My most recent guest on The Craniosacral Podcast, Episode 22, was Thomas Walker. I’m happy to offer you a sample of his writing on the blog today. I just love how concise and readable this article is about Sutherland’s journey into deep fluidity. Enjoy!
Bones to fluids: A Path to Understanding Wholeness
Thomas Walker, Certified Advanced RolferTM and Rolf Movement® Practitioner
The human egg is 99% fluid and 1% genetic material. Science tells us that 70% or more of the adult body is fluid. Yet, when we touch our clients, we primarily relate to the solid pieces, the bones, muscles, fascia, etc., which make up the 30%. There are a vast number of textbooks written about the 30%. We study, memorize and often describe the changes we see in our clients as the 30%. We are missing much in not learning to actively address the 70%, which is a component of the “fluid body.”
In this introduction to the “fluid body” I will discuss the importance of direct interaction with the “fluid body” and the potential of this interaction to greatly enhance our goals for structural integration (SI). This intro is based on my experience, and the related concepts as I understand them at this time, in my practice. The evolution of the concept of the fluid body has its origins with the discoveries of Dr. Sutherland, D.O., who built on the foundations of the founder of osteopathy, Dr. A.T. Still.
Dr. Sutherland spent fifty years patiently exploring the subtle movements within the body. At the end of his journey, his ability to interact directly with what has become known as the “fluid body” has contributed greatly to the understanding of healing and wholeness in the osteopathic profession. This article is a broad overview of how this understanding can contribute to our own Rolfing® SI paradigm by understanding how the “fluid system” not only is critical in the development in the embryo but also in the organization, function, delivery of resources and maintenance of structure in the adult.
Generally, we believe that changes in the structure occur from the outside inward, through our intention and our focused, vectorized touch. We want the fascial interfaces to be more slippery. We want the dried out scar tissue to become more pliable and soft. We want dense places to soften and let go. We seek for and perceive changes. We look for continuity within the structure.
We do three things in structural integration: hydrate, differentiate/de-rotate, and integrate. The first, hydration, is what we feel when tissues change. We feel the tissue soften and become “gushier.” We describe movements as becoming more fluid. There have been different explanations as to why this happens, i.e., pressure, heat or piezoelectricity. Whatever the cause, as the tissues take on a more fluid quality, differentiation and de-rotation happen spontaneously, or at least become more easily coaxed from the tissues.
Though we value the goal of hydration, we don’t study the fluid system, the 70%! We are taught that our interventions within the 30% allow the 70% to emerge. We call this integration – to combine one thing with another so that they become a whole. By this definition it must be wholeness that emerges. Does this imply that a hydrated body is whole and integrated? Could it be that fluids are the vehicle for integration and wholeness? If this is true, could it be that relating directly with Wholeness will greatly increase the effectiveness of our work?
Sickness is in effect caused by the stoppage of some supply of fluid or quality of life. The object of any physician is to find Health. Anyone can find disease.1
Dr. A.T. Still, D.O.
If the body is 70% fluids, does this mean that integration and wholeness are already and always present? If the whole is always present in our clients do we not recognize it because we don’t know how to perceive it, we don’t know how to evoke it, or make space for it, or support it as a partner in our work? If we follow Dr. Sutherland’s path of discovery and development of the cranial concept, we will gain insight into the answers to these questions.
Dr. Sutherland began his discoveries leading to the cranial concept in 1899 while examining a temporal bone. Its beveled edges reminded him of fish gills and he surmised that the temporals must be part of a respiratory system. He also noticed that the bones of the cranium moved independently of each other and realized that abnormal relationships between the bones produced certain symptoms in his patients. By manually balancing the bones, these symptoms would disappear. He developed specific techniques that could be used to free the articulations (sutures) allowing the bones to express very slight yet important movements. When these movements normalized, physiology of the whole body could be improved.
In the early 1930s he then shifted his focus to the dura and its bi-laminar in-foldings which form the tentoria and the falx. Collectively, he termed these dural in-foldings as the reciprocal tension membrane (RTM), and described how its coiling and uncoiling motion determine the motion of the bones of the skull. Dr. Sutherland began to notice that the continuity of the RTM from cranium to sacrum resulted in whole body responses to its movements.
