A therapist talks about ego, blind faith, and a hill in southeast Minnesota.
Lying on the table, I breathe in the calm of Jolene’s hands under my head’s occipital bone. The numbness that wraps around my right ear begins to resonate, extending tense fingers down into my jaw. To counter the growing frustration plying at my gut–“What makes this happen?”–I will myself to grow heavy, to sink deeply into the table.
Loose, warm heaviness rises up like a wave from under me, pooling over my body, pulling me down. The last thing I hear is the mollified gurgle of my gut unclenching before I drop into oblivious relief.
I want to tell you that I’ve found something that can fix everything that’s wrong with you: chronic fatigue, colitis, depression, sprained joints, jaundice, infertility…and that’s just me and the people I know.
But something’s holding me back from getting all evangelical about it: namely, that you’re unlikely to believe me. And I can’t blame you. I didn’t believe it at first, either.
Even for someone who’s into alternative healing, this kind of therapy is very difficult to embrace. There are no needles, no potions or fumes, no affirmations or chants, not even a historic intertwine with some kind of religion or tradition.
You can throw those things into the mix, if you want to. I was told by Maureen, a therapist in San Francisco, that saints were standing guard over my treatment; Karin said that fairies showed up while she was preparing the treatment room. Or you can just as easily reference the science behind the therapy–either specifically (“Let’s work on your sphenobasilar junction,” as Grace in Asheville told me) or obliquely (“I’m going to untwist your liver now,” said Aline in San Diego).
But those things are really just window-dressing on an absurdly simple procedure that, in the end, hinges on the patient’s own willingness to heal.
It’s called craniosacral therapy (cranial osteopathy in the UK). It’s western medicine’s favorite thing to debunk. It changed my life, even if it shouldn’t have.
Ever since my first CST session, I’ve been trying to figure out what makes it work. There’s plenty you can read, if you want to, but a lot of it will make your eyes glaze over with anatomical arcana.
If you find do something written about CST in layman’s terms, it’s more than likely someone from the medical establishment saying “This is bullshit and it doesn’t work.”
What they of course mean is that it shouldn’t work, based on their understanding of the human body (specifically the skull) and the dearth of incontrovertible proof from the community that practices it.
At the Oregon School of Massage, Jolene excelled at many different healing modalities: shiatsu, myofascial release, Reiki. But despite her dedication as a student, she avoided the CST unit until the end of her program.
“CST felt too esoteric. You’re only applying five grams of pressure—the weight of a nickel. I was like, ‘What is this woo-woo stuff? There’s no way I’m really making a difference…’ even though I felt shifts happen in my body and the student-clients reported physical and emotional unwinding.”
CST operates on the principle that small, gentle adjustments to the cranium and sacrum allow the body to heal itself from physical and emotional traumas. The word “adjustment” is really too strong a term for what happens on the table: a therapist will hold your neck, press the soles of your feet or cradle your shoulder blade in their palm for several minutes at a time, without moving.
This is what leads many first-timers to think something along the lines of “This is stupid…there’s no way this is doing anything in my body.” (Even students of the therapy think this, at first.)
It’s not that there is a lack of science behind it—craniosacral work has been researched and developed since the 1880s by licensed osteopaths and university research teams, and endorsements from such diverse people as (the late) Dr. Wayne Dyer, former NFL player Ricky Williams, even Mark Bertolini, the CEO of Aetna Healthcare.
But the idea that any results–let alone the staggering results claimed by devotees–could be achieved by so little apparent effort is…forgive the healthcare pun…a hard pill to swallow. And yes, the anecdotal evidence for CST far outweighs the triple-blind tested scientific basis.
So yeah, if you’re a healthy person, the whole idea of CST sounds ridiculous.
But if you’re a chronically ill person who has tried everything that the medical establishment tells you should work, anecdotes become pretty fucking compelling.
Growing up in a family of four bookish sisters, Jolene was the active, imaginative one—the one who had to fight for good grades, who couldn’t sit still long enough to learn piano. She entered college half believing she wasn’t smart enough to accomplish much, but ready to work her butt off to prove otherwise.
As a child, she’d loved the stories she heard in church about Jesus healing the sick. She wanted to do that for people, but while she liked the idea of the prestige being a doctor would offer, her heart knew there was something more than “fixing” people that she longed for. In any case, she’d been told often enough that she lacked the discipline to get that advanced of a degree.
“I struggled all through college trying to fight my inner, self-destructive voice telling me I wasn’t smart enough. I spent my entire four years in the library trying to prove to myself and the world that I was academic.”
Jolene begged her way into a top-notch college in Minnesota, only to leave after a year to fight forest fires in the Idaho panhandle. While there, she took up flying lessons, thinking she’d prove herself by getting her private pilot’s license. After logging 20 hours and 3 solo flights, she acknowledged that she was scared to death up there and returned to college, this time in Wisconsin, where she fought her way through a male-dominated department to graduate with a degree in history.
