Craniosacral work comes out of osteopathy. Osteopathy comes out of bonesetting, and bonesetting was practiced in Neanderthal times, 130,000 years ago, and probably much longer ago. Osteopathy never took hold in the USSR, so bonesetting continued there under its original name. When I first met a Russian bonesetter in 1990, I was astonished to see how similar their technique was to what I had learnt in osteopathic school in England in the 1960s.
In the Navajo understanding, the cranial wave is called ‘nilch´í hwii siziinii,’ the ‘little wind,’ or ‘wind’s child.’ They believe that a Wind is present within a person from the moment of conception, when a Wind from the mother meets a wind from the father. In Genesis it says ‘And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.’ The breath of life, a little wind. (According to Tibetan Dzogchen embryology, when the sperm and egg first touch, there is a flash of bliss, the basis of the heart charka.) Coming from its sacred home in the four directions, the Holy Wind enters all living things. It is a messenger wind. “The one called Wind`s Child, this is just like living in water.”
The Lakota Sioux shaman Black Elk said, “When I am called to go to the sick man I have a different (i.e., special) feeling, it is like being back on the mountain. There is some fluid in me which I have drawn from the air and I do not mind walking a great distance. When I work on the patient it does not tire me out at all and it makes me very happy. But I do not always know how things are going to be.”
The Cherokee Nancy Maryboy said, “You can’t experiment with a frog, take it to pieces, and then give it life and let it live again, because it just doesn’t happen that way. So there are protocols for native research, and spirituality and intuition are not excluded. It’s a much more inclusionary way of knowing.’ native American bonesetters still work today. Steven Weiss was taught by Jimmy Awash’e, a Zuni ‘bone doctor.’ Weiss recounts being shown before-and-after X-rays of bone fractures at the local hospital, with complete re-crystallization of a newly fractured bone within 24 hours of Jimmy’s bonesetting administrations.
In 1988, working at Esalen Institute, I gave a visionary craniosacral work (VCSW) session to a young American man who was a fluent Navajo speaker and wise in the ways of their traditions. When the session was over, he turned to me and said, “Where did you learn Navajo work?”
One of the oldest books in the world, the I-Ching, or Chinese Book of Changes, states, 'Keeping the hips still, making his sacrum stiff, dangerous, the heart suffocates.'
Hebrew has a single word for both “spirit” and “wind,” ruach, and ruach is directly equivalent to the Navajo Holy Wind. ‘Ruach’ appears in the very first sentence of the Hebrew Bible, ‘When God began to create heaven and earth – the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind (ruach) from God sweeping over the water…...”
In the 13th Century Zohar (part of the Kabala) points out that man meets God through mastery of the breath. Thus the story that King Solomon was taught by his father, King David, to breathe in such a way that the veil of the flesh was lifted, and he could see the spirit within. This way of breathing was called the 'holy breath.'
Also in the 13th Century, the Persian mystic Rumi said, ‘Without that wind, all creatures on earth would be stiff as a glacier, instead of being, as they are, locust-like, searching night and day for green things, flying. Every bit of dust climbs towards the secret one like a sapling. It climbs, and it says nothing.’
We find a remarkable coalescence of the mystical understanding of many cultures of wind, fluids, and spiritus in the poetry of Rilke: ‘But what is blowing like a breeze, listen to that, the uninterrupted message forming itself, out of stillness.’
The historical record of the origins of what is now called ‘craniosacral work’ begins in the 19th century with the dramatic life of Andrew Taylor Still. In 1849, at the age of 21, Andrew Taylor Still began to practice medicine with his father. At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Still volunteered and was in the army for three years. Within a period of five years ending in 1864, Still lost his first wife, two children, and his father. In February of 1864, three more of his children died during an epidemic of cerebrospinal meningitis. Still was devastated, writing that his heart was ‘Torn and lacerated with grief..’ Nothing he had learnt in 15 years as doctor or surgeon enables him to help his children. But from this dark night, revelations appeared: “Angels returned as of old….it came as a shock as if I were going into paralysis.’ Later he said: ‘The language came to me as an impression, ‘Will you carry our flag if we place it in your hand?” Then I took an obligation to stand by that flag as long as life lasted.’
On June 22, 1874, Still experienced another sartori. ‘I was shot – not in the heart, but in the dome of reason. That dome was in a very poor condition to be penetrated by an arrow charged with the principles of philosophy. All this I saw, and more. I saw great stellar worlds give birth to other worlds. I saw those worlds live, grow, and die, and the offsprings thereof repeat in accordance with nature’s law the same process of exhibition and retirement – just as the children of men pass through the various phases of physical life . . .’
In 1883 he began to incorporate the ancient art of bonesetting into his practice. He called his practice Osteopathy, from osteon, or bone, and pathine, suffering. Still founded the American School of Osteopathy in 1891. Later he writes, ‘If he is wise in Anatomy and Physiology, he (the osteopath) will at a glance detect any abnormality in form, and can easily prove the cause of any failure in perfect functioning. . . . He knows how to adjust every bone and muscle in his patient’s body.’ Note the emergence of his inner eye, in the words “at a glance.”
His students thought that the new invention of X-Ray might help them see like the old master. He answered: “The X-Ray by tremendously increasing the vibrations enables us to see under the surface what our eyes will not discover. Why can’t we train our minds to do that?” He also said that ‘The dead can come and talk to me of the life beyond.”
In 1902 the Littlejohn brothers came from Scotland to study with Still. Martin Littlejohn taught John Wernham, my first osteopathic teacher in London, England in 1969. Still died December 12, 1917. It is reported that Still’s dying words to the profession were “Keep it pure, boys, keep it pure.”
Still’s most famous student, William Sutherland, was the grandson of a Scottish immigrant. He was born in Maine in 1873. In 1899, Sutherland was in his senior year at Stills American School Of Osteopathy in Kirksville. There was a collection of bone specimens mounted in a display case at the college, including a disarticulated skull, mounted in the Beauchene presentation. One day Sutherland said that ‘My attention was directed to Memorial Hall’ where he saw the disarticulated skull.
He stopped to look at it and was struck ‘as if from a bolt from the blue’ as he looked at the squamosal suture of the temporal bones, the rolling-overlap joint between the temporal and the parietal bone. He heard the words, ‘Beveled, like the gills of a fish, indicating articular mobility for a respiratory mechanism.’
Sutherland was shocked. In the 27 years of his life, he had never had such an experience, the opening of the inner ear. He later described how this insight ‘Struck me with terrific force.’ He did not know what to do with this visionary experience, so he simply did his best to ignore it.
After graduating, Sutherland found himself strangely haunted by the experience. He tried to dismiss it, but it stayed with him. ‘Forget it, you chump,’ he told himself, fruitlessly.
In the fifth year of practice, he could suppress his curiosity no longer, and pried apart a human skull with his penknife. It was a mark of his tactile skill that he did not break a single bone. He began to contemplate this jigsaw puzzle of parts. He kept this endeavor to himself, fearful of ridicule. He did not even tell his wife about his ‘wild ideas.’
On another occasion, by using leather straps around his head, he managed to stop all movement in both of his temporal bones. He noted with professional candor that he underwent ‘personality changes.’ His wife Adah noted that ‘Such a strange sense of reality occurred that even when discussing it many years later, a shadow of the same altered reality again entered his consciousness.’
In 1925, with much trepidation and self-doubt, Sutherland gave his first cranial osteopathy lecture. In 1929 Sutherland sent his first article to the American Osteopathic Association. It was published that year. He would never think of turning back again.
In 1931, Sutherland wrote, ‘Believe it or not, visionary though they may seem, (my article) ‘Skull Notions’ present a few fundamental truths.’ Then he added a little later, uncomfortable with being labeled ‘only’ a mystic and not also a scientist, ‘Visionary? Yes! Also, No!
Sutherlands short, poignant and masterful book, 'The Cranial Bowl' was published in 1939. In it Sutherland wrote about an experiment upon himself that amounted to nothing less than advanced Raja Yoga. He was fond of saying, “Some of us do not have to go to sleep to see visions.”
In January 1953 that he lectured at his old College in Kirksville on the importance of light, of light upon the waters, of liquid light, and of how the breath of life is similar to sheet lightning, lighting up the clouds but not touching them. In that same lecture he honored his teacher, Still, with the following words: “He could look right through you and see things, and tell you things, without even putting a hand upon the body. I have seen him do that! Time and time again.” Sutherland died in 1954, in his eighty-second year. Sutherland brought cranial osteopathy to the world. His "crazy thought" unfolded into a gift of healing. His was an enormous contribution. Modest to the end, Sutherland summed up his work thus: ‘All I have done is pull aside a curtain for further vision.’
Now you know the sacred is everywhere.
Now you know the miniature is inside you.
You find the essence if you can find
The gift moment that has all of it inside—
A deeply felt, fully breathed life
Thich Nhat Hanh