Several years later, Sutherland shifted his focus to the fluctuation of the cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) driven by what he termed the primary respiratory mechanism (PRM). He described the CSF as circulating down and around the spinal cord in a rhythmically pulsatile and spiral fashion. Many practitioners have perceived this movement and refer to the pulsation as the cranial rhythmic impulse (CRI) which has a palpable rate of 6-12 cycles per minute.
Focusing on the bones, the dura (RTM) and the CRI is the main approach utilized by many osteopaths, of which Dr. John Upledger, D.O. is the most well known, and lay practitioners today. However, Dr. Sutherland moved on. He began to notice that there was a fluid fluctuation ascending and descending from the sacrum to the cranium at a tempo of about 2.5 cycles per minute. This movement, seemingly outside of and yet inclusive of the anatomy, is palpable throughout the body.
In the final years of his life, Dr Sutherland described the motion of the PRM as being generated by external forces. He sensed his patients being moved by an external, ubiquitous force which he called the “Breath of Life” (BoL). Sutherland perceived the BoL as an incarnate process, inherent in every living being. It passes through the patient’s body and the practitioner’s hands undiminished, generating a sense of the whole fluid body breathing at a constant tempo of 50 seconds of inhale and 50 seconds of exhale. Because of this “breathing” sensation, he called the tempo Primary Respiration (PR) and spoke of his patients as if they were part of a sea of waves, moving rhythmically while a deeper tide moved through them.
Dr. Sutherland reasoned that the different polyrhythmic tempos he had been describing through the years were in fact created by the BoL as it passes through the various layers (all 100%) of the body. Thus the Long Tide (6 cycles per 10 minutes), the Mid Tide (2.5 cycles per minute) and the CRI (6–12 cycles per minute) are all manifestations of the BoL.
Innate wisdom isn’t in the body but passes through the body.2
Dr. Jim Jealous, D.O.
The Long Tide is not affected by the central nervous systems or by external forces. It has been present in each of us since before the moment of our conception. It is an inherent rhythm. Sutherland compared the BoL to the cyclic sweeping of a lighthouse beam which lights up the ocean, but does not touch it. It sweeps through the patient stimulating the inherent healing forces already and always present in the fluids. From these revelations the concept of the “fluid body” emerged, in which the whole body can be perceived as a single unit of living substance – a whole.
Healing comes about when our disease is brought into proper relationship with our health. This is a process of bringing fragmented parts of ourselves back into relationship with the whole and with the deeper healing forces carried in primary respiratory motion.3
Dr. Michael Kern, D.O.
To summarize, Dr. Sutherland’s studies began with bones, progressed to the fascia (dura), on to the CSF and then to the entire fluid field. This progression is important to know for our own profession since what we touch every day in our work includes all the elements he described. As he deepened into his experiences he sensed the entire fluid nature of the body, its tempos, fluctuations and qualities, as well as its responses to the all pervading animating force of the BoL.
A successful response from the cerebrospinal fluid . . . is an intensified interchange between all of the fluids of the body. . . It is definitely evident that the reaction is systemic and includes the whole body even into the bones.4
Dr. Anne Wales, D.O.
Dr. Sutherland perceived the fluids as the organizing and healing mechanism which delivers “life” and animates the whole body. By interacting with the fluids, profound healing can occur throughout the whole body. He sensed a fluid continuum, containing no anatomy, from within the skin to outside the physical body.
There are three major models of the cranial concept derived from Dr. Sutherland’s perceptions. The terms soma, fluid body, and tidal body have evolved to describe these three models:
Biomechanics model → soma → CRI (6 – 14 Cycles per minute)
Functional model → fluid body → mid tide (2.5 cycles per minute)
Biodynamic model → tidal body → long tide (6 cycles per 10 minutes)
Because humans arise out of a single fertilized egg, our body is never composed of separate systems but rather of Wholeness which is our underlying origin and maintaining force.5
Dr. Eric Blechschmidt
At about the same time Dr Sutherland was progressing through his explorations, a German embryologist, Dr. Eric Blechschmidt, was developing a different model of human development than that accepted by conventional science. Genetics were the rage just then, asserting that preformation of all living structures is carried only within the genes. Blechschmidt was studying and describing a process called epigenetics. This model states that an embryo develops from the successive differentiations of an originally undifferentiated structure.
His observations, based on the physics of moving water, showed that the movement of fluids, the living water or protoplasm in the embryo, were directing embryonic development and that these fluid forces continued through life as the ongoing maintenance and regenerative function of the human structure. Dr. Blechschmidt’s scientific work would give credence to Dr. Sutherland’s perceptions.