Remembering it now, she shakes her head in wonder:
“I was so, so lost.”
Jolene had always had a second sight about illness. In college, it got so that she could meet a person only once and later identify them across campus by their walk or the sound of their cough. If she were in close proximity to someone with a condition, she’d begin to feel their pains and imbalances in her own body.
“I didn’t know it was unique. I assumed it happened to everyone.”
Focused on proving herself by the world’s conventions, she didn’t think about her ability enough to even ask whether it would strike anyone else as remarkable. It was just something she had inside her. But completing her degree left her feeling hollow, inauthentic. Adrift once again, she signed up for an AmeriCorps stint in Portland, where her sister lived.
Those first few months found her sharing a house with 5 other people, living on food stamps, and sleeping in a closet with a sheet for a door, all while weathering a dreary PNW winter. But Jolene felt for the first time that she was in the right place, even without knowing what she was there for.
“The cherry blossoms were in full bloom up and down the waterfront. I was wearing my favorite Gap jeans, Chacos and a white t-shirt, throwing the disc around, shooting the shit. I was finding my way in an amazingly progressive city with an amazingly progressive group of friends.
“I could breathe; I felt my wings expanding. My whole life was in front of me. Everything about this city made sense.”
Jolene found a job managing the Oregon School of Massage bookstore, which offered her a deep discount on classes. Still battling with skepticism, she immediately found her hands accessing the deep intuition that she’d always had about people’s physical illness. The more she explored different forms of bodywork, the more she understood that not only was her gift was real, but that she had to find her own integrity in using it.
“I didn’t want to just ‘relax’ a person–I wanted to be Jesus, to heal people. To make people able to really change and achieve wellness on their own.”
Jolene applied herself to mastering the most elite form of bodywork: structural integration. Also known as Rolfing, the technique has a very serious reputation which is respected widely, even outside the alternative healing world. It involves a lot of movement and effort, with many postures and movements that chiropractors and Western physical therapists would recognize.
Immersing herself in this year-long program woke her up to the reality that she could see far more in the body than even seasoned bodyworkers. Her instructor confirmed it: “95% of the world can’t see what you see in the body.” Her client practice also flourished, and with it, her confidence. Her unique ability was becoming real to her, as was her responsibility, which she could honor by helping people the way she’d always wanted to. It all made sense.
But then, just as she graduated from her program, all the sense was laid bare. Getting through the challenging program had finally restored the confidence she lacked as a child by giving her an ego.
“I realized this isn’t it. I’m giving people what they think they need: to work super hard in order to get a change. I realized it doesn’t take someone working really hard, experiencing all that pain and resistance.
“I ended up in a somato-emotional release class–the pinnacle of CST–and that kicked off my new chapter.”
The treatment begins like any doctor’s appointment: with me reciting my symptoms (with lots of armchair speculation thrown in). I can see Jolene listening to me in a way that suggests someone else in the room is talking. She looks into my eyes the way a surgeon looks at a heart laid open before him, glancing occasionally at my shoulders, my jawline, my hips.
At her direction, I stand up; she faces me from about five feet away. She gives her body a gentle shake and, as her gaze moves over my body, she murmurs in a mild tone of discovery:
“Oh… Mm-hm. Hi.”
I’ve been to a lot of CSTs—talky, sphinx-like, tentative, flighty, soporific. Jolene is the first who has ever seemed to interact principally with the infirmity I brought in. Something about it makes perfect sense.
As her gaze takes me in, I feel my shoulders relax, my chest uncave and my hips experiment with a new equilibrium. Jolene acknowledges these motions, sometimes by mirroring them herself, or by using her hands to map out the affected regions of my body over her own.
Once her hands drop, one immediately rises again, brushing over her shoulder and flicking down her side, as if a cobweb were clinging to her.
She tells me later, with pride and shyness commingled in her voice, that this is an involuntary motion—a gesture that showed up one day without her thinking about it. With her gift for reading into people’s bodies, it’s all too easy to let the shadows of their affliction cling to her. The gesture seems to be a way to clear away any of their energy she might be taking on.
Whatever it is, she has to trust her own body to take care of itself before she can trust it to take care of someone else.
When Jolene was nine, her parents’ divorce moved her and her sisters off the family farm to a township twelve miles north. It was devastating, not only for the breakup of the family but for having to leave the beloved family farm. But Jolene found solace by wandering over a neighbor’s field, through a field, and up an increasingly steep hill until she reached a rock formation that looked out over the bluffs and rivers of southeast Minnesota.
“I found myself going to this place often, and in all seasons. In rain; in summer; sometimes I’d go up there sledding. Sometimes I’d bring my friend, my sister, my dog. But what was most special to me was when I went there by myself.
