The Gentle Power of CranioSacral Therapy

A Method of Restoring Rhythm

One cannot help but be impressed with a health treatment so powerful, it can change the direction of a person’s life work. This was the case with Robert Harris and Alix McLaughlin, co-directors of The Cranial Therapy Centre in Toronto.

Over 20 years ago, Robert and Alix were massage therapists working with a chiropractor treating a wide variety of patients, including Karen Kain and members of the National Ballet. While working out one day, Alix fell and tore ligaments in her knee. The knee required major surgery and had to be placed in a cast at a 90 degree angle. When the cast came off nine weeks later, Alix’s knee was fused at that angle due to the scar tissue inside the joint. She faced long, painful and arduous sessions of physiotherapy to get her knee to straighten and function normally. This involved having her knee forcibly pushed towards straightening in order to break down the scar tissue and to regain its range of motion. Initially the progress only measured about three degrees of opening per session.

Still on crutches, Alix attended a party where she was introduced to a woman who did CranioSacral Therapy. Seeing Alix’s condition, she offered to apply some hands-on therapy. The therapist laid her hands front and back on Alix’s knee and her hands made very tiny, subtle movements, even pausing in certain positions for a while. Alix commented that, “it felt like there were hands inside her knee, helping to reorganize things. The movement felt like something floating around, at times pain would seem to percolate out, and then disperse.”

Surprised and intrigued, Alix made an appointment to see the therapist for a treatment. After just two one-hour sessions, Alix’s knee had opened up to the equivalent of what would have taken nine sessions of physiotherapy. And this was achieved with no pain or forceful efforts.

Alix and Robert were so impressed that they immediately signed up for courses in CranioSacral Therapy. Together they founded The Cranial Therapy Centre which recently celebrated its 19th anniversary of helping people ovecome pain, stress and neurological disorders.

Clearly CranioSacral Therapy changed the lives of Harris and McLaughlin, but what exactly is CranioSacral Therapy? How does it work? How did it originate? What are the benefits? And finally, what conditions does it address? These are all questions that should be asked and answered when considering whether to try CranioSacral or any health treatment therapy.


CranioSacral Therapy originated from the work of osteopath William Sutherland in the early 1930s. Although traditional medicine taught that the adult cranial bones do not move, Sutherland, through anatomical examination and experimentation on his own skull, discovered that the cranial bones not only move, but that this movement has important health implications. His work in cranial osteopathy was groundbreaking. It continues to this day, but training is only offered to osteopaths and dentists. In the 1970s Sutherland’s work was expanded upon by another osteopath, Dr. John Upledger. He was the one who coined the term “CranioSacral Therapy” and his research is still the basis for much of the way the therapy is practised today.

In order to understand CranioSacral Therapy a little background on the central nervous system is helpful. Our brain and spinal cord is composed of three layers of membrane or fascia. The outer layer, the dura mater, is tough and waterproof. The innermost layer is called the pia mater. It follows the contours of the brain and spinal cord and carries blood vessels that supply them. The middle layer, the anachnoid mater serves as a gliding surface between the outer and inner layers of membranes. There is fluid between each of the three layers called cerebrospinal fluid. One function of this fluid is to act as a lubricant between the layers of membranes as they move in relation to each other. In other words it helps to keep them flexible and unrestricted.

CranioSacral Therapy theorizes that the movement of the cerebrospinal fluid rhythmically goes through a rise and fall in volume and pressure, beating within the range of six to 12 cycles per minute.

“This Craniosacral Rhythm, the tidal change in the fluids, moves the bones of the head and the sacrum,” Robert Harris explains. “These natural changes in pressure cause motion to be felt through the whole body, with slight toning and relaxing, as these fluid pressures expand and relax.” CranioSacral Therapists believe that this rhythmical system is as crucial to health as the breath and the heart beat. With very light contact of their hands, therapists detect this small movement as the cerebrospinal fluids rise and fall. According to Harris, it is the symmetry and ease of movement that determines health. Thus, if there is a variation to the rhythm, or if it is not symmetrical, this is an indicator to the therapist that there is a problem or a place of restriction.

The objective of the therapy is to release restrictions and restore ease of movement anywhere in the body. Light touch or palpation, no heavier than five grams, enables the therapist to follow the Craniosacral rhythm and find restrictions, whether it is in the head, spine or elsewhere. As the therapists’ hands respond to the craniosacral rhythm, they provide very subtle unwinding motions or gentle, gradual lengthenings in the restricted areas. The responsive, non-intrusive touch of the therapist enables the person receiving the treatment to go deep within. In fact, they generate their own releases, feeling reorganization occur from their very core.

