Religion and Spirituality in Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy

I would like to express my thanks to the practitioners of craniosacral therapy across the globe who have sent me positive and encouraging emails asking for more posts during my recent hiatus. It continues to amaze me that the internet connects so many wonderful like-minded individuals. Experts on the subject of blogging say the number one rule to effectiveness with this medium is to be consistent … well it looks like I’ve blown that one! I have been putting a lot of energy into building my clinical practice over the last six months, and it has really payed off with an increased understanding of what it takes to make a living as a craniosacral therapist. I’ve also put time and energy into building strong relationships with my children and spiritual community, and I have been greatly enriched by these efforts. Teaching remains an ongoing endeavor. During my absence from blogging I have been taking a closer look at what it really means to be a craniosacral practitioner in the modern world, and I am excited about sharing some of those thoughts as I get back into online writing. Let’s start with this:

Steve Haines recently posted a piece on the Cranial Intelligence blog that caught my attention and stimulated some self-examination regarding the way I practice and teach biodynamic therapy. In the article Steve shares his concern that the body of biodynamic literature contains a lot of writing about spirituality, and he believes this writing complicates the simple process of touch. He writes that “religious frameworks are not part of my practice or teaching of biodynamic craniosacral therapy. I find they tend to obscure the simple path to the body.”

I also share his concern about spiritual matters complicating our experience of health. But I must say that I have yet to find a way to effectively exclude religious or spiritual frameworks from my clinical practice or teaching. I would like to share some ideas about this today, with the understanding that I am not refuting Mr. Haines (whom I do not know yet respect tremendously), but simply exploring and sharing in a transparent way some of my own thoughts on this important matter.

For eons, people have created stories to provide a sense of understanding of the patterns and mysteries of human existence. In every age, all around the globe, mythical stories and maps have emerged from the minds of men and women through the observation of nature and history, the experience of sensation, and the content of the psyche. These stories have congealed into religions and movements with many similarities, but also a tremendous variety. These patterns of belief appear to have been developing within us from prehistoric times, and I think most people would agree with me that they show no signs of abating anytime soon.

A recent Gallup poll reports 59% of the world’s population as “religious,” 36% as “not religious” and 9% as “atheist.” Here in the United States, about 80% of the population identify themselves as religious. Now I am, first and foremost, a clinical practitioner. I do not just teach this work to a select group of students. I take it to the streets and offer biodynamic therapy to a wide variety of people who are not getting help from the traditional healthcare community.

A recent Gallup poll reports 59% of the world’s population as “religious”

I work with people … the people that live in my community here in North Texas. So, if over half of the world’s people consider a religious framework to be an important aspect of their lives, and nearly 80% of my local community considers religion important, how am I to eliminate it from my interaction with them? Is that realistic? And is it actually a helpful approach to therapy? These are complicated questions that can’t be solved in a blog post, but I think they are worth discussing in the hopes that we can all gain some insight on the topic.

Throughout the course of our training, we biodynamic therapists come to experience levels of sensory wholeness and simplicity that reveal the value of simple awareness in the creation of a healthy and fulfilling life. Primary respiration points out to us how complicated we humans make our lives through beliefs, desires, and actions that erode our mental and emotional wellbeing, as well as our physical health. As biodynamic students progress though training modules and learn to settle into stillness with greater comfort and stability, we steadily come to see that people complicate their lives in many ways.

And yes, one of the ways we complicate our lives is through religious concepts.

I have seen a variety of circumstances in which the unskillful use of religious frameworks thwarts effective therapy, and I would like to briefly discuss two of them here:

I think one of the more common errors that therapists make (especially those who have zealously adopted a religious cosmology) is to lay their own personal religious framework over the experience of the client and solely relate to the client through that filter. I personally experienced this while receiving treatment from an experienced and revered Osteopath who felt that it would be helpful to verbally pray for me during a difficult emotional experience I was having during the session. While this was a kind gesture coming from a place of compassion, it nevertheless drove a wedge of separation between us, for at that time in my life I could not relate to the Christian worldview that he espoused in the verbal prayer. He never asked about my religious or spiritual inclinations. He apparently just assumed that we shared a common belief. I felt pretty alienated afterwards, and it negatively affected our treatment while I lay there on the treatment table thinking “does he really see me or understand who I am?”

