal and professional lives. When looking at the soft fixed cadaver tissues, you can see the literal continuity of each structure interwoven and interpenetrating the next structure in sequence, particularly when the dissection of a structure was done with a fascia focused intention. It was clearly visible that there are no separate structures in the human body. All of the specialized structures in the body arise out of the fascia; they turn and fold and form pockets for individual functions, but nothing in the human body is separate from anything else!
One example of this astounding interconnection was a beautiful fascia focused display in which John Sharkey carefully removed the clavicle bone, demonstrating the continuity between the sternocleidomastoid and pectoralis muscles. Normally these are shown in anatomy books as having the origin at the clavicle, divided into two separate structures. But in this style of dissection you see it as a continuous flow of soft tissue, seamlessly integrating with its neighbouring muscle tissue. This demonstration reveals how the soft tissue in the body is not, in fact, made up of individual muscles and stitched-together tendons, ligaments, and bone, but rather one membrane of fascia that has organized itself in such a way that it forms this miraculous creature we call human. John Sharkey sums it up neatly when he asks, “Are there 600 muscles? Or one muscle with 600 pockets?”
If the body is a continuum of soft tissues and fluids which permeates every other system (2), then we have a model of wholeness and interconnectivity that shifts the view of healthcare away from treating “symptoms only,” and toward including those symptoms in a wider body/mind/spirit approach to healing.
Why does this matter?
Aside from the significance from an anatomical point of view, Sharkey’s course also taught us the practical application of that information for individuals who have pain or dysfunction.
In recent years the biopsychosocial model (3) has become more and more commonplace as a model for pain reduction and wellbeing within the medical communities. There was a time in medical history when the patient’s environment was not factored into their state of being. Currently, the importance of the patient’s relationships and mental health – alongside the physical symptoms – are finally beginning to be acknowledged. This progression of awareness runs parallel to the shift in a number of professional circles; it is particularly evident in the fascia community as it now researches and recognizes the significance of the environment of our cells, organs, or muscles, rather than just looking at the (symptomatic) structure itself in isolation. We are looking at the structure as it relates to all the other structures around it – healthy community and relationships, instead of singularity and isolation.
It is heartening to see that, in so many healthcare subcommunities, we are now going beyond wholism of the human body into a broader sense of wholism to include relationships, mental health, and feelings of meaningful and purposeful work.
Complementary therapies (4) and integrative healthcare are growing in popularity, and I believe the reason for that is simple: because it works.
Combining approaches in this way often focuses on wholeness and interrelatedness. Biotensegrity and fascia awareness are also models of wholeness. And the tissue-sparing approach to dissecting human tissue leaves little room for doubt that everything in the human body is connected to everything else.
Enter yoga therapy. The definition of yoga therapy on the IAYT (International Association of Yoga Therapists) website reads as follows:
Yoga therapy is the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the teachings and practices of Yoga. (5)
Yoga therapy is an eight-limbed path, and each of the limbs is devoted to the exploration of many different aspects of wellness. From the health of our tissues, to our mental state, to our relationships and our quality of spiritual connection, it’s all viewed as one system of interrelatedness and continuity from one aspect of being human to another. All is relevant and significant to measure our overall well-being.
In yoga philosophy, the koshas or “layers of the self” are often likened to Russian nesting dolls. Each kosha is inseparable from the next, and each holds an equal level of importance. These layers include the multiple facets of human existence, from the physical and mental levels to the emotional and spiritual levels. All layers of the self are interdependent upon each other, and the health of the whole depends on the health of each individual part. I see this philosophy as extremely relevant in modern times, especially in our fast-paced culture where the lack of focus on community, relationships, or mental and spiritual health can lead to symptoms of pain, anxiety, or depression. (6)
Why is a wholistic model useful to people?
As mentioned above, research is starting to focus on models of wellness that factor in broader aspects of being an individual. Professionals are now considering things like the environment in which people live, the health of their relationships, where they fit and belong within their community, and how the different body systems are communicating with each other.
In yoga, healthy relationship (7) with all that’s currently arising is an important teaching, and I often say to my beginner yogis that yoga is like “couple’s counselling between the mind and the body.” To create a space for healthy relationships to occur with our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations is to understand and practice the deeper teachings of yoga. It is easy to see the similarity here: how crucial to overall health and balance is the awareness of this all-inclusive connection.
Research is now supporting the theory that prosocial behavior is involved in maintaining health, growth, and resilience. Polyvagal theory (8)is an explanatory model which connects patterns of nervous system regulation to the expression of emotional and social behavior. It explains how this translates to feelings of connection and belonging in individuals, and thus how important social engagement and healthy community are for mental and emotional wellbeing. And it is increasingly recognized as a framework for understanding the connection between human behavior, stress, and illness.
Why does the study of fascia belong in yoga?
The study of fascia is a journey in perspective that takes you from individual pieces and parts to the larger system of continuity and interconnection. In the field of yoga therapy we are making that same journey on multiple scales and multiple levels of the human experience. To revisit the imagery of the Russian nesting dolls, in yoga philosophy each doll represents a level of human experience (though while the dolls are separate, each of these levels is seamlessly connected to the next). At the smallest level we have the physical body, and each larger scale represents another aspect of the human experience from the emotional and mental levels on up to the spiritual and quantum levels. When we are thinking in terms of the fabric of all of life, there really is no place where consciousness and subtle energy do not belong.
Meditation – a less obvious yet crucial part of a well-rounded yoga practice – is the return to a state of wholeness. It’s a way to embody and reclaim all parts of your yourself, and to be at home with yourself in the present moment. True meditation is meant to be all-inclusive: the body, the mind, the emotions, and all the subtle layers of who we are.
When you start to see the body as a continuous network – a seamless fabric of membranes and liquid that houses every system – it’s easy to see how, within that body, everything affects everything else.
We can also extend this thought system into the yoga philosophy that everything is also connected on a global scale, and a universal scale. Just like cells floating in a gelatinous sea of fascia, we are individuals living in a sea of consciousness, floating in the same “water” that connects us all and interweaves our common experience of what it is to be human.
As Dr. Neil Theise has pointed out, continuity is a matter of perspective. In one brilliant presentation he described looking at a finger from multiple scales: on the skin level we can see that it’s an individual structure separated by the skin from other fingers. On the cellular level we can see that bacteria and dead skin cells slough off, making it a bit less individual and a bit more connected to other fingers in its proximity as the bacteria transfer from one finger to the next and interweave within each other. On the level of quantum and electromagnetism there is literally no separation between the fingers; they exist within one field of energy vibrating at unique frequencies. His beautiful takeaway message was that we are not individual creatures living on the planet, but rather we are the planet itself, which has self-organized into things that think of themselves as creatures.
In yoga therapy, oneness or wholeness is often seen or described as simply reversing the point of view. We shift the focus from separate pieces and parts moving away from each other, and turn around toward the arising object, and recognizing that it is arising out of the field of consciousness out of which everything else is also arising. This is much like how a wave arises out of the ocean: we can look bottom-up from the point of view of the ocean to see how everything is the same body of water taking on different shapes and characteristics, or we can look from the point of view of the sky to see separate waves that all have unique shapes and degrees of intensity. Both points of view are valuable and important.
Sharkey’s seminar really made me think: what would happen if we gave more precedence to this bottom-up perspective?
How would our world change if we started viewing individual people – as well as whole communities and beyond – from the bottom up instead of from the top down? What would it mean to view communities of people as whole living systems, and our planet as a living being from which we are inseparable? How would we take care of our bodies, minds, friends, neighbours and the environment if we knew that we are all intimately linked to each other? Will we ever walk upon the earth as if it were our own body?
There is no way of knowing for sure, and perhaps it is overly idealistic to believe we could ever achieve such utopian goals. But as our views progress toward this awareness of connection and oneness, so beautifully exemplified by the demonstration of fascia’s folds and flow… I am hopeful.
Christine Wushke, July 2019
3 Gatchel, Robert J., Peng, Yuan Bo, Peters, Madelon, L.; Fuchs, Perry, N.; Turk, Dennis C. 2007 The biopsychosocial approach to chronic pain: Scientific advances and future directionsfckLR Psychological Bulletin, Vol 133(4), 581-624