And contrary to what I initially believed, CranioSacral Therapy is not head or cranial massage. The therapists’ hands do come in contact with the head, but also the face, neck, chest, pelvis and legs. In fact my own treatment started at my feet. In CranioSacral Therapy the bones are used to manipulate deeply into the system of membranes and fluids of the entire central nervous system. As therapist Luciana Stan explains, “we use the bones as handles to go deeper into the fascia and tissues underneath to release blockages.”

She goes on to point out that CranioSacral Therapy releases the blockages by a very light touch; there is no force involved and the idea is to facilitate the correction or restoration of the CranioSacral rhythm, to assist the patient’s own body to make the correction. Or as Robert Harris puts it, “CranioSacral Therapy allows the body to respond at a cellular level to what feels right or to find the state of greatest ease.”

Because of the very light touch involved and its non-invasive, non-directive nature, CranioSacral Therapy is very safe. It has shown to be effective in the treatment of a wide range of health issues associated with pain, neurological and biomechanical dysfuntions: migraines, TMJ, insomnia, hyperactivity, PMS, sciatica, sports injuries, sinusitis, tinnitus, scoliosis and colic just to name a few. CranioSacral Therapists also have a wide patient base, treating newborns, the elderly, and all ages in between. Because of the gentleness of the therapy it has been especially useful for treating babies. As Harris suggests, “if all newborns received some form of CranioSacral Therapy, we would see a significant lowering in a great number of health problems suffered later in life.” This theory is reinforced with stories such as the following from one of Luciana Stan’s patients: “During a regular checkup on my then two-month-old daughter, her doctor noticed that she could not turn her head completely to one side. She suggested I try CranioSacral Therapy and after just two sessions with Luciana, Sarah had a full range of movement. As an added bonus she slept through the night for the first time!

“When Sarah turned one, I once again turned to Luciana for help. My daughter had developed a lump on the back of her head, which turned out to be lymphoma. My pediatrician informed me that although it was not life threatening it would only get bigger and needed to be surgically removed. After two sessions with Luciana it completely disappeared and has never returned. Sarah’s pediatrician to this day at regular checkups still feels the back of her head in disbelief.”


As a part of the research to do this article, I felt compelled to actually experience the therapy. Although I do not have any health issues at this time, I still felt it would be advantageous to try CranioSacral Therapy. I visited The Cranial Therapy Centre where Robert Harris showed me firsthand what this therapy can accomplish. He began the treatment with his hands at my feet, moving gently up each leg toward the knee. He explained as his hands moved, then stopped, then moved again, how he was trying to distinguish by touch the smoothness or unevenness of the movement. This would be an indicator of the rhythm of the spinal fluid. He commented (without any prompting from me verbally) that he felt I probably have or had issues with sciatic pain. I have. But what was even more unusual, and made me believe there is truly something special about this therapy, happened when Harris moved up and began the light touch to various parts of my head. At one point I suddenly felt my left eye involuntarily pulling toward the left. It was like those “magical hands inside Alix’s knee”; only they seemed to be gently tugging on my eye, trying to bring it to the centre. Which makes strange sense as I do have an eye condition (lazy eye) where my left eye turns inward. I was amazed and somewhat confounded. Besides these two phenomena, I felt totally terrific after the treatment ended. This endorphin-like induced feeling of well-being lasted the rest of the day and well into the next.

It is hard to imagine that I would have anything in common with much “concussed” hockey star, Eric Lindros. But I do. We have both experienced the gentle power of CranioSacral therapy. Lindros once said that after a session he felt like “hugging a tree.” He might have been making a joke, but maybe not. He believed the therapy helped him with his many head injuries and I can certainly attest myself to the sense of well-being that ensues after a treatment. And while conventional medicine cannot (or chooses not to) explain the exact therapeutic value of CranioSacral Therapy, there are thousands of satisfied patients and health practitioners who have discovered the deep and profound efficacy of this most gentle and subtle healing system.


• Contact Luciana Stan at (905) 773-8445 and visit
• Alix McLaughlin and Robert F. Harris, co-directors, at The Cranial Therapy Centre, (416) 971-4445.

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