Why Embryology is a Central Study for Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapists

I was cleaning some boxes out of my closet this week and I found a few transcriptions of lectures I gave many years ago. It was fascinating reading these, as I was reminded of how timeless the foundational concepts of Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy are. Today I am posting a segment from one of those lectures, given at a weekend training at Phoenix Therapeutic Massage College in 2006. When I visited this discussion again, part of it grabbed my attention because it illustrates well a question I am often asked: Why are craniosacral therapists so interested in embryology? I hope it is useful for you in some capacity:

RYAN: Hello everybody. I am glad to be back with you today. I really enjoyed the time we spent together yesterday exploring the fluid body as both a concept and an experiential perception. I think we should start today by addressing the question asked at the end of class about why biodynamic therapists place so much emphasis on the study of embryology.
Firstly, to begin answering this question, I would like to revisit some of the comments you shared after our hands-on exercise in which we learned to palpate the body as a continuous fluid field, a sort-of tensegrity field. Do you remember some of the words you yesterday to describe your experience of feeling the deep fluid systems of the body?

We heard words like “strange,” “different,” “floaty” etc. Jennifer summed it up nicely with her comment “That was just weird!”

CLASS: laughter

RYAN: She is right. For most of us, when we first encounter the fluid body, it is just weird. My question for you is: Why?
After all, the movements you were feeling in and around your partner’s body have always been there, just beneath your perceptual threshold. They are a part of being human and are always with us. So I ask you “Why was it weird to experience this inherent part of yourself and your partner?”

STUDENT: “It is not how we usually feel each other.”

RYAN: Yes. That is true. Manual providers tend to emphasize tissue palpation. What we did yesterday is quite different. It allows for softer palpation and invites you into fluid states of perception, which is very different for many of us.

STUDENT: “I could tell something good was happening, but I wasn’t really doing anything and that felt strange to me. It’s kind of hard to explain.”

RYAN: Yes. The passive attitudinal posture we take elicits change in a pretty mysterious way. We aren’t doing “nothing,” though. We are listening – and in doing so we are synchronizing with deep healing resources that express themselves through movement. You may come to see, over time, that synchronizing is very powerful in and of itself. But most of us have to develop a new vocabulary to describe this experience.

STUDENT: “What I was feeling just didn’t make any sense to my mind.”

RYAN: Aha! Yes. You are getting to the heart of the matter and the point I want to make today. These types of movements do not make sense to our minds. But why?

Let me get to my point:
The movements you began to feel yesterday do not make sense because of the model of the body you and most healthcare professionals have been taught. You have been taught a mechanistic model in which tissues are the primary structures of interest. You are taught that the groups of tissues follow certain rules of cause-and-effect. For instance, if a psoas muscle is tight, then the QL’s will have to compensate, the lumbar vertebrae might be placed under unilateral strain, and so on and so forth with different tissue groups compensating for each other – one situation causes the other with the ultimate result being pain. This is a likely scenario for low-back-pain and something we see in many people. The tissue-mechanistic model that came up with this evaluation feels very good to our logical, Cartesian minds. It gives us the feeling that we know where pathology comes from and helps us feel armed to counter the negative forces present in order to prescribe a course of action to return tissue groups to proper relationship. And at a certain level, this is true.

But the fluid body you encountered yesterday does not follow the clear-cut rules that we are taught govern the tissue body. It is pervasive and comprehensive … and It follows different physical laws than we are used to. So we call it “weird” But the fact is it is not any more “weird” than the mechanistic model. It is just different!
It is a matter of perspective.

People who regularly work with the fluid body take an interest in embryology because it offers a model of understanding that fits the spatial movements they perceive in their clients. The mechanistic tissue model is simply inadequate when dealing with the pervasive non-linear nature of fluid in the body. So when we enter into this realm, our human minds seek a framework to make sense of the sensations we experience. The embryo gives us such a framework. I think ultimately we study the embryo because it gives us a sense of safety … that there is some precedent for many of the foreign spatial motions we see in the client and feel in ourselves. But more clinically, embryology also gives us a map to explore the relationship between different fluid fields of movement that lie deep within the metabolic interactions of the body. Traditional anatomical education largely ignores these relationships.

You are, unknowingly, in this fine institution, being funneled into a limited way of perceiving human embodiment. Your education will serve you well in the current healthcare environment, but it robs you of experiencing the deeper realities of the living organism you are. Over time, many therapists encounter a deep frustration because of the limited thinking that shaped their educational foundation. Therapists all around the world are looking for a way of better understanding the deep forces holding their clients in compensatory patterns. The fluid matrix is a fruitful frontier of exploration in which many people find greater depth in their therapeutic interactions.

