Michael Shea – The Embodiment of Primary Respiration: Form, Vulnerability and Humility

The Embodiment of Primary Respiration: Form, Vulnerability and Humility
Michael J Shea, PhD

“The healer’s job is to become attuned to the higher level of existence, then join with the patient and facilitate the ‘next best step’ (Comeaux, 2002, p.61).”


I have observed three categories of Primary Respiration (PR) in biodynamic practice. I deeply experience these three categories as the therapeutic activities of PR. I have also been told or read about others’ experiences that match mine. My perceptual training is the phenomenological approach in which each practitioner forms a personal relationship with PR and finds his or her own way to describe their experience. The point of view I work with is that all models, styles and methods of biodynamic craniosacral therapy are equal. Each practitioner has their own aptitude for biodynamic practice. Aptitude is one’s potential, a type of readiness rather than a fully developed perception and awareness. It is a path and not a destination. Aptitude is also a home base from which PR is experienced in any of its thousand faces. Each practitioner has their own path for perceiving the so called “deeper” forces at play in biodynamic practice which I will describe below. The deeper forces are to be embodied.

Each of these three categories leads to an embodied perception of PR: form, vulnerability and humility. I would like to walk you through this garden. The embodied perception of PR is developmental. PR is a gradual sensory learning process; its embodiment is under the direction of itself and experienced quite differently in each practitioner. For each practitioner and client, it is a customized fit and very non-linear. Every woman a queen and every man a king. PR integrates itself by weaving itself gradually into one’s bodily awareness. In biodynamic practice this usually begins with a sensibility of the fluid body. The ground of perception of PR is the fluid body, a metaphor for the natural world as it exists inside of us and outside as a single continuum.

With practice and over time, the perception of PR starts to warp and stretch itself into a spectrum of slightly shorter or longer time frames. Time starts to dissolve and the present moment of PR and stillness becomes fresh and alive and more interesting than the past or future. This depends on its therapeutic activity and how the practitioner observes that activity without a focused intentionality, but rather an ability to cultivate a resting attention in a soft, gentle, open awareness. Such awareness can be labelled differently by each practitioner and client. In the end, all biodynamic practice is good because the practitioner has owned the practice for himself or herself and PR has become embodied.

Categories of Embodied Primary Respiration 1 – Biphasic – Form


The first category I call biphasic. This brings into play the discussion of rates. Rates are a favorite topic in any form of craniosacral therapy training and practice. Rates are relatively new to the lore of craniosacral therapy. Dr. Sutherland did not discuss rates. Rates usually involve a perception of at least two phases within one cycle of the rate being observed, such as the cranial rhythmic impulse (CRI) 6-12 CPM or the midtide (2-3 CPM).

Originally, starting about 50 years ago, biodynamic osteopaths began talking about PR as being six cycles per every 10 minutes (6CP-10M). This was the first revelation of a rate associated with PR. Prior to that, glimpses of PR might be called the Breath of Life or simply the Tide. The rate associated with PR is approximately 50 seconds per phase of a biphasic cycle (in class I like to say one minute so students have a sense of that well-known unit of time).

Sometimes it seems very precise at 50 seconds and sometimes not, especially when sensing PR through the embryonic fulcrum of the heart. I experience the base rate of 6CP-10M as a doorway, a type of entrance into a timeless-formless dimension of embodiment that is very embryonic. Embryonic is a metaphor for a state of originality in which a complete renewal of the body and mind is potentiated. The body accesses a beginning in the present moment seemingly outside of time and space rather than a regression. It is more like a bubble poping, a relaxation of the body and mind as a single continuum into an ever present state of nowness. This is always available in the present moment. The body is always in a state of becoming, longing to connect with the present moment to regain and reunify with its originality, a preexisting embodied wholeness. It is a state of flow.

Rates are an important and organic entrance gate to deeper perception. Rates can be:
1. indicators of a therapeutic progression;
2. or a process occurring under the practitioner’s hands with the client;
3. or inside the practitioner’s own body;
4. or ignition factors from the natural world.