While I have matured significantly in my understanding of the Christian experience and found ways to comfortably navigate many of the beliefs common to its various sects, at that time the Osteopath’s verbal interaction felt very unskillful and did not contribute to an experience of comfort in our relationship or my life in general. His actions took me out of my felt-sense as I wrestled with feelings of confusion and alienation.

One of the foundational principles of biodynamic work is to establish a genuine sense of comfort and mutual respect with the client. If we carelessly interject our spiritual beliefs or experiences without first seeking to understand the client’s views (if any), we do indeed needlessly complicate “the simple path to the body.” I have found that it is sometimes appropriate and helpful to ask about the client’s spiritual beliefs in the intake process, so that I may better understand the psychological frameworks that may be built into their mind and biology. I am then better equipped to understand what is meaningful for them if relevant discussion ensues in the course of physical contact.

Along with introducing religious themes to the therapeutic interaction, another dubious practice is the overlaying of esoteric anatomy systems over the client’s body. As a general example, a situation that I sometimes see in the classroom is this: some therapists become quite ensconced in applying chakra theory to the client’s experience. While the chakras have a long history in the place of body/mind studies and may provide some orientation to our understanding of how lesions in the tissues or fluids may be affecting the client’s awareness and state of wellbeing, there is much left open to interpretation and projection when we try to “pin down” the cause of the client’s suffering with this particular map. While I teach chakra awareness skills in my basic classes, I do so simply as a soft investigative exercise to stimulate careful inspection of a fluidic space. I feel it is usually appropriate for students to keep any insights to themselves and utilize them as a part of a broader investigation of the unique challenges facing the client.

When therapists verbally interject chakra theory (or other tantric/esoteric/meridian maps) into the interaction with the client, we risk confusing the client or adding another layer of mental and relational strain if the theories are foreign to the client or considered suspect according to their native beliefs. And in a more pure sense, we risk missing the simple spatial and historical story present in the client’s body by focusing on a map that may have nothing whatsoever to do with the tensions held in the client’s fluid field. The fluid body often appears nebulous, but in regards to its deeply held history it is usually very specific. It holds experiences that are incredibly unique, and often unrelated to esoteric maps of energetic flow or patterning.

The fluid body often appears nebulous, but in regards to its deeply held history it is usually very specific.

In summary, I don’t feel it is wise to carelessly interject esoteric anatomy or religious principles while in the treatment room. But at times the client may themselves introduce religious or spiritual matters into the therapeutic atmosphere from a place of genuine concern or healthy inquiry. This is a different matter altogether.

Ultimately we need to be available to the emerging needs of our clients as their unique therapeutic processes unfold. These needs might include being heard non-judgmentally, learning simple self-regulation skills, or hearing observational feedback form a third party that is outside of the sensorial or psychological situation the client finds themselves in. And at times, what might be needed are discussions about religious or spiritual themes that are relevant to the client.

One of the things I continue to enjoy about clinical practice, after working with thousands of people, is the wide variety of worldviews that walk into my office. I have humbly assisted Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans, Agnostics, Athiests, and other faiths in finding freedom in their lives in an environment of respect and healthy inquiry into the nature of embodiment – in a framework that is meaningful to them.

Through almost two decades of clinical work it has been made very clear to me that my preference for simple sensory experience is not always in alignment with my clients’ experience of their lives. Why not offer pathways to guide the client to a simple experience within his or her own understanding if silence or sensory examination doesn’t fully speak to their heart at that time? Simplicity and freedom exist in Christianity. Simplicity and freedom exist in atheism. Simplicity and freedom exist in many worldviews.

As a therapist, I often ask myself “how can I represent the healthiest manifestation of all worldviews?” To be sure, I am well aware that I cannot be everything to everyone and that I will never understand the intricacies of all of the world’s religions. But by steadily working to fortify my own understanding of different religious paths, I am of greater service to my clients because I can better sit with them in a place that is familiar and comfortable. I can also understand their personal mental and emotional challenges better.