A few of you shared that you felt pressure building in different planes of your bodily experience. Some felt condensation along the midline, and some felt as if they were being stretched to their periphery by the fluid forces. When we look closely at embryology, we see a precedent for these fluid experiences. For instance, in the third week of embryological development, cells migrate through the fluid medium to the middle of the developing body in a process known as gastrulation. There is a focus on internal movement. This serves to orient the development of the nervous system and subsequently the individual’s sense of self.

At other times resources are shunted to the periphery to establish boundaries, implant into the mother, and explore the outside world in general. We are “stretched” to physically connect with another and feel the expansiveness of our embodiment. The fluids can have different goals in mind, and the biodynamic therapist seeks to understand and support these goals with appropriate timing.
These are very simple examples, but hopefully you can begin to see why embryology is helpful to orient the therapist to developmental forces and hold these forces in a broader framework. Understanding these movements allows us to know what the formative intelligence of the body and consciousness is up to … what it is trying to renegotiate and balance in the client. Not only does this give us a sense of comfort in “strange” territory, but it helps us understand how to support a natural impulse of the body/mind complex. Traditional anatomy gives us little to work with in these realms.

STUDENT: “How is working like this useful? I mean, how do you bring about change in a client with that kind of work?

RYAN: How did you feel when you left class yesterday?

STUDENT: “Well … I noticed my vision was a lot clearer. Things just looked sharper when I drove home. And I slept well. I had an interesting dream about bees spreading honey inside my heart.”

CLASS: laughter

RYAN: Okay. I would call that a good initial therapeutic response. I don’t know what kind of physical issues you deal with, but we just simply did a listening exercise yesterday. We didn’t really discuss your process or label your experience, but from simply being listened to at the fluid level for 20 minutes or so, you noticed a positive change in your nervous system. You experienced precision and clarity in your senses and your CNS opened up a world of deep rest because this style of work resets the autonomic nervous system. It seems like your heart sweetened up a bit too.

CLASS: laughter

That is just the beginning of what this style of work can do for suffering clients. Specific tissue changes and lesion corrections are commonplace events when this style of work is applied with skill. Working with the fluid body gets clinical results in some pretty surprising cases.

I often say that we “go back in time” with this work. We consciously access the early formative forces that shaped our bodies as embryos. The paradigm we are working under now says that the forces that shape us as an embryo still maintain our physicality and offer solutions to our health challenges. At this point in my exploration of the model, I am comfortable agreeing with that viewpoint. The fluid body of the embryo precedes the tissue body. It is there first. It is primary. It holds greater authority than the tissue fields. I have come to accept this as a fact. The fluid body is given coherence and form by intelligent potencies that far surpass our current understanding of how humans are put together. Therapeutically, the potent forces in the fluids work multi-dimensionally to unlock incredibly complicated lesion patterns that you or I could never figure out with the traditional tools given to us by our basic education.

STUDENT: You seem very comfortable saying “I don’t know.”

RYAN: I am. Because day after day I see the inherent forces in the fluid matrix liberate multi-tissue strains that surpass our anatomical understanding. These strain patterns run in spatial shapes that do not honor tissue barriers. The fluids act as a kind of all-pervasive medium that connects seemingly disparate tissues. Fluid work teaches you that the human body truly is a “whole.” and that breaking down the human substance into separate, independent fields is not always the best approach for manual therapy.

I find it curious that it is so hard for us to just sit behind our clients and comfortably palpate them as a whole fluid entity. Our mind doesn’t know what to do with the experience of wholeness in a clinical setting. We are taught to immediately break the body down and play detective in order to find an insightful solution to the client’s situation. We can, of course, do this. But I have yet to meet a therapist who can accurately define the client’s problem multi-dimensionally as specifically as the forces in the fluid do as they accesses states of balanced tension. I’m not talking cosmic consciousness here or alternate realities. By multi-dimensional I mean that strain can run from a muscle through surrounding fascia, periosteum, and actually twist osseous tissue … and that may be directly tied to local or systemic metabolic dysfunction … and yes to emotional and spiritual displacement as well.

When we cease viewing the body solely as an anatomical snapshot and start viewing the body developmentally as a continually evolving embryo, we encompass more history and greater depth in the client’s embodiment. It is not just a collection of parts that walks into our office. It is a story that may go back decades, a story holding strain in the fluid field that can only be understood by understanding how we are spatially shaped when fluid dominated our corporeal body.

I will resist getting ahead of myself. We have talked very little about the nature of Primary Respiration so far. That is the next step. Primary Respiration is the intelligence that is orchestrating the adaptive responses and ultimately the healing events that take place in the client. It is a slow natural movement that continually offers gentle spatial coherency to the individual. By learning to relate to Primary Respiration in an authentic and humble way, we can facilitate freedom and peace in struggling bodies and souls. We have to get out of the way with this style of work, and that is another skill set that must explored. I would like to talk more about that today…

Ryan 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. www.cranioschool.com