It must be remembered that rates are not derived or caused by PR. They all co-exist together at the same time. The midtide has its own personality within the polyrhythmic flow of the fluid body just as the CRI does. This is what makes rates so confusing to students. Rates are highly nuanced, unique therapeutic systems layered in the body that seem to periodically overlap each other like the murmuration of birds. These three types of rates do not derive from each other nor are they caused by stillness or PR.

Models (biomechanical, functional and biodynamic) associated with the CRI, midtide and PR each have their own style and method of practice. They are all part of an interrelated whole because they appear to be all synchronized together, but they are equally separate and distinct methods or therapeutic approaches. Preferences for practice depends on the aptitude for embodiment and perceptual training of the practitioner. All models and styles of biodynamic practice are valid as I said at the beginning. The forms of pain and suffering in clients is enormous and covers a vast and broad spectrum of biological challenges.

Any model of biodynamic craniosacral therapy must recognize its limitations. When I need mechanical work I like to go to an Upledger practitioner. I began my career as an instructor for the Upledger Institute. Practitioners might be advised to refer clients to other models and styles of work to get their needs met. As one teacher said to me, not everyone wants to see God with PR. Rates have no politics. They are levels of movement and organization within the body.

It must be remembered that all rates and rhythms are occurring simultaneously, thus the term polyrhythms applies here. How can anything that is occurring simultaneously be a cause for something else? It completely depends on how and where a practitioner places his or her attention, which is directly related to the embodiment of PR in the practitioner.

The key point here is that each type of rate in the “polyrhythm” (as originally referenced by Seifritz in The Protoplasm of a Slime Mold video: “all rates occur simultaneously”) has its own unique therapeutic progression and outcomes. The CRI is directly related to ANS imbalances in the client, a system under combustion in the contemporary client (inflammation). The midtide is a potency gluing the parts of the body together that have been fragmented by stress and trauma (traumatic shock). Relating at these levels can be a very necessary and practical component of a client’s healing process. Don’t throw the baby with the bathwater!

One practitioner said that working with the midtide is like standing on the shoreline of the ocean watching the Tide from the solidity of the beach, while exploring PR is like being in the ocean with the Tide permeating the wetness of the water. The wetness of the water can be experienced in its fullness. This is a common metaphor of practitioners’ experience and there are many other such metaphors. Working with the CRI is like being on the New York City subway drinking a Red Bull. Whether you are in the ocean experiencing its vastness, the refreshing nature of the water and its buoyancy or the currents and waves moving you about, just notice the present moment. Choose which perception has the least amount of fear and anxiety.

Traditionally one phase of PR is called Primary Inhalation and the other paired phase Primary Exhalation. I prefer to call it simply a phase change, without an implied direction or association with breathing. This leaves open the possibility of variable directions (two directions at once) and numerous possible perceptions that are unique to each practitioner. The reunification of the parts on the embodiment highway is unique for everyone. Sometimes PR fixes a strain pattern in the body (of either the practitioner or the client) and sometimes it changes the client’s dreams. One size does not fit all. We have a grossly underdeveloped library of the sensations of embodied wholeness (PR).

Variable PR Rates
However, my experience now includes a spectrum of variable longer rates different but related to the traditional 6CP-10M. Scott Zamurut, a biodynamic teacher in the North American Association, has noted a 20-minute experience of PR that he is calling the embodiment tide. He cites Franklyn Sills in stating that it organizes around inertial fulcrums resulting from trauma. It offers a type of support around past experience. Rates are doorways with their own therapeutic intention. Thus, it is not about the rate but about the context held in place by the rate. Is it the forest or the trees?

Relational Tides
Within the biphasic category, there are relational tides in which we are connected to each other through the electromagnetic field of the heart and its capacity to carry the wave of PR between each of our hearts. I experience PR while making a heart to heart connection with my client through our shared electromagnetic fields. The systems of the body and the fields they generate from flow to frequency are all carriers of PR. This relational tide has a wider range of timing than 6 CP-10M.

Ray Castellino, in his work with babies, moms and families, has found a 2-1/2 minute cycle that he specifically calls the relational tide. Castellino says that this relational tide gives access to what is called blueprint energy in Polarity Therapy. “This is the energy that helps and organizes our consciousness. It organizes the way our mind works. It organizes the way our body shapes (Haas 2017, p.150-151).” Both the relational tide and the blueprint energy are expressions of PR in its many different faces of embodiment.

