Craniosacral and Yoga
An ancient sutra from the Tantric tradition accompanies our experience of craniosacral. So much so that we use the image and name for our Introductory course.
The sutra says: “place your whole attention on the nerve, delicate as the lotus thread, in the centre of your spinal column, in such be transformed.”1
It was interesting to find the sutra in the book “Breath, the Essence of Yoga,” by my teacher Sandra Sabatini. This discovery was partly a pleasant surprise and partly the confirmation that the type of yoga and the type of craniosacral to which I’m referring contain an essence which brings the two arts together at a profound level, while maintaining their individuality and complementariness.
What is this “Lotus Thread?”
The sutra gives us a reference point that is very precise and very much “in the body,” even though the ultimate experience transcends the material dimension.
The sutra says “…in the centre of your spinal column.”
Let’s go and look at how we meet the spinal column and its centre and what it is that we meet, in yoga practice and in craniosacral balancing. We’ll start this excursion defining what type of yoga and what type of craniosacral we are talking about.
On my journey as a yogini, right from the beginning, I have always come across a gentle type of Hatha yoga. In the school where I did my basic training in the late 80’s there was a lovely fusion of precise work on the Asanas and their preparation, united with an experience of the breath.
In ‘93, the year in which I started working with craniosacral, I was introduced, by Sandra Sabatini, to the precious approach of Vanda Scaravelli. Vanda was a pupil of both the masters Iyengar and Desichakar. Her magnificent, revolutionary innovation is based on a simple principle. Every asana is accompanied by a respiration in the spine. The act of expiration, without effort, completely accepting the effect of gravity, creates a lengthening and expansion in the spine, like a wave passing through.The three fundamentals, or friends as Vanda calls them, are: gravity, breath and the wave. “We learn to elongate and extend, rather than pull and push. Elongation and extension can only occur when the pulling and pushing come to an end; this is the revolution.”2
In this experience the spine is no longer chained to an insignificant role as a moving tube during acrobatic performances. Finally it’s profound beauty and intelligence is legitimised, freed from ulterior, even if apparently “alternative,” obligations and conditioning.
Working with the breath during the asanas allows us to reconnect with the laws of nature, meeting stability at the base and lightness in the upper part of the body. This practice helps to extend the space between the vertebrae, thus giving relief to the stress that accumulates in the spine.
The wave to which we referred earlier, is an absolutely natural phenomenon, an expression of the life force that flows at the centre of the vertebral column and which fully manifests in a space of profound listening and letting go.
Let’s go now to the centre of the vertebral column by means of the anatomical and physiological indications of the craniosacral system. At the centre of the vertebral column we find the spinal cord, just as at the centre of the cranium we find the brain. The brain and spinal cord are the fundamental elements of the nervous system. The environment of this central nervous system consists of a liquid, the cerebral spinal fluid, contained inside protective layers of membrane.
These membranes have full contact with the cranial bones, pass through the vertebral canal and fuse with the sacrum at the base of the spine. The cerebrospinal fluid provides nutrients and acts as a shock absorber for the central nervous system. This liquid has a slow fluctuation, an intrinsic expression of our aliveness. William Garner Sutherland, who discovered the craniosacral system, called this rhythmical movement part of the primary respiratory mechanism, the expression and transmutation of the breath of life.3
It is a fluctuation that, like the waves of the ocean, bears the effects of the tides and like every living principle welcomes the spark of life in the precious quiet spaces. The spark of the breath of life, initiates the primary respiratory mechanism that reverberates in all the tissues of the body, as if every cell is breathing. The craniosacral rhythm can be perceived in every part of the body.
“…the primary respiratory mechanism, basically, represents the Breath of Life… the most beautiful way it’s been expressed is in Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel where God is reaching out to touch Adam… ”The Breath of Life, the spark, the still point between the hand of God reaching out to the creation of Adam, that is the spark that initiates the functioning of the primary respiratory mechanism.”4
During a craniosacral session, using a particular palpation, the therapist connects with this fluctuation, with this rhythm, this “fluid within the fluid,”5 that shows it self as a sweet, slow wave passing through the entire vertebral column, from the coccyx to the centre of the head and from the head to the coccyx. The therapist, in a state of pure listening, meets the profoundness of this rhythm as a precious stillness.
The patient enters into a space of deep relaxation, where it’s easy to let go of tension and rigidity, accessing the source of health and essence.
Yoga, just like craniosacral, by means of watching, listening, relaxation and letting go, favours an intense purification of being.
The meeting at the centre of the spine, in the light of these presuppositions, is an experience of meditation.
The way of being in contact and working with the body is incredibly similar in the two approaches.
In place of the force used for stretching or manipulation at any cost enters a method for tuning into a rhythm by learning to wait, by maintaining a relaxed presence in a particular part of the body and by letting go. It’s through this state of being that an asana or a particular craniosacral balancing can happen.
If the two paths have their specific tracks, the meeting at the centre of the spine, in the iconography and experience of the lotus thread, contains in itself the same characteristics. Profoundness and beauty are, in fact, the qualities that accompany healing as an experience capable of putting us in contact with our essence.
Yoga in Craniosacral Training
To really be in tune with a slow deep rhythm in another it is necessary to first tune into oneself. A deep listening is necessary. A listening, a watching, capable of accepting without judgement whatever sensation or state of being presents itself.
