So what is Craniosacral anyway? (part 2)

and what exactly is it you do?


Craniosacral, Craniosacral, Craniosacral, say it three times fast. Trying anything new can be intimidating. Most people want to know exactly what they are in for, especially when it involve someone new touching them. So what exactly is done in a Craniosacral session? What is happening while you are lying on a table? Part 2 of this blog is here to answer those questions. Understand Craniosacral and how it was developed will deepen this understanding. Hopefully you remember from part 1 that all Craniosacral has its origins in Osteopathy, so that is were we will begin.

The first Osteopathic school opened in the US in 1892. Six years later a man by the name of William Garner Sutherland graduated from this same school. Sutherland was only 25 years old when he became fascinated with the cranial bones. At this point in history it was widely believed that adult cranial sutures--the joints that connect cranial bones, did not move. Until this day the topic is still debated. Sutherland believed otherwise and dedicated the next 50 years of his life studying and expanding what he called Cranial Osteopathy.


After 40 years of study and palpating thousands of craniums, Sutherland’s interpretation of the craniosacral system dramatically changed. He was 72 years old when he began noticing deeper rhythms and subtler motion, not just in the head but throughout the entire body. This is the point when Craniosacral began shifting from biomechanical to biodynamic. He spent the next 9 years of his life interpreting this biodynamic discovery while developing a language around it so that it could be taught to others.

The history of Sutherland and his Cranial Osteopathy is important because it shaped all the styles of Craniosacral Therapy. The first 10-20 years of his work were very exploratory. Large amounts of pressure was applied to cranial bones to influence change. Over the next 10-20 years, the pressure was lightened and it was discovered that you can influence change with very little pressure. The last 9 years was spent exploring the influence of subtle movement throughout the whole body while gently touching only one part of the body. Those who learned directly from Sutherland went on to pave the road for Craniosacral Therapies. His students were directly influenced by what time period they studied with him. If it was earlier in his career, it was interpreted more as a biomechanical model with more force/pressure. If you studied with him the last decade of his life, you learned something entirely different from even 10 years prior.

Therefore those who studied with him early in life disagreed greatly with those who studied with him later in life. As his students began teaching what they learned from him under the Craniosacral heading, many differing styles and techniques were developed.


You can see why the cranial rhythm is so controversial and also difficult to demy. There is so much we don’t know and there is no machine to measure it. It is a complete perceptual experience that takes trained hands to palpate. The craniosacral therapist experiences this as a feeling of expansion and contraction very similar to lung breathing: as if you put your hands on your rib cage, except it is moving twice as slow. Sutherland also compared it to our respiratory system, but he called it the Primary Respiratory Mechanism (PRI) because he believed it to be primary to lung breathing, meaning it is happening even if you held your breath. .

John E. Upledger created his CranioSacral modality between 1975-1983. He created a protocol students could follow to help learn CS. The application of soft touch is used, usually no greater than 5 grams, or about the weight of a nickel. Practitioners release restrictions by placing their hands somewhere on the body. The Upledger protocol focuses not just on cranium and sacrum, but also pays particular attention to diaphragms in the body (respiratory, pelvic floor, thoracic outlet etc.) With hands on a particular area, the practitiones focuses on the Cranial Rhythmic Impulse (CRI) often shortened to Cranial Rhythm.

This is where things get very interesting and also difficult to explain. The cranial rhythm IS what therapists are “doing,” although observing is a better word. People usually understand the description of gentle hand placements, but get very lost as we start talking about rhythms in the body that are not as easily felt as other rhythms like lung breathing or heartbeat.


So what is the Cranial Rhythmic Impulse? The transparent short answer is no one really knows— but there are lots of theories. Some feel it is the movement of cerebral spinal fluid, others feel it is the tissues around the spinal cord moving. It is possible that it is the nervous system itself expressing motion, this may be why it is so palpable at the head. There is an idea that it is a combination of rhythms/frequencies in the body that are coming together, similar to when you throw multiple rocks into water and the ripples join together. Are your are familiar with Newton's Cradle or the Executive Ball Clicker? This is one way he proved that energy cannot be created or destroyed but be changed from one form to another. As one ball strikes the other four balls the first three don’t move but the fourth bounces away and the energy is transferred through them. Imagine the body being the three non-moving balls and cranial rhythm the expression of energy outward.