With rates a human being becomes embodied and takes form inclusive of structure and function. Each level of the craniosacral system has its own potency differentiated from the others. PR also contains the potency of the embodied whole, which includes the natural world. The potency of PR is the natural expression of the Health as its vitality and aliveness which I will speak to below. Health is the unconditional well-being and goodness of every human being, an essence that is gradually uncovered by PR and given the freedom to fully manifest its wisdom. The intention of the Long Tide model of Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy is embodiment of PR, plain and simple. Its rate is the embodiment of form. We come into form through reciprocal movement. We breath into form. When we synchronize PR with our breathing embodiment has a home to rest. Thus, all rates and rhythms are associated with the generation, repair and maintenance of form.

Heart to Heart
The main relational practice I teach is to sense the Tide of PR moving between the practitioner’s heart and the client’s heart through the interconnected heart fields. The electromagnetic field of the heart is the carrier of PR, inviting an assessment of safety and trust in the therapeutic relationship. The heart can be lifted up by PR when safety is established in the therapeutic relationship. It must be remembered that biphasic perception is still mechanical at a biodynamic level and can keep a practitioner locked up in mental abstractions of analyzing his or her perception. This is separating and not unifying for healing. We embody a form that moves rhythmically. It is full of aliveness. Then the next phase of the embodiment of PR can reveal itself – uniphasic.

Category 2 – Uniphasic – Vulnerability

Sources of Primary Respiration
The second category of PR experience is what I call uniphasic. Frequently I experience PR moving inside my body in only one direction. Sometimes I can feel it moving in both directions at once. It becomes a non-linear guide for the evolving experience of embodiment. This indicates that there is a simultaneous level of PR that is a continuous single phase. It can originate from three possible sources: inside the body, outside the body, or neither. We cycle through all three sources in a session. During a session with a client, I may begin to sense PR coming to me via my third ventricle from the horizon. I open to that in my fluid body. Then that perception might shift as I embody PR (or PR embodies me). I place my attention on my heart and can sense a PR originating from the posterior heart region similar to what is called the subtle wind in Tibetan Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Finally, the inside and outside disappear leaving me in a state of transparency and without perceiving a source of PR. This is a clinical cycle that seems to repeat itself in my daily practice.

Intermittent Continuous Expansion
Frequently I sense PR moving for about a minute and it fades from my perception. When it returns in about a minute or so, it is moving in the same direction. I used to think that was a gap in my perception; PR was simply in its opposite phase. I was wrong. There was nothing in my perception that would indicate that, because my attention automatically shifted to dynamic stillness. Consequently, in this example, PR is moving continuously in one direction or phase. This is what I call intermittent continuous expansion in all directions. In my experience, this can be directly experienced in the heart and through the heart.

At this level of PR, I embody my vulnerability as shown to me by PR. The heart is open and soft in the front, and just in back of the sternum is the heart’s expansive movement. The more I sense the simple movement of the heart in the front and PR moving through the back, the more I embody the vulnerability of PR. I experience vulnerability as great gentleness and tenderness always present in the beating, moving, pulsing heart. The vulnerability of embodied PR is not weakness, nor does it contain fear; it is the heart continuously expanding in all directions. It radiates a type of courage and sensibility. It is a very dignified vulnerability. As I become more transparent and vulnerable to the will of PR, I open to another dimension of PR without phases.

Category 3 – Nonphasic – Humility

The third category of experiencing PR is nonphasic. It is comprised of three subcategories that I call potency, the rhythmic balanced interchange of PR and stillness and love. These experiences lead to the embodiment of humility. There are no rates or phases in this nonphasic category, just the experience of love, compassion, grace, peace and many other such states. Potency as mentioned earlier is related to the amplitude or strength of PR over the course of a single session or multiple sessions with a client. It can be enhanced by the ignition skills of the practitioner. Some osteopaths call this potency the Health. It is an aspect of PR directly related to the client’s therapeutic and healing processes.
Some osteopaths use this type of potency as a marker for the end of a session, especially if the potency of PR increases. I worked with patients in a coma for over a decade and the potency of PR was the only marker I had in a session. A strong potency indicated a potential for waking up from the coma. A weak potency would usually indicate no chance of waking up. The potency of PR is also a beautiful marker when working with patients at the end of life. The potency of PR becomes sweeter and more refined.

