A Beginner’s Guide to Craniosacral Therapy – Core Connection

By Sophia Schweitzer

Jenny started medical school at the University of California-Davis this year. She leads a normal life. She’s agile and intelligent. You never would have thought that in fourth grade, when she was 11, her future wasn’t as promising. Severely dyslexic, Jenny was reading at a first grade level. She struggled. Then her mother saw an advertisement for a class in craniosacral therapy. She took her daughter in for treatment.

“What have you done with Jenny?” exclaimed a teacher a week later. “This isn’t the same child.” Jenny’s learning problems had disappeared days after her first and only craniosacral therapy session which lasted all of 30 minutes. Hugh Milne, an osteopath from Britain and director of the Milne Institute in Big Sur, CA and author of The Heart of Listening: A Visionary Approach to Craniosacral Work (North Atlantic), has treated many children like Jenny: “Children often respond immediately,” he says, noting that the change is often permanent. For Jenny, it gave her opportunities she wouldn’t otherwise have had.

While not everyone believes that craniosacral therapy works, proponents say it has alleviated many diverse symptoms: from chronic pain, ear infections, jaw pain, migraines, and joint stiffness to pregnancy problems, depression, autism, anxiety, dyslexia, spinal cord injuries, coordination impairments and anger.

You might think of it as a gentle massage technique, or a cross between chiropractic or osteopathic maneuvers and hands-on healing. Quiet and relaxing, inducing restful sleep, it’s been labeled mysterious. In reality, craniosacral therapy addresses a rhythmic system at the core of our physiology – the pulse of energy that flows between our head and pelvic area. It’s as essential, measurable, and tangible as our breath and heart rate. The craniosacral system follows a rhythm, and the skull bones accommodate its pulse. Just as a cardiologist seeks to improve the cardiovascular system, a craniosacral practitioner evaluates and optimizes the pulse of the craniosacral rhythm. This is a gentle, often deeply intuitive technique. “It’s a form of bodywork consisting of exceedingly light finger and hand pressure upon the cranial bones and the sacrum, and upon the involuntary movements of these bones,” says Dr. Milne.

The History of Craniosacral Therapy

In the early 1900’s, in osteopathic school, William Sutherland came to the conclusion that skull bones are capable of shifting – an unorthodox medical view still not fully accepted today. A visionary and pioneer, sensing the far-reaching spiritual implications of his findings, he developed a treatment method making him the grandfather of cranial osteopathy.

Then John Upledger, D.O., author of Your Inner Physician and You (North Atlantic), made a major leap when he discovered why skull bones move in 1975 (explained below) and started to talk openly about the cranial rhythm. He began working with students who weren’t medical professionals. Ten years later, he founded the Upledger Institute in Palm Beach Gardens, FL. The word was out: “It works!” In 1994 the American Craniosacral Therapy Association, also located in Palm Beach Gardens, FL. was created. Last year, the Craniosacral Therapy Association of North America, which has a sister organization in Europe, was set up with headquarters in Canada.

Still a new kid on the block when compared to other medical modalities like Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, craniosacral therapy with its many schools and forms is now one of the fastest growing practices in alternative medicine. Hundreds of massage therapists are being trained, while many psychotherapists, acupuncturists, physiotherapists, chiropractors, dentists and medical doctors are adding it to their list of tools. Increasingly used as a preventive health measure, this practice seems to be blurring the boundaries between the health professions because it’s easy to learn and safe.

How does Craniosacral Therapy work?

On a surface level, the practitioner works with the bones of the skull and the pelvis. This affects, in turn, the deeper layers of membranes and cerebrospinal fluids in the spinal canal, the brain, and the spinal cord itself. Why is this important?

A pulse through the fluids proceeds through the entire craniosacral system, like a tidal wave, from the sutures in the skull to the spinal cord. Cycling about six to ten times a minute, it causes tiny movements measuring no more than one-or two-sixteenths of an inch. “It’s a hydraulic system,” says Dr. Upledger, noting how all the components work together to regulate the pressure of these fluids on the brain. “There has to be an optimal circulation, which depends on constant mobility,” he explains. When the membranes and lubricating liquids lose their freedom to glide freely, we hurt and symptoms start.

It’s easy to imagine how even the slightest impact, lesion or distortion can stretch or strain this delicate system. Any infraction causing nerve endings to alter their perception and signals can negatively affect our entire well-being. Craniosacral therapy helps the body to re-establish an unobstructed wave, which is how symptoms disappear.

There’s also a unique and undeniable spiritual dimension to this practice: “The craniosacral wave isn’t just a physical phenomenon,” says Dr. Milne. “It’s also a field of information and intelligence. In the tiny movements of the system, and in the still points in between, is consciousness.” Dr. Upledger refers to this intelligence as the inner physician, explaining: “The inner wisdom which knows what is wrong, why it’s wrong, and how to correct it. The body tells the therapist what needs to be done.”

Thus, craniosacral work is based on a shamanistic and meditative approach as well as on physiological facts, making it doubly powerful.

What happens during a session?