As the embryo differentiates, it is a subdivision of a living whole which is integrated. Therefore cells are totally integrated into the whole and within themselves. We are never not integrated! The human entity is not a higher entity than the ovum.6
Dr. Eric Blechschmidt
Blechschmidt discovered that fluid movements were occurring when there were no structures to generate them. His studies of the progression of these movements showed that in order to have movement, some force must be present to cause them. He determined that forces are acting upon and within the fluids themselves. Further explorations showed that there are “submicroscopic movements in the fluids” very much like the metaphoric Breath of Life perceived by the osteopaths. He used the term “biodynamic” to refer to the forces in the fluids which cause order and organization to occur.
Blechschmidt determined it is the flow of protoplasm which produces the differentiations we see in the embryo, and that genes are not the cause of body formation, though they are a necessary condition for it.
Genes are a mechanism by which the information in the fluid fields is manifest into physicality. Genes are members of the orchestra, but not the conductor. Shape and form are determined by fluid flow which shapes the limiting membrane out of which comes the anatomical details.7
Dr. Eric Blechschmidt
He described a model in which he showed that the interaction between the varying fluid flows within the embryo creates barriers and resistances which influence the genes to create structures. He coined the term “metabolic fields” to describe how these forces of growth compress, shear, stretch and thus affect the metabolism of the cells and, in the end, direct their differentiation into the component structures of our bodies. Blechschmidt described how position influences shape, which determines the expression of the cell nucleus into the formation of embryonic structures. In his view, for the cell to shift from one stage to another, there must be some external force causing the differentiations.
The genes are not active, they are re-active in the process of differentiation which is a process from the “outside” to the “‘inside.” Differentiations arise as functions of the whole organism whether it be one cell or many.8
Dr. Eric Blechschmidt
A biodynamic approach to embryology is an exploration of the movements, occurring throughout the fluids, which sustain, shape and resource the “whole” person. In other words, fluid movements carry the intention of Wholeness, create order and are the functions which create structures. These ideas are reflected in our Rolfing SI belief that function precedes structure. To work with the fluid body is to engage the function of wholeness and its ability to organize, shape, sustain and resource the physical body. We can learn to experience wholeness as a palpable sensation instead of as a concept.
Dr. Blechschmidt’s scientific descriptions offer a more tangible confirmation of the same phenomena, the often deistic metaphors, the osteopaths used to describe their perceptions. Both imply that slow tempo movements perceived in the fluids are expressions of Wholeness which act to shape, differentiate and organize the pieces of the body. They also state that these embryonic fluid movements are present throughout life.
Genes are like the clay that forms a piece of pottery. Clay by itself cannot form into shape, it requires the hands of the artist. And the hands of the artist cannot act without the mind of the artist. Clay represents the genes, the hands represent the fluid forces and the artist’s mind represents the breath of life – the deific plan or the master mechanic often alluded to by Still.9
Dr. Jaap van der Waal, Ph.D.
THE “FLUID BODY”
The concept of the “fluid body” is a teaching tool which is both descriptive and limiting, as most models are. It is descriptive because it is experienced as a continuum from “fluid anatomy” (fascia) to no anatomy, with no boundaries whatsoever. It is limiting because the labels soma, fluid body and tidal body imply that they are distinctly separate compartments. In reality, these are gradations along a continuum from solid to fluid. I describe this continuum perceptually as moving from solid to “liquidy honey” to unbounded spaciousness.
The “fluid body” is a living continuum and not part of a sequence of events. It responds simultaneously throughout its entire matrix. It is not as if it begins one place and ends up somewhere else. The whole matrix breathes and fluctuates as it directs its therapeutic forces toward specific goals. It knows the priorities of the body. There are thousands of fluid compartments in the body; however, the fluid body doesn’t recognize boundaries between these compartments. Ideally, when there is balance in the fluid body, there is one single response encompassing all of the fluid compartments of the body – serous, visceral fluids, lymph, blood, CSF, etc. Fluctuations occur in every drop of fluid in the whole body, in every moment. Sutherland talked about fluid motions by saying that “every drop knows the tide.” When one perceives the fluid body, it feels as if there is a single (all be it large) drop that is being “breathed.” This can be hard to grasp because our whole medical model is built around compartments (think the 30% anatomy and physiology).
