What Happens In A Craniosacral Therapy Session?

I get asked this question often, along with, “what exactly IS craniosacral?”  “Head massage?”  “It’s a set routine of techniques, right?”  And, “what are the 5 grams of pressure?”  There are a few misconceptions out there that I’d like to offer a little insight toward and in doing so, answer some of these common questions.
First off, Craniosacral treats THE ENTIRE BODY.  Not just “head massage”  🙂  We work with any and every part of the body, from head to foot, including the cranial bones and sacrum of course, but also the expansive fascial network (this extends throughout the entire body, all the way down to the cell walls), bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, ORGANS, sometimes the brain itself and surrounding structures such as the dural tube, nerves, and even specific cell types.  (This June I will be beginning coursework in Craniosacral for the Immune System where we will be specifically working with cells of the immune system.  This work will be especially beneficial for anyone dealing with autoimmune disorders such as MS, lupus, or IBS/leaky gut syndrome — stay tuned for upcoming news!)
With that said, a craniosacral session will look different every time, depending on the day, the therapist, the client, what you had for breakfast, how you’re feeling emotionally — there are many many factors that come into play!  But almost always, I begin at the head or feet, and feel how thecraniosacral rhythm is moving in the body.  Since the rhythm can be felt anywhere in the body, we check in at various listening stations that may include the feet, knees, hips, ribs, shoulders as well as within specific cranial/facial bones like the sphenoid, temporal bones, occiput, maxilla, mandible, etc.
cranio02After noting where the rhythm is moving smoothly and balanced and where it may be quieter, not palpable at all, erratic or unbalanced, I then move on to a full body assessment to locate specific areas of erratic energy — called energy cysts.  We all hold energy cysts that may have originated from past traumas (emotional, physical, mental, etc.) that become embedded in the layers of our tissue’s memory.  Some traumas we can easily recall: a car accident, an unexpected or unwanted surgery, or perhaps falling off the monkey bars as a child, while other traumas may not live in the conscious memory.  As a mechanism of self-protection, some memories of traumatic experience can get “stored” in the tissue and non-conscious memory, creating an energy cyst or restriction that prevents free movement of fluid, structures, and tissues.  All of our life experiences big and small make up our fabric and influence how we move through the world.  Depending on the circumstances, “small” events can make an imprint and perhaps contribute to the formation of an energy cyst.  It could be something minor like stubbing your toe, receiving a not so nice swipe from your family cat, or getting lost in the grocery store as a kid.  (I did that a lot, and not knowing where your parents are as a four year old is quite scary!!)  So, while these are just examples, it gives an idea of the many many ways we have absorbed and integrated our experiences in life.  Determining what area is most important to be worked on and released is up to the patient and what their body is willing to show the therapist on a particular given day.
When we begin treating, I typically will place my hands on the patient’s body around the location of the energy cyst.  Because these can live quite deeply in the body, often one hand will be on the posterior side, with another hand on top on the front side of the body to fully surround the cyst with three dimensional presence.  I begin with tuning in and a light touch.  As I gently engage, the tissue may begin to move or draw me in to a certain depth.  I follow these movements, maintaining an intention of allowing the body to lead me.  My work is more of a “facilitator” than “doer.”  Here I would like to clarify that while 5 grams of pressure (or the weight of a nickel) is the amount of “force” utilized for treatment, that amount of pressure is applied at the depth of the energy cyst.  So if the cyst is relatively close to the surface of the skin, it will feel like 5 grams of pressure.  But if the cyst is very far deep into, say, the small intestine, we must first descend to the level of the cyst, and THEN add the 5 grams of pressure.  Sometimes this may feel like more than the light touch commonly associated with craniosacral therapy, but the approach is still the same:  a light touch is applied at the level of where treatment is needed.
Throughout the session there may be many moments of quiet stillness, or a deep dropping in as the tissue reorganizes and re-calibrates with the work.  For this reason, I don’t play music during a session as it can be distracting and take the client out of their process.  If the client prefers, we may use a white noise machine to neutralize sound from outside the treatment space.  And as much as we encounter deep quiet and stillness, other times the body may move, unwinding from the core outward.  We see small subtle patterns and undulations of movement to wide expansive unwindings of the arms, legs, head, or entire spine.  As the therapist, my hands will match the quality of movement or stillness within the body.  The contact may be light fingertips when working with cranial bones, or broad touch with the full palm when unwinding the wide areas of transverse fascia in the 5 primary diaphragm releases.
As there are many techniques to draw from, the complete session is often an unpredictable set of technique, connection (we like to say “blend and meld”) and intuition, guided by the Inner Physician, that determines the course of the session.  Many folks are familiar with the 10-step protocol (a series of techniques that treats the major structures of the craniosacral system) that was developed by Dr. John Upledger, as an excellent teaching tool for practitioners new to craniosacral therapy.  As our practice deepens and skills refine, the protocols give way to a deeper connection with the Inner Physician, allowing for an intuitive and creative process for healing.  I personally always like to use a few opening techniques such as creating a still point, releasing the occiput from the atlas and sphenoid, opening the thoracic inlet diaphragm and gently following the neck to find out how it wants to unwind.  In my practice I’ve found these elements help the patient drop into their own healing space and awareness.  From there we move toward the energy cyst work described above, and everything else is grand beautiful mystery waiting to unfold!

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