I have read many introductions to Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy (BCST), participated in hundreds of conversations on the topic, and have been confronted about the “quackery” of BCST from a scientific standpoint. I agree, it is hard to understand what is Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy and how it works based on how my own field tries to explain it.
In studying traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and attending seminars and talks given by medical doctors who are acupuncturists and have decided to lecture on acupuncture to non-TCM health practitioners (some names include Dr. Nadia Volf, Dr. Leslie Smith, and Dr. David Miller), I have realized that the main issue that leads to misunderstanding of the alternative medicine field is communication.
As the western medical paradigm uses a certain language and methodology to explain the physiological cascade leading to illness or health, traditional Chinese medicine and biodynamic craniosacral therapy also use completely different languages and methodologies based on completely different medical traditions and paradigms.
Therefore when, for example, TCM tries to explain itself to the western medical world it often translates as being nonsensical and unscientific because of the language barrier. It’s like an American going to China and trying to ask for a sandwich in English. Not only is English not the main language in China, but sandwiches are also not a staple of the Chinese diet.
With this in mind, I have tried to develop an explanation of BCST that would also make sense from a western medical paradigm. The explanation, therefore, begins with explaining a part of the nervous system, specifically the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and its two branches: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic.
The ANS functions at the subconscious level to maintain homeostatic vital functions. It’s in charge of most organ functions that keep us alive moment to moment that we never have to think or worry about.
Some examples are blood pressure, blood flow, body temperature, breathing, and digesting and eliminating food.
(RELATED: How Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy May Benefit Pain Conditions.)
The ANS has two divisions: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic emerges from the middle part of the spine spanning from the level of the shoulders to the level of the belly button and is responsible for what is called the “fight-or-flight” state.
If there is a bear chasing you, you’re running fast, furiously, efficiently, and effectively thanks to your sympathetic nervous system.
The parasympathetic is its counterpart.
It’s often called the “rest-and-digest” state. It emerges from parts of the brainstem and parts of the sacrum (your “tailbone”).
It is responsible for replenishing resources and repairing any part of the body that has suffered during the day, which includes any stress that has burdened the body in some way.
Ideally, these two divisions of the ANS balance each other out. For every stressful experience that activates the sympathetic nervous system, there should be an equal amount of downtime for the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in and repair the damage.
Unfortunately often our modern world does not afford us that time. So the nervous system (NS) has to prioritize what is important to deal with immediately and what can wait to be dealt with in another moment.
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The priority list is as follows:
1. Your vital functions. It’s fundamental that your heart keeps beating, that you take in oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide efficiently, and that your kidneys filters your blood, etc. Nothing takes priority over maintaining vital functions.
2. What you subject your nervous system to. If you are running to work, your nervous system has to adapt by making sure your body can keep up with the demands you are putting on it in the moment. If it didn’t, you’d likely pass out in the middle of the street because your cells would not be getting enough oxygen (one of the many things that would go wrong if your nervous system didn’t pay attention to the increase in metabolic demands placed on it as you raced to work).
3. Your emotions. If you’re angry, your nervous system has to accommodate for the increase in heat and metabolic needs that are required to be angry. If you’re depressed, your nervous system has to accommodate to the decrease in oxygen because you are breathing not as deeply as you usually do. Less oxygen = less energy.
4. Your past injuries, both physical and emotional. Sadly, last on the list are all the things that happened in the past. So anything that is not happening right now is included in “the past.” Your nervous system gives priority always to what is happening right now. If it’s not happening now and you are in a state of stress, it will be stored and addressed later.
The only problem with this beautifully designed system is that the system is organized around the idea that there will be downtime every day to address the stressors that have been stored.
If there is no downtime, past injuries continue to be stored long term in the tissues of the body. And, as you can imagine, there is a limit to how much can be stored in the tissues before damage starts to manifest as a consequence of storing.
Bear in mind that the body is always oriented toward health and does its best to keep you functioning at your most optimal state with the conditions it is presented with.
So if you are stressed or ill, it is still oriented toward optimal functioning and health within the parameters and resources available to it, even though from your perspective your body is not working as well as it “should” or “use to.”
Before I address what biodynamic craniosacral therapy is, I have to address one more component of the ANS and the sympathetic and parasympathetic states.
The function of the central nervous system (CNS) in general is to keep you alive. Included in this is a built-in ability to sense and judge danger vs. safety.
When you are in danger your sympathetic nervous system turns on and you prepare to either fight or run away. When you are safe, you can rest and so your sympathetic nervous system turn off and the parasympathetic nervous system turns on.
How do you know if you are safe or in danger?
If you think about it for a second, it’s not entirely obvious all the time. There often isn’t a clear sign that says you are in danger or you are safe. You could be taking the same route to work that you’ve taken a hundred times before and you suddenly feel like something’s not quite right. Within a couple of seconds from out of nowhere a car slams into your car.
Where did that feeling come from and what part of you was aware of the incoming danger?
The feeling came from your nervous system, and it was your nervous system that was aware of the incoming danger.
The nervous system evaluates itself and its external environment every 1/100 of a second.
It does this for two reasons: first, to make sure all systems are functioning and performing as they should on the inside of the body and second, to be sure that it (you) is safe.
Back, a long time ago, when we had to worry about being attacked by other creatures in nature, our nervous system was the “sixth sense” that kept us well informed of when it was time to start running.
So what is biodynamic craniosacral therapy?
Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy (BCST) is a healing modality that takes your body out of the sympathetic state and into the parasympathetic state. The transition from fight-flight to rest-digest is imperative to healing. Without that transition, the body is unable to go from maintenance mode to repair mode and therefore is unable to heal. When you are ill you are resting and sleeping all the time because that is the only state that will allow for healing to happen.
(NOTE: Are you the Chicago area? Get acupuncture and craniosacral therapy with Samantha Lotti in Oak Park, IL.)
How does a biodynamic craniosacral therapist take the body from the sympathetic state to the parasympathetic?
Since the nervous system of every living thing is built to detect what is going on in its external environment, it is also able to detect other nervous systems nearby.
Biodynamic Craniosacral therapists are trained to put their own nervous system into the parasympathetic state and maintain that state at will.
The client’s nervous system, inherently evaluating the state of the practitioner’s nervous system due to proximity, will eventually begin to copy the practitioner’s nervous system.
An easy way of explaining how this is possible is by comparing it to how our mood changes when we are around happy, sad, or angry people. If we are in the presence of a sad person, we find ourselves feeling a little sad after a while. If we are around a happy person their happiness is often “contagious” and we will leave them feeling good. If you are near another person who is calm (in the parasympathetic state), you too will feel calm despite having had a stressful day.
I often get asked how it is possible to have such deep healing happen when I sit next to my clients and seemingly “do nothing.”
The answer is in the subtle mechanisms of the nervous system. No manipulation or deep pressure is necessary when you tap into the parasympathetic state and afford the body the time and space it needs to start repairing the damage that has built up over weeks, months or decades.
Biodynamic craniosacral therapy is not esoteric. It is based on the principals of physiology.
The misunderstanding, I believe, comes from the language barrier between healing modalities, not from disagreement on the principals and requirements necessary for healing to happen in the body.
McEwen, Bruce S., and Lasley, Elizabeth N. The End of Stress As We Know It. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press, 2002.
McPartland, John M., and Skinner, Evelyn. The Biodynamic Model of Osteopathy in the Cranial Field. Explore 1.1 (2005): 21-32.
Porth, Carol M., and Matfin, Glenn. Pathophysiology: Concepts of Altered Health States. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2009.
Shea, Michael J. Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy Vol. 1. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2007.
Image Credits: Blausen Gallery | William Crochot
Author: Samantha Lotti
Samantha Lotti is the founder of Biodynamic Health and creator of Body Compassing. She is a certified and registered Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapist (BCST, RCST®), licensed acupuncturist (L.Ac.) and board certified herbalist in Oak Park, Illinois. A personal back injury brought Samantha to biodynamic craniosacral therapy and ignited her interest in a variety of healing modalities.
Hi Samantha, thanks so much for writing! There is a new understanding of the symp/parasympathetic world — Stephen Porges’ polyvagal system… that includes splitting the parasympathetic up into dorsal and ventral aspects. The dorsal parasympathetic is involved in deep relaxation, but also the freeze response. The ventral contains social engagement (for more on this see Dan Siegel) — the healing caring and love between client and practitioner. One difficulty I’ve had with BCST (as a practitioner and client) is the lack of verbal interaction in sessions. It can spark disconnection, freeze states, and more. I became a practitioner of Somatic Experiencing (a primarily verbal trauma resolution therapy), and now have created Alchemical Alignment to address this point. I’m in love with teaching practitioners verbal skills to employ throughout the session, as well as this polyvagal understanding, so they can track the NS of the client — its dysregulation in their stories and symptoms, and then, through BCST skills and appropriate verbal interaction regarding fight, flight, freeze and the felt sense of health, its reregulation. best to you, Brigit
Hi Brigit, thank you for your feedback. You are absolutely correct. The explanation that I gave of the ANS and PSNS/SNS is just the tip of the iceberg. My intention was to keep it as simple as possible so that anyone could read the post and make sense of it to some degree. I definitely think the two aspects you are bringing up are fundamental in the work as well. My decision to not include those elements was in an effort to keep my explanation as basic as possible. Thank you again for your input. Very helpful. All the best, Samantha.
Please explain in brief, what kind of craniosacral-therapy, you people give to the patient. I am still confuse, way you treat people, is it manupulation of skull or pressure pint of the skull or some thing different. please explain in brief.
Hello Rekhesh, thank you for your comment. In biodynamic craniosacral therapy we place our hands on the body, either above or below, in points that are often associated with the development of the body from an embryonic perspective. It looks like a laying on of hands because we do not do any manipulations. The hand placements however are targeted to address the dynamic of the tension in the fluids present in the nervous system. As I spoke about above, the core of BCST lies in being able synchronize with the parasympathetic state at will and hold that state so that the client’s nervous system can imitate the practitioner’s nervous system and begin the process of deep healing. Kind regards, Samantha.
I meant to emphasize that I appreciate your post a lot, and love that you are writing this blog! Thanks.
Thank you for the simplicity of this article – as a craniosacral therapist it is always really helpful to read explanations which are clear and understandable from a ‘laymans’ perspective.
Thank you for your feedback. Simplify cranio work down to the basics is the only way I’ve found to explain BCST adequately to my clients and the general public.
Thank you, Brigit! I really appreciate your support!
I love this explanation, thanks for taking the time to write it.
Thank you! I’m really glad that you enjoyed my physiological explanation of BCST.
Hello I am jenny. I also practise CST. Thank you for the clear writing and explanation of BCST. Sometimes I use the ANS (PNS & SNS) when I am with medical/paramedical people who are skeptical of BCST which indeed they attach an esoteric connotation. And I can sense their questioning . Again Thank you, I shall share and hopefully get less questioning.
Hi Jenny. Thank you for your comment. I’ve found that if I can ground BCST work in the ANS for western-based medical practitioners, the conversation is more productive. I’m glad to hear you use the same approach. Hopefully by using their language to describe what’s happening in BCST they will have better insight into what we do and why it is beneficial.
Sometimes I link the Endocrine system to the Parasympathetic NS. Homeostasis…
Can you elaborate on your comment? I’d be interested to hear more.
Loved the information
The article is really interesting. I have been studying TCM for years and ths provides some good parallels and links. Always inspiring us Samantha. Thank you
Thank you, Paolo for your comment. I’m glad that explaining BCST from a physiological standpoint was of interest to you. I find it much easier to explain if I use physiology as the basis of my explanation.
Hi Samantha! love ur website. Curious to hear ur thoughts on New Medicine by Dr. Reek Geerd Hamer. I am a Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapist and find that it articulates well in the inherent gaps of our practice has when it comes to sustaining the concept of health in the face of the most violent of illnesses.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Keep up the good work :)) it nurtures alternative thinkers and skeptics alike
Hi Noemy, Thank you for your comment and support! I actually have not read New Medicine, but I will add it to my reading list. When I’ve read it, I’ll get back in touch with you and we can exchange thoughts. Thank you for the suggestion!
That was a wonderful explanation. Please clarify the difference between BCST and Reiki. Are you familiar with MdDS (disembarkment syndrome)?
Hi Lanise, Thank you for your comment. I can’t explain the difference between BCST and Reiki because I don’t know anything about Reiki. I also am not familiar with MdDS. I’ll have to look into it. I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful, but I appreciate your consideration!
Great article and explanation here, many thanks. And as someone above mentioned, Stephen Porges’ book on Polyvagal theory is also wonderful!
Hi Axis. Thank you so much! Yes, Porges’ theory is quite wonderful. I saw him speak in person recently. Very inspiring!