Sensing the dura, the RTM and the fluid body requires the practitioner to sense and recognize qualities and tissues beyond the physical contact of the fingertips. As we aspire to perceive more than the pieces, more than the bones and tissues, we must learn to “disappear” what is superficial and sense more deeply. Dr. Sutherland taught that the fluid body can’t be contacted in the way one works with the tissues. The dura can’t be contacted by pressing harder or deeper. It doesn’t respond to direct contact and it cannot be pushed as though it is separate from the whole self.
Treat not with techniques but with gentle contact.10
Dr. W. G. Sutherland, D.O.
In order to relate to the movements of Wholeness in the fluid body, you cannot be separate or think of yourself as apart from them. Wholeness doesn’t recognize parts, doesn’t have parts. Perceiving wholeness demands that you change yourself. As a practitioner, one becomes a catalyst for its expression by blending with it, and its effects are then multiplied. Dr. James Jealous has said, “Wholeness doesn’t appear, you disappear.”
The fluid body is highly sensitive. If approached from a spacious perspective and a neutral state of mind, one can watch it do seemingly miraculous reorganizations. Practicing “inclusive attention” (a neutral state of mind having no preference as to outcome, while actively engaged in unbiased listening and having a detached awareness of oneself, the client and the room around you) will allow one to get out of the way of the inherent healing intelligence carried in the fluids.
You have to hold both the condition and the universal to have transformation.11
Dr. Carl Jung
It is important to allow the dualities of giver-receiver/client-practitioner to fade into the background. Duality of any sort is antithetical to Wholeness since there are no dualities in Wholeness, by definition. To synchronize with Wholeness in the fluids one needs to be present in one’s own fluid body.
Direct interaction with the fluids means that one is not working with anatomy but with the 70% of physicality which has no anatomy. To do this you need to experience yourself as a fully three dimensional being, a fluid being. You need to begin to perceive your body as more diffuse, to become more aware of the space between your particles and experience your own fluid system.
It is my experience that many Rolfers venture into the fluid realm by chance and engage it in the usual ways we learn to work with the fascia. When this happens, the fluids often change and express a pattern which often frequently seems to express a repeated swirling, spiral sensation. This sensation may then be misinterpreted by the practitioner as an unwinding phenomenon and they may actively exaggerate the motion with the intention of helping to unwind a trauma. In actuality, the client’s system may just be squirming to get away from direct contact.
If you begin to sense the fluids and then get curious and shift to a more focused doing or directing attitude, the fluid patterns will also shift in response to your input and intent, just as the smooth surface of a pond shifts when a breeze ruffles the surface. In focusing, you will have lost your ability to sense the client’s whole system and so will end up “tracking” your own interference reflected in your client’s system.
To contact the fluid body one needs to shift one’s focus and the use of one’s hands. Your preferences and biases will diminish your ability to sense with expansive perception. Your intentions and focus will also influence what you perceive. You must shift from a doing mode to a sensing/listening/being mode. You need to shift from palpating to sensing, from activity to receptivity. In addition, you need to continually “disappear” your hands and the anatomical boundaries within yourself and your client.
In learning to work with the fluid body, one has to develop more sensitive hands and a much broader spectrum of contact. It is impossible to experience the depth of the fluid body’s healing and organizing effects without doing so. Broadening one’s contact skills will allow one to experience wholeness as a palpable phenomenon instead of as a concept. It has allowed me to truly “listen to” my clients’ systems. As one is able to match the client’s pace of change one can instantly know when one has pushed their pace. One can easily feel the continuity of the fascia and fluids throughout the body and can help to bring balance and coherence to a much broader area with much less effort. Choosing to listen for ease and the perception of spaciousness and hydration expands on what SI practitioners already know about palintonicity and hydration.
Engaging the fluid body described by Dr. Sutherland and biodynamics is a simple concept, but it isn’t easy to do! It isn’t easy because the ability to stay in a neutral frame of mind with unbiased presence and contact is continually interrupted by our mind’s impatience with pure presence. Learning to work in this way is really an exercise of mindfulness. What makes presence so valuable, while in contact with another, is that presence allows immediate feedback. Our client’s body reflects our level of presence in each moment by the Wholeness their system expresses to our perception.
