Not long ago, few who weren’t doctors, coroners, or med students had a chance to handle a dissected cadaver. And as late as the 19th century, the corporeal cleavage that gave medical professionals their best pre-MRI glimpse into bodies came from plundered graves or the victims of public executions. Curious vivisectors broke all kinds of laws and social taboos to practice their craft.
“Even doctors and staff at medical schools were involved in grave robbing,” says Raphael Hulkower, an endocrinologist who penned a research article on the history of dissection. The means may have been unsavory, he says, but grave robbing supported students’ desperate need to understand the workings of the biological machines they sought to repair. Even in our age of digital medicine and computer simulations, academics still believe that cadavers are the best way for students to study anatomy. It’s little wonder that yogis, driven as much by a desire to respect the body as to see its inner workings, have gotten into the act. And Colorado—with two other facilities within a 100-mile radius of here regularly offering similar courses to Boyer’s—turns out to be a unique haven for those looking to get out of corpse pose and into some actual corpses.
Boyer beat them all by a couple of decades. In 1995, two years into her career as a massage therapist, she persuaded a professor at Ohio State University to give her a tour of the cadaver lab. It would take a while, but she finally got into the business for herself. Nearly 400 students came through her doors in 2016, and more than 700 in 2017.
Among those who donate their remains to the stretch-and-release sciences: lawyers, construction workers, nurses, and teachers, most of them from the community and some of whom were yoga practitioners themselves. While still alive, donors can help decide which classes they will teach in the academic afterlife. They can also choose how much Boyer reveals to students about their lives and professions, information that can assist in the teaching.
Tonight’s teacher arrived at the center with only two identifiers (88, colon cancer). Boyer has named him Vesalius for a 16th-century Flemish physician known as the founder of modern human anatomy. To encourage her students to connect to Vesalius, she shares the backstory she has given him based on his distinct physiology; she calls him her “rancher” because his right supraspinatus muscle—part of the rotator cuff—carries tension lines that suggest repeated overhead use, lasso-style. And because his knees show hardly any signs of arthritis (very odd for a man his age), Boyer proposes that maybe he spent more time on a horse than his feet.
“He had really nice knees,” she says.