Cranio-Sacral Therapy: An Intelligent Touch

Photography:  Graceie  Words:  Luke O'Sullivan  

Photography: Graceie
Words: Luke O'Sullivan 

What happens in a cranio-sacral therapy session?

In a way, nothing: you lie on the table, clothes on, and the practitioner maintains the lightest and stillest of contacts with you – so light and so still you may not even feel it, and even if you do, you will probably soon forget it’s there.

In another way, everything happens: when you connect with a skilled person who can feel the different rhythms and patterns going on inside you, including the pulse of the cranio-sacral fluid itself and the wave it sets up through your whole body, your whole system can open up and start to adjust itself. This is the power of being rather than doing!

The changes a good practitioner can facilitate – because in the end, it’s you who does the work – can be profound. It’s like triggering our natural self-healing processes: stiff muscles let go, over-excited nerves and organs find a calmer way of being, even negative emotions start to drain away. A profound sense of being in tune with the world can take hold.

We are not separate. That is the fundamental insight of cranio-sacral therapy. Connecting to others is a vital source of well-being.

Does it really work?

It’s very easy to find sceptics who will tell you that cranio-sacral therapy is all quackery and nonsense (just Google it!), but it comes from osteopathy and the theory is rooted firmly in anatomy. Everyone agrees that the motion of cerebrospinal fluid in the body is essential to the proper functioning of the brain and the nervous system.

What is still disputed, and not medically well understood, is how someone can establish a relationship with this movement in another person, or why doing so can have such powerful effects on our wellbeing. But research on the power of touch is a rapidly growing field. It’s the first of our senses to develop in the womb, and can be exquisitely sensitive: we can feel movements as small as 0.00001 millimeters![1] Someone who has developed their sense of touch to a high level can become intensely aware of what’s going on inside another person. 

How will it make me feel?

The commonest reaction to a cranio-sacral therapy is deep relaxation. But you may feel that it enhances your mood, makes you feel happier, and even that it gives you a natural high that can linger for days – all just from someone gently holding you. It’s been suggested that a cranio-sacral therapy session stimulates the endo-cannabinoid receptors in the brain, which are the same nerve-endings that the active ingredients of marijuana connect to![2]

You may also become much more aware of what’s happening in your own body. Many people find they store negative emotions in a certain region of their bodies: the gut is a favourite place for many of us. That’s where two-thirds of our immune system is located, and it’s constantly flowing and pumping.[3] If that rhythm is disturbed, our health will suffer in various ways.

Again, the idea that constant stress in our lives can have a negative effect on our gut is accepted medical fact. The brain and the gut are connected by the vagus nerve, one of the largest nerves in the body. There’s simply no medical doubt about the fact that the functioning of this nerve is crucial for our own feelings of well-being. If it’s not working well, that can be reflected in feelings of depression and anxiety.[4] A good cranio-sacral therapist can in effect, give our nervous system 'permission' to restore itself to a more balanced state.

As this happens you can start to tune into your own rhythms, not just in the gut but throughout the body. The breathing and blood are very obvious, but the cranio-sacral rhythm is more subtle. When you feel it, it’s like little waves of pleasure passing through you. You feel a sense of life and vitality that cannot really be described, only experienced.

At the sacrum, the base of the spine, you may even feel this movement taking on a circular, whirlpool-like, quality. This area has long been recognized in Indian tradition as a region of fundamental concentration of the body’s energies. It is the source of the mysterious kundalini energy harnessed in some of the more esoteric schools of yoga. It is interesting to note that the experience of this energy has also been connected, on a physiological level, with nothing other than – the vagus nerve![5]

But will it do me any good?

One thing to be very clear about is that cranio-sacral therapy is not a magic bullet or miracle cure for anything. If you have a chronic condition or serious disease, consult your doctor. But as a complement to medical treatment, or as a means of keeping your body in tune while dealing with life’s stresses and strains and its aches and pains, it’s well worth exploring. Because of the attunement that needs to occur in a session between client and practitioner, it’s also useful to try seeing more than one therapist. Just as we all get along with some people better than others in daily life, you may well find one person can make a connection with your system that another therapist can’t, or that you get different kinds of benefits from seeing different therapists.

Some people respond to cranio-sacral therapy much better than others, just as different people respond to exactly the same drug in very different ways. It may also require some patience for the full benefits to become apparent i.e. a single session may not be life-changing. But if you’ve never tried it before, and are looking for something different, it could just turn out to be the thing that works for you.

[1] D.J. Linden, Touch The Science of the Sense that Makes Us Human (London: Penguin, 2016), 26, 45.

[2] J. McPartland et al., ‘Cannabimimetic Effects of Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment’

 The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association (2005), 105:6, 283–91.

[3] G. Enders, Gut the inside story of our body’s most under-rated organ (London: Scribe Publications, 2016), 3, 124–5.

[4] Enders, op. cit., 120.

[5] V.G. Rele, The Mysterious Kundalini The Physical Basis of the “Kundali (Hatha) Yoga” in Terms of Western Anatomy and Physiology, 3rd edn (Bombay: D.T. Taraporevala Sons & Co., 1931), Ch. V.

Luke O'Sullivan has a Diploma in Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy from Body Intelligence Training. He discovered craniosacral therapy through training in the traditional Japanese martial art of aikido which he has been practising since 1995; he was so intrigued by the experience of receiving treatment that he ended up studying it himself. Have a question about Craniosacral Therapy for Luke O'Sullivan? Email us at and we'll get your question to him.