Craniosacral Stillness

In 1899 William Garner Sutherland was studying osteopathy at the school of its founder Andrew Taylor Still. Sutherland was struck by the thought that perhaps the cranial bones did not fuse, as was generally believed, but remained forever mobile at the sutures. From then until the late 1920’s he proved this to be so through experiments on his own head and developed a system for the application of osteopathic technique to the cranial bones.

In the early 1930’s Sutherland turned his attention from the cranial bones to the dural membranes within the skull. He perceived a continuity of the membranes from where within the skull they contain and support the brain, down to the sacrum as the dural sheath surrounding and protecting the spinal cord. He described this membrane envelope as ‘tadpole like’ and named it the ‘core link’.

In the late 1930’s Sutherland’s attention was drawn to a palpable tidal movement expressed by the cerebrospinal fluid surrounding and supporting the central nervous system within the core link. In order to explain this phenomenon he developed the theory of a ‘primary respiratory mechanism’. This theory suggests that the living body expresses inhalation and exhalation as waves of movement throughout its fluids. Primary respiration begins during the development of the fetus, long before the lungs are ready to breathe.

Sutherland’s theory of a primary respiratory mechanism was ultimately based on five palpable phenomena which, collectively, he called the cranial rhythmic impulse. These phenomena are:

  1. The brain and the spinal cord exhibit an inherent movement. In the spinal cord this movement is expressed as a snake-like wave of flexion and extension travelling its length. In the brain this movement combines flexion and extension with a widening and narrowing across the ventricles.
  2. Cerebrospinal fluid flows towards the head during the inhalation phase of primary respiration and ebbs towards to sacrum during the exhalation phase.
  3. The membranes inside the skull and spinal column move in response to the tide-like ebb and flow of cerebrospinal fluid and the wave-like movement of the central nervous system.
  4. The bones of the cranium accommodate and respond to these tidal movements through articulation at their sutures.
  5. The sacrum responds to these tides of inhalation and exhalation through an involuntary movement of flexion and extension between the ilia of the pelvis.

Sutherland originally thought that contractions and dilations of the ventricles within the brain were the source of the tidal movement through the cerebrospinal fluid which, in turn, generated all the other motions of the cranial rhythmic impulse. However, in 1943 he described the ‘breath of life’, which he sensed as an external force generating all the movements of cranial rhythmic impulse within the body. Sutherland’s choice of term was no accident. As a Christian it was natural for him to acknowledge God’s presence as the creative force of nature.

In the last years of his life Sutherland abandoned his classical osteopathic techniques altogether and started to work directly with the healing power of the breath of life expressed throughout the fluids of the body as an ordering force that he called ‘potency’ (McPartland & Skinner 2005, 24).

After his death in 1957, Sutherland’s students Rollin Becker and Robert Fulford continued to develop this approach to osteopathy in the cranial field. James Jealous, another osteopath, augmented the work with Eric Blechschmidt’s biodynamic theories of embryological development. Blechschmidt suggests that an external force creates the spatial orientation within which the fluids of the embryo organise. This generates an ordering matrix that governs the further development of the embryo.

For Jealous and his colleagues this external force is that same breath of life to which Sutherland referred (McPartland & Skinner 2005, 27).

Breath of life is, at its simplest, the Western equivalent of Indian prana, Chinese qi and Tibetan rlung. Of course none of these ancient concepts is quite that simple and neither was Sutherland’s. Breath of life came to be described in terms of interweaving rhythms. One of these rhythms is known as the ‘tide’ or the ‘long tide’. Franklyn Sills, a pioneer in the field of craniosacral biodynamics, refers to the long tide as ‘an expression of the intention of the breath of life to create a human being’. He says that the long tide can be perceived as ‘a direct organising intention within and around the patient’ (Sills 2001 p 418).

Sills describes how, during the development of the embryo, the long tide generates two midlines within the neural tube. One of these, the anterior notochord midline, remains in the fully developed human body as a force that can be sensed as rising through the centre of the vertebral bodies of the spine. The other midline, the posterior fluid midline, it is to be found in the fully developed body in the central canal of the spinal cord and within the ventricle system of the brain (Sills 2004). This is perhaps the location of sushumna-nadi described by the yogis, a thread of cerebrospinal fluid and life force at the very core of our physical body.

The long tide that generates this midline remains present throughout the life of the body as potency, expressed in a tidal ebb and flow of 100 second cycles. This is the frequency of the breath of life. This is the health at the core of every living system. The force that creates the organising matrix in which the embryo develops becomes the force of healing that remains present throughout the life of the body.

Another rhythm, referred to as the ‘mid-tide’ is expressed in 24 second cycles. Sills says that when the practitioner senses the mid-tide within the patient, ‘potency, fluids and tissues can be clearly perceived to be a unity, or a unit of function’ (Sills 2001 p 38). The mid-tide is the rhythm of the fluid body moved by the potency of the breath of life. This movement is primary respiration. The fluid body is breathing with an inhalation of 12 seconds and an exhalation of 12 seconds.

Some osteopaths describe sensing a force with a cycle even slower then the long tide. This force expresses a 300 second cycle of inhalation and exhalation (McPartland & Skinner 2005, 24). These interwoven rhythms are perhaps a modern description of the phenomena described by the yogis.

According to the yogis, Brahma-nadi resides within citrini-nadi within vajra-nadi within sushumna-nadi. If sushumna-nadi is the thread of cerebrospinal fluid in the core of our central nervous system then perhaps vajra-nadi, citrini-nadi and Brahma-nadi are the interweaving rhythms now being described in osteopathy and craniosacral therapy. If this is so, then it is no surprise that anatomically they make little sense.

Their value only emerges with the appreciation that the practitioner, whether of yoga, of meditation, of craniosacral work, of massage and probably of life in general must work to develop the openness and subtle sensitivity necessary to perceive these rhythms. Perhaps it is for this reason that all traditional meditation practices begin with sensation and relaxation of the body.

During the 1950’s, Lizelle Reymond spent four years in North India studying Samkhya Yoga with Sri Anirvan, a Baul Master. She says, ‘All spiritual experiences are sensations in the body. They are simply a graded series of sensations, beginning with the solidity of a clod of earth and passing gradually, in full consciousness, through liquidness and the emanation of heat to that of a total vibration before reaching the Void.’ (Reymond 1995).


  1. McPartland JM & Skinner E The Biodynamic Model of Osteopathy in the Cranial Field. EXPLORE 2005; 1 (1)
  2. Motoyama H 2003 Theories of the Chakras. New Age Books, New Delhi
  3. Reymond, Lizelle 1993. To Live Within: A woman’s spiritual pilgrimage in an Himalayan hermitage. Rudra Press, Portland, p 231
  4. Sills F 2001 Craniosacral Biodynamics Vol 1. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, p 418
  5. Sills F 2004 Craniosacral Biodynamics Vol 2. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley,  p 19

From: Howard Evans 2009 A Myofascial Approach to Thai Massage. Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh