Craniosacral history

Craniosacral Therapy is a healing system based on the “Cranial Concept” of Dr William Garner Sutherland. The “Cranial Concept” is the discovery that there is another fundamental physiological rhythm in the body besides the breath and the heartbeat and that this rhythm has an important function in the regulation and maintenance of the body.

Three of the key concepts in Craniosacral Therapy are:

  • the body’s function and form are interdependent and the form is in constant movement
  • the body is self-healing and self-regulating
  • the human system is a unified whole and functions as such rather than as a collection of parts


Dr Sutherland was a student of Osteopathy around 1900. He was taught that the bones of the skull (the cranial bones) are fused in the adult. He noticed that the edges of the individual cranial bones are shaped as if they were capable of movement.

Movement is an important concept in Osteopathy, because any restriction to a natural physiological movement will lead to a reduction in the function of that area of the body, which may have wider consequences in the functioning of the body as a whole.

Dr Sutherland set out to prove that the cranial bones did not move, by wearing a helmet he had specially designed which held still the individual cranial bones. If the bones did not move then this should have no effect on him. In fact he suffered from a number of very distinct states ranging from gastric disorders to severely disturbed psychological states which ceased when he allowed the bones to be free again. He concluded that there must be movement between the cranial bones.

He determined that there was a small regular movement of the cranial bones at a rate of 8-12 cycles per minute. He further discovered that this was just part of a number of interconnected movement mechanisms involving the whole body.  This movement comprises an expansion/contraction of the body and an ebb and flow movement which he called “The Primary Respiratory Mechanism”.  The components of this “Primary Respiratory Mechanism” include:

  • the gentle ebb and flow in the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord, the Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF)
  • the slight curling and uncurling movement of the Central Nervous System (CNS)
  • the small regular movement of the cranial bones and the sacrum (the lower end of the spine) which are connected together by thick connective tissue ( the dural tube) which runs through the spinal column

Working to release restrictions in the movement of the cranial bones and constriction in other body tissues led to significant improvement in health and convinced Dr Sutherland that the “The Primary Respiratory Mechanism” was a major factor in the maintenance of health.

In his further research over the next 60 years of clinical practise, he determined that this movement was actually the most gross manifestation of a number of slower and more subtle movements involving the whole body. These expansive and contractive breathing-like movements he saw as being palpable manifestations of the underlying “Breath of Life” animating the body.

Clinical Significance

This rhythmic movement is present in the central axis of the body but is also expressed in whole of the rest of the body, whether by mechanical transmission from this core or as a simultaneous movement of all body tissues.

An important osteopathic axiom is that “form affects function”.  This means that if our structure or its movement is affected by restriction or congestion then its function is also affected.

Practical Application

A very gentle touch is needed to listen to these slow pulsations throughout the whole body tissue. Through this touch one can find where this motion is disturbed or affected by constriction or resistance within the body structure and consequently where the body function is being affected. The therapeutic side of the work is in helping the body to re-establish the original movement flow by assisting the body in its resolution of any resistance patterns.

What one finds in working in this way is that often very little active work is required by the practitioner and that there appears to be a real capability within the body to bring itself to a more optimal level of functioning.  Often the therapist acts more as a catalyst in the healing process.

Therapeutic procedures in Craniosacral Therapy are all geared towards bringing this, the body’s own healing potential, to bear on the affected tissue, organ or structure and thus to bring about a return of optimal functioning.

What can it help

Many conditions may be successfully treated with Craniosacral Therapy because it works with the bony structures of the body, the nervous system, the internal organs and the muscles and connective tissue. If one realises that the mental and emotional aspects of our lives cannot be separated from our bodies and that one affects the other particularly at the level at which Craniosacral Therapy operates, one can see that Craniosacral Therapy is indeed a profound healing system.

Because the touch which is used is very gentle, it is able to be applied where other more direct interventions are too invasive, for examples with elderly people. With babies, it is particularly appropriate in helping resolve the effects associated with a difficult birth

Other Significant people

Dr John Upledger in the 1970s discovered the craniosacral rhythm for himself while he was assisting in a surgical operation in which he had to hold still the thick membrane surrounding the spinal cord, the dural membranes. This he was unable to do and discovered that they moved in this rhythm of 8-12 cycles per minute. His work also discovered the importance of the connective tissue in holding emotional patterns.  He developed what he called the “somato-emotional release” which is the release of the emotions as these patterns of resistance are resolved.

Dr Randolph Stone in the earlier part of the twentieth century also worked with the cranial concept. He was an Osteopath and Chiropractor and developed Polarity Therapy out of an understanding of the energy dynamics that underlie the body. He developed a keen understanding of the energy pathways and centres that are described in traditional Indian Ayurvedic Medicine and applied this understanding to his work with the cranial system. This helped to unite the approach of energy-medicine with the more structural approach.

Dr Rollin E. Becker and Dr James Jealous more fully articulated what has been called the Biodynamic approach. The Biodynamic approach to Cranial work evolved in the last 10 years of Dr Sutherland’s life, was further developed by Dr Rollin E. Becker D.O. and most recently fully articulated by Dr James Jealous D.O.  The key concept is that out of an underlying Dynamic Stillness arises the “Breath of Life” which in its expression, brings order and form to the body. The Breath of Life generates a number of slow rhythms or tides as well as the faster “Primary Respiratory Mechanism”.  It is this Breath of Life that carries the organising principle of our bodies. The practitioner brings to the therapeutic process a presence and awareness that facilitates the therapeutic action of the Intelligence inherent in this Breath of Life.