Biodynamic Craniosacral TherapySteve Haines February 1, 2011
Accessing the Body’s Innate Intelligence
In biodynamic craniosacral therapy, we use touch as a way of communicating and listening to another person. There are two big ideas at the heart of cranial work. One – the whole body expands and contracts in a rhythmic or tidal way. Two – there is an intelligence expressed throughout the entire body.
A skilled practitioner can interact with the rhythms and tides expressed by the body. The rhythms are very rich in information. If you were watching someone breathing quickly and rapidly in their upper chest, you might learn to associate that with activity, excitement, or anxiety. Similarly, the tempo, strength, and presence of the various tides in the body tell us a great deal about that person.
When the founder of the work, the osteopath W.G. Sutherland, was first struck with the thought that the bones in the head moved, this was against the accepted model of his time. After decades of exploring, he discovered subtle movements in all of the structures and fluids of the body. Sutherland’s early descriptions of the ‘primary respiratory mechanism’ defined five phenomena: the fluctuation of the cerebrospinal fluid – the potency of the tide, the function of the reciprocal tension membrane – the intracranial and dural membranes, the motility of the neural tube, the articular mobility of the cranial bones, and the involuntary movement of the sacrum between the ilia. However, primary respiration is not limited to these core elements of the body. The tide is expressed throughout the total human system; every cell knows the tide. Every cell breathes, inhaling and exhaling within cycles of primary respiration.
The smartest thing in the room is the intelligence expressed in our bodies. There are millions of years of evolution behind the shapes, forms, and movements in the body. There are many coordinated self-regulating processes that respond to events and maintain an internal balance and flow. This intelligence defines the chemistry, nervous activity, and alignment in the body. Biodynamic craniosacral therapy experiences this intelligence as an expression of a wider ordering principle in nature. Health is an active principle; it is a living, breathing reality that can be palpated by knowing hands. Sutherland named the ordering principle the breath of life. We also use the term biodynamic health to represent this principle.
EVOLUTION OF CRANIAL SACRAL THERAPY
Towards the end of his life in the early 1950s, Sutherland’s writing underwent a shift in emphasis to include not just the mechanics and infinitesimal movements of the structures of the body, but also an increasing reverence for the breath of life.
The cranial approach was passed on through a lineage of osteopaths, Rollin Becker and James Jealous being the most prominent. In the 1970s, an American osteopath, Dr. John Upledger, observed the distinct, regular movement of a dural tube (the tough membrane that surrounds and protects the spinal cord) during surgery on a patient’s neck. He studied the work of Sutherland, did his own experiments, and caused a schism in the work by starting to train non-osteopaths in ‘craniosacral therapy.’ Upledger is a prolific writer and trainer and has done much to increase awareness of craniosacral therapy. Through his institute, he claims to have trained over 25,000 people around the world.
TIDAL MOVEMENTS OF THE BODY
Biodynamics attempts to always appreciate the whole of things. The work is about a surrender to the priorities of the body. There is a trust that, given the right relationship and resources, the intelligence in the body will choose the best way to heal. In biodynamics, we do not impose a plan from the outside. Instead, we listen and support the inherent striving of the organism away from fragmentation and towards health. This approach orients to the slower tidal movements (called mid tide and long tide) expressed by primary respiration. Stillness is a defining goal and experience in the work; we use the term dynamic stillness to represent the quality of still spaciousness that is enfolded in nature and all living things. Change happens in the still moments when an individual comes back into relationship with what is around them.
James Jealous adapted the term biodynamic from his study of the embryologist Erich Blechschmidt. Jealous calls his work the ‘biodynamic model of osteopathy in the cranial field.’ He emphasizes the embryo as being ever present in the living organism. The embryo is a very powerful motif in biodynamics. The human form takes shape from a ball of cells, and the growth movements that occur in the first eight weeks of life give many clues for understanding how the adult body heals. The word biodynamic has connotations of holism and interrelationship.
The biodynamic principles began to be applied to craniosacral therapy through the work of Franklyn Sills and the teachers at the Karuna Institute in the U.K. in 1990s. There is now an International Affiliation of Biodynamic Trainings (IABT), consisting of eight schools. The biodynamic approach is one in which the main focus is the forces at work within the human system via mid tide, long tide, and dynamic stillness. The work orients to insights from the later years of Sutherland’s life.
To review, there are cranial osteopaths and craniosacral therapists. There are biodynamic osteopaths in the cranial field and biodynamic craniosacral therapists. The authors use the latter approach.
BREATH OF LIFE AS THE INNER PHYSICIAN
The animating force behind primary respiration is the breath of life. Sutherland believed that this was an energetic expression of an intelligence in the universe.
The breath of life has several expressions, which can be palpated by the skilled practitioner. Often you will be struck by its longitudinal expression, which can feel very fluid, like a surge welling and then receding throughout the body. The flow is a strong surge of fluid potency that moves up the length of the midline to the head. Another expression is a lateral widening and then narrowing that can feel like an expansion and contraction; sometimes the head and body feel like a balloon that is inflating. Sometimes you have a full sense of the movement as a rising and widening and it feels like the balloon changes shape, but not volume.
As you become more adept at feeling these expressions you can gain a sense of the nuances of the tide. These are the characteristic movements for that individual. So how the inhalation and exhalation phases are expressed, the pauses at the change of the phases, and the drive or amount of potency behind the movement all define the body system and become the baseline for tracking change. The relationship to this life force changes everything. There’s a chain reaction that brings about a greater order of health. Watch the tide and see what happens. It is as if the body is made of sand or seaweed and the movement of the ocean is reshaping and smoothing out the contours. The action of the tide itself highlights the body’s forms and patterns and then brings about reorganization.
TRUSTING THE INNATE INTELLIGENCE OF THE BODY
We are all shaped by experience. We use the term patterns of experience to describe how the body centres and responds to conditional forces of life events. Biodynamic forces represent the inherent adaptability of the body, its continual striving for health. How much you are affected by an event depends on your resources and your relationship to biodynamic health. We all do the best we can, given our history and current circumstances. Many of our responses are deep reflexes embedded in our bodymind that are based on previously successful strategies. Birth is an early defining experience, relating to early experiences coded in the body, making it an important part of cranial work. For example, birth can leave a trail of patterns that affect future events and behaviours. Bringing awareness and choice to our habitual responses and deepest imprints is a huge part of biodynamic craniosacral therapy. This is an embodied awareness, as most of our defining experiences are encoded non-verbally and non-consciously in our bodies.
Certain experiences can overwhelm our resources. We are all hard-wired to respond to overwhelming and traumatic experiences in the same way. We contract away from danger and the control mechanisms take us immediately into states of activation (flight or fight) or dissociation (freeze). The good news is that we evolved to respond quickly to unsafe situations and have the innate ability to process and overcome trauma. Biodynamic craniosacral therapy is good at supporting safe, contained, processing of traumatic experiences. This includes ‘hard trauma’ from single overwhelming events, or the slow accumulation of stress and tension from multiple distressing experiences (‘soft trauma’).
Our bodies are amazing. We have the ability to heal, change, and adapt to all that life can throw at us. The first stage in healing is to simply become more aware of your body. Learn to cultivate the skills of being present. Biodynamic craniosacral therapy offers a profound way of helping people to trust the intelligence in the body, to deepen into stillness, and to learn to appreciate how the body moves and flows in its continual striving for health.