“There is no need for a client to tell me verbally what’s wrong,” Dr. Upledger says. He prefers to remain open to the body’s own language, although some therapists may want to talk with you first. For the hands-on work to be most effective, you should wear loose, thin clothing. This way, the practitioner can better sense what’s going on in your body. You’ll be asked to lie on your back on a massage table.

By quietly resting the hands on your skull and sacrum, the therapist evaluates your craniosacral rhythms. This in itself can create a shift in energy. Sometimes, the therapist’s hands become aware of places along the column where energy is stuck or heated. She then uses the bones of the sacrum and cranium as “handles” to manipulate the deeper layers of fluid and membranes. No instruments or devices are used.

In sessions lasting 45 – 60 minutes, clients and therapists work closely together. “Ideally,” says Dr. Milne, “the client clears a mental space so something might occur.” The therapist waits and listens. You might feel a quieting down, a sinking in, and a deeper awareness. The whole idea is that the practitioner works with such gentleness and subtleness that the body itself can do the healing and necessary adjustments. “It’s a question of trust,” Dr. Upledger notes. A session can be described as a physically connected meditation, in which hidden information in the craniosacral system reveals itself.

Healing then can occur via the corrective mechanism known as the still point, the spontaneous quiet between waves. Typically, you have one every three to four minutes, and it lasts from five to sixty seconds. It’s a natural pause in the rhythm. Synchronizing and optimizing the waves, still points are like sighs. During sessions, when you’re more sensitive to them, they’re like moments of deep relaxation in which you let go and return to yourself. It’s the moment of insight, when you “get” it.

Does it always work?

While many conventional doctors and even some alternative practitioners are skeptical of this method, there’s lots of proof that it works. Anecdotes abound and just three to five sessions often give astonishing results.

Still, you have to keep in mind that craniosacral therapy is more of a preventive than a cure for serious illnesses. Dr. Upledger states in his book that “craniosacral work is most often a complement to other forms of treatment – not an alternative.” Its effectiveness depends on the cause of a complaint (i.e. whether a problem deals directly with the nervous system), the accessibility of the underlying cause, and what related contributing factors are present. An open, receptive attitude helps. “When client and practitioner have no connection, there sometimes is no efficacy,” Dr. Milne says.

Scientific studies proving the validity of craniosacral work exist, especially in the osteopathic and dental medical journals. So why doesn’t everyone praise it? Provable as it is, it’s also a relatively new concept. Skeptics want to know about the long term effects as well as see more research before they give it any thumbs up. And, the mystery implied in the tactile almost hypnotic treatments stretches conventional thinking, even today.

Finding a Craniosacral Therapist

Many healers are adding “craniosacral therapist” to their lists of titles. They have diverse backgrounds, ranging from dentistry and osteopathy (when done by these licensed physicians, the therapy is often covered by insurance) to massage, shiatsu, rolfing, and acupuncture. Massage therapists, especially, choose to add craniosacral work to their practice.

Lots of these healers attended an accredited school and have been certified. Because there are five to ten different levels of certification, you should double-check their background and specialty. Elaine Christianson, a craniosacral therapist in Kapaau, HI, advises: “Ask your practitioner which level they have studied and how often they do it.”

Remember: A good craniosacral therapist doesn’t force anything. You’re in it together, working with each other. If your symptoms aren’t getting any better, the practitioner should refer you to another specialist.

To find a craniosacral bodyworker, contact any of the teaching institutions listed on page 70 (in the “Home Base” sidebar) and ask for someone in your area. Or call a massage therapist for a referral. Physicians can also hook you up to a trusted practitioner. An offspring of the Upledger Institute, the International Association of Healthcare Practitioners (IAHP) makes available a list of licensed therapists, sorted by state and town. Ronni O’Brien, spokesperson for the IAHP estimates that there are at least 40,000 certified workers in the US.

The bottom line

So should you go for it? Look at it this way. For the most part, you don’t have anything to lose, and you’ll get a healing method that connects the physical, emotional and spiritual. Intuition, insight and the perception of facts are equally important. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Maybe, the mind can’t understand the details – that the body holds the answers if we dare to be still enough to listen to the tide of the cranial wave, our core. That’s what craniosacral therapy aims for.

Amy M. Gray, a certified massage and bodywork therapist at the Complementary Medicine Center in Indianapolis, has no doubt about its profound effects. “In school, I felt the craniosacral rhythm right off, I’ve been hooked ever since,” she says, noting that many of her clients feel 90% better after their first visit. “I always stress how gentle this technique is. How it deals with the whole body. The body is just an amazing creation!”

Your experience of the work will be uniquely yours. “The spectrum exists,” says Christianson. “At minimum, you have a deeply relaxing experience. Most likely, it’ll go beyond that to release holding patterns.”

While craniosacral work is still searching for its due place on the world map of medicine, it’s gaining in popularity fast as a natural, holistic healing approach virtually without risk or side effect. Will we ever be able to measure the mysterious interdependence of mind, body and spirit or understand the mystical nature of who we are? It seems that craniosacral therapy at least gives us a glimpse of a core connection.