If I were to refuse to discuss mythological or religious themes when they arose from the client’s heart, am I really operating skillfully as a facilitator of wholeness? Does a strict policy of secular therapy really offer healing to the complexities of the human condition? At this point I don’t think so. In my opinion, the biodynamic therapist who cannot (or will not) discuss different world religions in the therapeutic setting risks not fully arriving for his or her clients.

In the spirit of thoroughness and honesty, I must also say that religious discussions in a bodywork context can at times lead to a therapeutic quagmire. They can indeed send the therapist and client down a slippery slope, largely depending on the history of the client. Discussions with individuals coming from rigid or fundamentalist religious backgrounds must be carefully navigated, and at times avoided.

The more I learn through the study of world religions, the more likely I will be able to meet the client in a meaningful way.

In his blog post, Mr. Haines states that he feels simplicity comes through the more scientific frameworks that educate us as touch therapists. I agree that science provides a pleasantly neutral ground for us to examine and better understand how sensory phenomena affect our sense of self. Science offers a unique type of orientation with its neutrality, reproducibility and universality. But I also must say that a reading of scientific literature on touch therapy can be just as confusing or complicated as one of comparative religion! And I have noticed that some of the most vitriolic attacks against the biodynamic community are issued by those who require “hard science” before they will give credence to the claims of therapeutic efficacy made by those of us championing biodynamic work as a realistic approach to clinical work.

Primary Respiration continually delivers us moments of simplicity and wholeness. At times these moments are easily accessed. At others, they seem quite distant or obscured as we deal with the continual unfoldment of various tensions and dichotomies of life. Why can we not, as therapists and facilitators of health, find simplicity in religion within the field of primary respiration? I have seen embodied wholeness arise many times in particular moments in the therapeutic dyad – sometimes in religious terms, sometimes in scientific terms, and sometimes with no terms at all other than the moment itself. Simplicity can be really illusive in the treatment room. But I will continue to be open to simplicity in whatever form it presents itself between me and the client who has come to me for help, even if it has religious overtones.

If a Buddhist client wants to discuss the effect of karmic actions on his life and body, should I not enter that discussion because it has a religious or philosophical tone? I don’t think so. Similarly, a Christian might want to discuss the effect of personal or cultural sin in his life. Am I to divert him into a discussion about science when he might really need a discussion utilizing Christian terms that are meaningful to him … terms that might have been built into his psyche since he was a child?

In cases of pathological religious experience (which I have clearly seen to exist) it may be helpful to “exit the scene of the crime” and distance the client from the rigid entrapments of religious judgment and guilt. But this must be done carefully, with great understanding of how the client views his or her life. While religion may tether the hearts of many, it also provides many avenues for healing. I continue to work with the idea that the skillful biodynamic craniosacral therapist recognizes both the pitfalls and strengths of religion and uses these to the client’s advantage if the therapeutic relationship naturally moves into such discussions.

In conclusion, I have found that core beliefs about the nature of our existence are pervasive in the lives of my clients and sometimes present in the form of religious frameworks. Patently excluding examinations of these concepts can limit my availability to some clients. It seems so obvious to me that the skillful choice is to study and understand the various stories of religion and myth that pervade human psychology.

From a training standpoint, I continue to find it useful to explore different religious worldviews from a bodywork perspective so that students can expand their understanding of the various resources and tensions that may be present in the minds of clients. Purely secular craniosacral therapy is a grand ideal which can be cultivated in the classroom, but ultimately I do not think it represents a workable model for clinical practitioners who interface with a wide variety of people.

I hope this little exploration has provided some useful ideas for improving your clinical work when religious themes present themselves in the treatment room. Who are your clients, really? How can you help them on their own particular journey … regardless of your personal preferences?

ryan-hallford-craniosacral-therapistRyan Hallford is a craniosacral therapist and educator. He offers certification programs in basic and advanced cranial work through the Craniosacral Resource Center in Southlake, TX.