What is experiential anatomy
When anatomy is studied in the classic manner it is never experienced directly from the inside but always through intermediaries: books, models, patients.
After graduating in medicine, anyone can explain exactly the structure of the liver, illustrating how it functions and interrelates with other organs. However, hardly anyone is concerned with the fact that the liver can also be “felt” as a present, live experience.

At the cultural level, it is interesting to see how this aspect has been totally eliminated, and therewith also the possibility of realising what it is we have inadvertently relinquished. It is as if experiential anatomy represented, therefore, the forgotten side of cognitive anatomy. It was not by chance that the Latins used two verbs to express the concept of ‘knowing’: gnosco and sapio; the former referred to intellectual comprehension while the latter derived from a root denoting “relish”, “savour”. In reality, despite the fact that the two aspects are not mutually exclusive but rather complementary, the disciplines that “relish” anatomy, as for example dance, lack a systematic cognitive referent and, vice versa, anatomy in its traditional sense lacks “savour”.

To be truly aware that each anatomical component is present in the body, and that being alive is therefore experientially accessible, involves, for those who manage to grasp it in all its various implications, a profound revolution in their way of thinking about themselves. In fact, if we consider that by focussing attention on the inside of the body our state of awareness, our way of thinking, our level of perception, the quality of our movement, voice and breathing also change, we may catch a glimpse of some of the manifold possibilities set forth in this exploration.

Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen is one who, more than others, has contributed to a method of organising these experiences, and then integrating them into the forms of western biological science. In fact Bonnie, together with her collaborators, has spent the last twenty years systematically re-exploring the body so as to establish the connection between cognitive anatomy and personal experience, not only to discover the propositions of the former by means of the latter but also, and especially, to reassess certain anatomical concepts in the light of experiential elements. To this end a practical, commonplace example is provided by the bones of the head and the pelvis, which are studied with real or artificial models where they are completely welded together. It is obvious that the fact of having a cranium and a pelvis made up of bones free to move independently of one another entails different possibilities and at various levels. But if we think of them as structured monolithically, they will automatically become such through our inability to grasp their other potentialities. Free of all preconceptions, this work is the result of information coming from both western (as, for instance, the work of Mabel Todd) and eastern schools.

We think with our body and when, for example, we use tibia and fibula as if they were a single bone, we are also being conditioned as regards the way we think, relate emotionally to others, perceive reality and space. If this for an athlete or a dancer could mean moving in a totally different manner, in any case for the rest of us it means modifying our own way of thinking and relating. Since the psychic processes are fundamentally symbolic and symbolism is deeply rooted in the body, the condition of the body will determine the emergence of a certain type of symbolism. Some stories belong solely to certain bodies; therefore with a work of this type not only does the physiology change but also the symbolic, imaginative and psychological level of whoever is undergoing it.

Through experiential anatomy the bone, muscular, fascial ligamental, endocrine and nervous systems can all be explored, as well as skin, fat, and the various organs and fluids which constitute the organism. Skimming through the index of this book, it is easy to see how the main emphasis is placed on the skeletal system, to which almost half of the experiences put forward are devoted. Apart from the authoress’s own personal inclination, this is due to the fact that the system is also the one the layman is most familiar with. But it is sufficient to consider how easy it is to find reproductions or models of the skeleton – as opposed to those of the lymphatic or the fascial system, which in our education remain veritable “shadow systems” – for us to understand how in reality it is precisely in the knowledge and experience of such systems that we have the most ample margins to develop our personal and collective potential. Moreover the skeleton, already by its nature well defined and tangible, represents a good “framework” for possible further studies.

With other experiences, by contrast, the intention was to provide the reader with a beginner’s instrument to enable him to move effortlessly within other systems. One aspect of this text which seems to us in any case particularly successful was that of having known how to transfer, even on the printed page, that sense of natural respect and attention for the body which comes from having lived its story intensely.

Jader Tolja MD
Introduction to the book “Anatomia Esperienziale ”