Rhythmic Balanced Interchange with Dynamic Stillness
Subtle awareness of PR maintains an element of duality and separation in the unspoken. “I am perceiving grace, I am perceiving love flowing, I am mindful of compassion,” and so forth. There is the pervasive “I am” perceiving something as if different or unconnected from that which is being perceived. It is not quite whole or interconnected. However, when PR goes through its constant rhythmic balanced interchange with dynamic stillness (they take turns arising and fading as one thing), a very non-dualistic extrasensory state of mental and physical rest and relaxation arises. It is like a bubble bursting, and we arrive in the present moment of non-separation. Our daily life is full of such moments, but most of the time they’re missed if we wait for their arrival only during sessions.

Robert Fulford D.O. was a leading osteopathic practitioner in the era between 1950-1980. He spoke openly about PR being the experience of love. In the same way that Sutherland’s use of the term Breath of Life brought his Cranial Concept into a spiritual domain, Fulford’s notion of love as a metaphor for PR did the same. Disease, unhappiness and interpersonal problems for Fulford reflected a material and spiritual incompleteness. “Therefore, health must take into account the emotional and spiritual disposition of the person, including their relationship with the Creator. In this cosmology, love is a force capable of causing physical change, and is part of healthy living and healing (Comeaux, 2002, p.45).
At some point it is possible to experience a level of PR that can only be described as love. The most primal energy on the planet. Love makes all things equal. So I am back again to the premise of this essay which is the equality of all biodynamic phenomena. The container is love. Its movement is the Breath of Life. We are free to call it one thing – Primary Respiration or whatever suites the practitioner’s experience. The question to contemplate becomes: How do we embody love?

There is nothing to do but thoroughly abide in the completeness of the present moment. Serenity, quiescence, tranquility, placidness become embodied as subtle emotions, and the instinct of healing the body is remembered by the heart. Since this experience is impermanent, however, PR allows us to embody humility. This impermanence I call biodynamic whiplash. We are pulled out of our serenity by our mind or a sensation or a horn blowing outside the window. Humility, according to the Dalai Lama, is the greatest way to tame the mind. When we observe the constant fluctuation of the mind sense with the body sense, the heart can soften and become humble. Humility is a subtle emotion indicating the dawn of embodied wisdom felt in and around the heart. It is all basically good.

Dynamic stillness when merged with PR as one entity is a pervasive subtle sensation, a lucid clarity. I call it a panoramic awareness that is therapeutic at a cellular and molecular level. This instinct for healing is rooted in our biology. It is an invitation to completely rest our attention into the space and clarity of dynamic stillness until PR shows itself again as part of the unending dance of PR and dynamic stillness. It is impermanent and our mind wanders. It is humbling. Humility allows us to wait, watch and wonder. It is the correct biodynamic attitude of the practitioner, according to one osteopath.

Of course there are numerous other possibilities within these three categories of PR, but it’s good to look at a map before we plan to head into this territory with our clients. Biodynamic practice depends on our own personal explorations of embodiment. It depends on each individual’s ability to rest his or her attention on the experience of PR as it becomes embodied without fear. Instead, there is only tenderness, gentleness and kindness. In every session, PR takes us on a journey of form, vulnerability and humility.

Become transparent in the heart. Notice a natural, soft, vulnerable place in the front of your heart. Allow PR to move through the cardiovascular system and fluid body without restriction. At moments during every session, bow your head in humbleness to the priorities of PR. Offer your humble heart to the client and the world.
Finally, the very last basic principle is this: Who can know how anything is experienced other than the experiencer? Think about that and go deeper into your own experience of embodiment. Own this biodynamic practice. Make it yours. It is from that point of view that we can approach the client with our biodynamic hands and mind, embodying PR. We offer this embodiment to the client with great humility.

Comeaux, Z., 2002. Robert Fulford, D.O. and the Philosopher Physician. Seattle, WA: Eastland Press.
Haas, D. (2017). Implications of Wider Family Dynamics. In Wilks, J. An Integrative Approach to Treating Babies and Children. London: Singing Dragon.