Taking care of one’s body, in general and particularly during a treatment is another fundamental requirement of being a therapist.
As craniosacral practitioners we work most of the time seated or standing. It becomes indispensable to expand the awareness of one’s posture, to refine the alignment of the vertebrae and to place attention on the breath and connection to the earth.
”breathe with your feet
be in your feet
go and live inside your feet
and at the very end of the exhalation
dismiss your heels
it’s very important
that at the very end of the exhalation
the feet receive the message of spreading
so that contact with the ground
becomes more intelligent
then the roots grow stronger and thicker
into the ground
and the impulse that travels through the spine up towards the base of the skull
encourages the opening and expansion
of the upper part of the body”6
Grounding, being anchored into the earth, is a necessity for three fundamental reasons: being grounded permits us to be fully present and at the same time protected energetically from phenomena that belong exclusively to the client.
Secondly, in a state of grounding we are able to help the other because through a deep connection to the earth we open energetic pathways that allow healing to occur.
The third reason is that in order to touch lightly and listen through that touch we need an infinite lightness and delicateness in our hands, arms and shoulders.
”the lightness… the freedom
the capacity to expand
all the action first takes place
from the waist down
then the upper part follows
and the arms feel like wings.”7
The approach of Vanda Scaravelli to yoga corresponds precisely to the requirements that accompany the craniosacral approach handed down to us by Dr Sutherland.
“When palpating let your fingers light gently on the skull, on the abdomen, or anywhere on the patient’s body. Let your hands be like the bird lighting on the branch of a tree, quietly touching and then settling down over the area.”8
In some ways, the experience of yoga becomes a type of experiential anatomy that helps the practitioner or student become aware of places in their own body. Places where we use certain specific craniosacral techniques.
We pay particular attention to two areas. The first is between the last lumbar vertebra (L5) and the sacrum (S1). The second lies between the occiput (which forms the back and part of the base of the head) and the atlas or first cervical vertebra.
Let’s look firstly at the L5/S1 area.
Referring to the natural process of gravity, Vanda tells us that this phenomenon that attracts us to the earth is “not limited to pull us down, it also allows us to stretch in the opposite direction towards the sky.”9 This possibility is present not only in human beings “but in all upright living things,”10 for example a tree.
She goes on to say that the “central point of a tree corresponds in our body to the waist at the level of the fifth lumbar vertebra where the human spine moves in both directions.”11
Since it’s possible, with practice, to perceive this movement of the spine in both directions we can also make contact with that point in the body that is the mirror of the base of the spine: the atlanto – occipital articulation. It’s precisely here that we are invited, in this practice of yoga to bring our presence and imagine that this area could smile or yawn.
These two places are absolutely essential in craniosacral therapy. Opening these areas liberates deep tensions because they are places where the membrane is often restricted. This can bring about a compression of the nerves which can cause pain and dysfunction of various types, such as backache, sciatica, misalignment during and after pregnancy, menstrual difficulties etc.
The atlanto – occipital articulation is an incredibly important place, where an opening brings about relief for the neck and shoulders and also decompresses possibly the most important nerve in the autonomic system: the Vagus. The correct functioning of this nerve favours, among other things, the healthy process of breathing and digestion.
We have only briefly touched on the main anatomical points that the two disciplines have in common and what really deserves underlining is the extraordinary importance of the shared attitude of accompanying the body. This attitude favours contact with an individual’s vital resources; when a therapist is in contact with his own he is more able to help the same process occur in the client.
The therapists’ awareness of their own posture and breathing is fundamental to being able to give indications to the client in this regard. The help that one receives from a session is precious, equally precious is the bringing of awareness to one’s old postural habits and body use. This can lead to the discovery of new ways of being in and with the body, maintaining the changes that happened during the session and moving towards transformation. The client becomes more active, responsible and independent.
During our residential craniosacral courses we offer students the possibility of preparing for the day with a guided yoga practice before breakfast. Sometimes short yoga practices happen during the day, to give a change from sessions and phases of intense study on the anatomico – physiological notions of craniosacral. An apparent change only, maintaining alive the presence on that place of extraordinary intelligence that resides in the heart of our spine…as a lotus thread.
About the author:
Heera (Lydia Cattani) has practised Hatha yoga for over 25 years and teaches with passion and creativity in Italy and Australia. Her work is based on three principal areas of research: yoga, craniosacral and dance. A research which, in deep meditation, is united and accompanied by a delicate and powerful meeting at the core of the spine. She teaches yoga in South Golden Beach, near Byron Bay and is involved in craniosacral training for Craniosacral Australia.
1 Sandra Sabatini, Breath, the Essence of Yoga, (Thorsons, 2000), pg. 209
2 Vanda Scaravelli, Awakening the Spine, (The Aquarian Press, 1999), pg. 10
3 W. G. Sutherland, Teachings in the Science of Osteopathy, (Rudra Press, 1990)
4 Rollin E. Becker, The Stillness of Life, (Stillness Press, 2000), pp. 123 – 124 (From an exchange of letters between R E Becker and his son, D. L. Becker)
5 W. G. Sutherland, op cit, pg. 63
6 Sandra Sabatini, op cit, pg. 136
7 ibid, pg. 115
8 W. G. Sutherland, op cit, pg. 151
9 Vanda Scaravelli, op cit, pg. 9
10 ibid, pg. 10