Dr. Sutherland’s progression from bones to membranes to fluids and the furthering of this work by Dr. Jealous and others to include the tidal body demonstrates a continual acquisition of perceptual and contact skills which build upon each other. In our desire to be more effective in our work (NOW!) we often lack the patience to deepen our skills, missing valuable steps with which we can more completely understand the processes of Wholeness and its function in Health.
There is much interest in incorporating the energetic body into our Rolfing SI paradigm. Those learning to incorporate energetic work will often do their “tissue work” in ways that do not immediately seem to acknowledge a continuum from the soma to the energetic body. The fluid body is the link between the physical and the energetic. By learning to relate to the fluids, we can incorporate a seamless continuity from the physical to the energetic, allowing for a more complete and integrated embodiment. Those learning biodynamics (and energy work) often hold these as a higher form of intervention. This is as limited a view of embodiment as those who relate primarily to the purely physical. We are more effective when we can contact a broader spectrum of embodiment.
Deepening into the anatomical considerations of Rolfing SI has value, and we can also expand into the wholeness aspects of the fluid body with effective results. Moving anatomy to the background while working allows one to have an expanded awareness of the whole person under one’s hands. As Dr. Still stated, “anyone can find disease.” Working with the fluid body has taught me how to clearly understand integration and Wholeness and how to engage its effects to rebalance the disorganization we often see and feel in our clients.
As I gained more perceptual skills and sensitivity, I began to experience how the Health carried in the fluids can reorganize the anatomy. Now, in everything I do in a session, I have the choice to relate to dysfunction, or to the expression of Health in the whole body. I can also choose to relate to the Health within the dysfunction. To shift from one approach to another, I have to shift myself. If I only relate to the dysfunction, I am much less effective in reminding my client’s “being” of Wholeness (integration).
Rolfing SI has deep roots in osteopathy. We have borrowed much from that profession and incorporated aspects (craniosacral therapy, visceral manipulation, nerve work, etc.) into our whole body approach to enhancing embodiment. We can learn much from Dr. Sutherland’s progression from bones to fluids to further enhance our whole person philosophy. We consider Rolfing SI to be a whole body, whole person modality. If we are to “walk our talk” we may find following his progression a good path.
So many therapists are striking at the pattern of disease instead of supporting the pattern of health. Rolfers are not practitioners curing disease, they are specialists in health.12
Dr. Ida P. Rolf
In Rolfing SI, we have limited cranial touch to the axial complex while the progression of Dr. Sutherland’s studies taught that there is a seamless continuum between the anatomy and the fluids, the axial complex and the whole body. He demonstrated that the whole-body responses to this quality of touch offer dramatic and comprehensive results. To learn this quality of work requires patience, both with the time it takes to grow our personal skills and with our ability to change within ourselves, allowing the unerring partnership of the body’s inherent self-healing to assist us in our work.
Thomas Walker is a faculty member of the Rolf Institute® of Structural Integration, a Rolf Movement® Practitioner and has been a Certified Rolfer™ for twenty-five years. He has studied cranio-sacral therapy since 1993 and began studying Biodynamics in 1996. He has over 900 hours of training in Biodynamics. Thomas offers Continuing Education classes on integrating the fluid body and Biodynamics into Rolfing® Structural Integration. For more information go to:
1. Still, A. T., Philosophy of Osteopathy. Kirksville, MO: The Journal Printing Company, 1989.
2. Jealous, J., Emergence of Originality – 2nd edition. Farmington, ME: Biodynamic/Sargent
3. Kern, Michael, Wisdom in the Body. London, England: Thornsons, 2001.
4. Sutherland, W.G. and A. Wales, editors, Contributions of Thought, the Collected Writings of
William Garner Sutherland. Kansas City, MO: Sutherland Cranial Teaching Foundation, 1967.
5. Blechschmidt, E. and R.F. Gasser, Biomechanics and Biodynamics of Human Differentiation.
Springfield, IL: Charles Thompson Publishing, 1978.
9. Van der Waal, Jaap, “Chapter 9: Human Conception: How to Overcome Reproduction? (A
Phenomenological Approach to Human Fertilization)” in Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy by
Michael Shea, Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Press, 2007.
10. Sutherland, W.G. and A. Wales, op. cit.
11. Author’s class notes from a class taught by Michael Shea
12. Rolf, Ida P., Rolfing: The Integration of Human Structures. Santa Monica, CA: Dennis-