You can see why the cranial rhythm is so controversial and also difficult to demystify. There is so much we don’t know and there is no machine to measure it. It is a complete perceptual experience that takes trained hands to palpate. The craniosacral therapist experiences this as a feeling of expansion and contraction very similar to lung breathing: as if you put your hands on your rib cage, except it is moving twice as slow. Sutherland also compared it to our respiratory system, but he called it the Primary Respiratory Mechanism (PRI) because he believed it to primary to lung breathing, meaning it is happening even if you held your breath.


What we do know is that when the cranial rhythm is palpated, the body tends to move into a very relaxed state which makes the healing process much faster. When palpating joints it can feel as if they are slowly moving into alignment. When feeling the spine it can be experienced as a lengthening and at the head you can experience both expansion and lengthening. Patients/clients have described this feeling like more space in the joints. Others describe a more fluid like feeling and most all experience some sense of relaxation and often a very deep settling. Some people do experience the actual rhythm itself.



When palpating the the cranial rhythm, it often feels like the body is re-organizing itself. Some say it is un-winding, like the body knows how to untangle itself. Sutherland referred to this as a natural intelligence in the body. Our bodies know how to heal themselves, so it would make sense that there is something steering the ship. We have an autonomic nervous system which is actually an automatic system in the sense that it somehow performs all the important tasks in the body like breathing and digestion without our direction. At a cellular level, we see this process happening all the time. Cells seem to have an innate intelligence/knowing about their environment and how to survive and when it is best not to. Cranial Rhythmic Impulse has been described in terms of cellular motion as well. There is metabolic interchange in every cell, again this deep natural healing motion that every cell is tuned into or possibly creating.


To make things even more interesting, the Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapist has learned to palpate rhythms even slower than the CRI. This experience is like a deep meditation often described in a mystical way. It seems that the slower the rhythm becomes, the deeper the healing. In a Biodynamic Craniosacral session, it is not uncommon for the therapist to spend more time with their hands in one place (1-40 minutes). To the observer it may look like someone is just sitting there holding your head, but a lot is happening all at once. The way it feels can vary and sensations are different from one person to another. Therefore you cannot get the full understanding from a blog, instead I encourage you to have your own experience. You can even share it in the comment section below.

Depending on who and what type of craniosacral treatment you experience, it is a full body therapy because the cranial rhythm is full body. Yes, it can seem or sound energetic, but it includes the body. It is not Reiki or any other energy medicine— energy is not coming through the therapist into the client: they are palpating or experiencing-- and some say listening-- to what is happening in your body. It is its own modality that can be classified as bodywork or manual therapy. Try to experience as many forms and therapist as you can and see what works. Craniosacral is especially effective for children and infants. Have you ever noticed that kids heal much faster? When you add the cranial experience it is multiplied. Why wait until they are born when you can experience this together with your child while still in the womb?

There is another whole aspect of this therapy that relates to the psycho-somatic experience or mind-body-emotion component. There are far too many layers of this to dive into now. People are accepting more and more that the body “holds” onto things. Craniosacral compliments talk based therapies in an extraordinary way to help move through past experiences, emotions, or thought patterns. Craniosacral treatments look at how the body (somatic) is shaped from life's psycho-emotional experiences. The truth is we have no idea how things accumulated in any system of our body, but the body does know how to heal them. Craniosacral Therapist don’t look at psychological issues, instead they palpate how they are expressed in the body/nervous system, making it a very integrative collaborative aproach.


With the help of a Craniosacral Therapist you can realign, reorient, and reset the body-mind-emotional connection. Just imagine how much more effective it could be letting your body realign itself instead of someone else forcing it or imposing their will to where your body “should” be. What would it feel like to have old stuck emotions slowly dissolve from you body and mind? Could you be open to something that may not be the quick fix but slowly creates permanent change? Aren’t you tired of the same injury, pain or discomfort never really going away? Isn’t it time to truly look at the body as more than a structure-- more than just muscle, fascia or bone? Your brain expands through the whole body, that IS the nervous system. A famous osteopath was known for repeatedly saying “Thoughts are things.” Our thoughts, our stresses, our memories create our form, they create a pattern in our body. Craniosacral Therapy can be a truly integrative modality when you're ready to give it chance.




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