“I would start out going to this place, and in the beginning I would be really excited, I’d be going though all these emotions trying to get to this destination, the top of this rock. I’d get excited, I’d get scared because I was trespassing, and I’d get into the forest and of course my imagination would just go wild, I would think of all these crazy scenarios of what could be lurking behind these trees, and then when I’d get to where it opened up into the rock formation, then I’d be worried about snakes! (laughs) And so it was this cascading experience of all these emotions. But then when I’d get to the top, I’d just sit up there for a very long time, and I’d just sit and look out and just feel really happy. … Just really at peace.”
Only last week, Jolene tells me, she visited a church for the first time in ten years. The pastor told a story about a boy who would go to the woods every day.
“His father one day asked ‘Son, why do you go to the woods every day?’ And his son said, to find God. And then his dad said, ‘Well, that’s a fine reason, son, but I want you to know that God is the same everywhere.’ And the boy said to his father, ‘I know that, dad, but I’m not the same everywhere.’”
At those words, Jolene felt tears running down her face. She was taken back to that rocky hill, where all the sadness in her childhood, even her worries about getting to the top safely, melted away in the feeling of serenity. That feeling, she realized, was connection to God.
“And that’s blind faith—I had no reason why I’d rather climb up this rock by myself, than be with friends, than do something else. All I knew is I kept going.”
Jolene says she has a hard time with faith. She always prays for proof of things she’s asked to believe, not the least of which is how exactly craniosacral therapy works. The convention remains that if the explanation doesn’t sound smart enough, if the practitioner isn’t working hard enough, or if the work doesn’t hurt, then the therapy must not be good enough. In the face of this skepticism, despite all the study she’s done, Jolene says she’s still not fully converted…not every day, anyway.
“I’m still attached to the intellectualism around what I do. I feel like people still want to hear some anatomical explanation for what I do. I can give them that, but when I get them on the table I’m not thinking ‘I’m going to adjust your sphenoid now.’ I’m in a trance, leading their body. It becomes a dance, this art where I’m almost removed.”
There are basic rhythms to the dance: a rhythmic pattern in the body that consists of a five-second inflection with a two-second extension. Jolene’s hands float back and forth like lazy butterflies, coming together and drifting apart. Finding where that rhythm is off is supposed to direct therapists on where corrections should take place.
“I was trying to follow this rhythm, but I was picking up all these different rhythms. I was feeling a figure eight rhythm that no one had ever told me about.”
At first, she thought she was doing something wrong. It turned out that the in-out rhythm shuts off when the patient is experiencing a therapeutic release, and Jolene’s clients were having that release right after she touched them.
“It turned out my hands and body had an innate knowledge and understanding of this work. I feel when a release is happening–it will go out my right or left side. I feel bones moving under my hands, all these tissues unwinding. My hands tingle, I feel energy going out my feet.
“To me, it’s the most beautiful feeling in the world to be in that sacred space with my clients. It’s so serene, it’s so peaceful. It feels like I’m close to God. Like finally coming home.”
The most intense moment in crania-sacral work is the “drop.” This is the moment just before the release begins; it’s where your conscious mind takes its leave and your brain goes into theta wave state, where the senses are withdrawn from the external world and focused on inner signals–deep emotions, creativity, memory, intuition.
Before I met Jolene, I’d been there once or twice briefly. With her, I went there almost instantly. And let me tell you, as someone who insists on understanding everything, that it feels fucking wonderful to have your mind take a long break and let your body’s intelligence set you to rights.
It’s impossible to keep track of time; I’ve woken up out of it believing that I’ve only got a few minutes left on the table, only to wake up all over again an hour later. When I do wake up, it feels as though something in me went to the bottom of the sea and came back up with something I’d been missing.
And sometimes really weird things happen in that theta state: for instance, the time I’m awakened out of the drop by the sound of my own voice. A gentle sort of bird call is issuing from my open mouth. It’s like the sound a week-old baby might make in her sleep. I’m barely conscious enough to be a little embarrassed of it; definitely not enough to dwell on the feeling.
As odd as it is, the memory of it fades as I walk out into the leaf-blown parking lot, where the lights of passing bicycles and high-rises across the water and the purple dusk make all of southeast Hawthorne look like a garden party. I feel a little bit tired, but that’s all. I have that vague feeling of having left something behind me by mistake.
Honestly, despite the memory of having made weird motions and noises, it can be a challenge to believe anything at all really happened in that room.
I’ve learned better than to talk much about CST to anyone else. And Jolene has the same experience. To her family, and even many of her friends, she’s a “body therapist”–which feels weird, like she’s not getting the credibility she went through so much training to earn.
But calling herself a “healer” feels too grand and self-important. It ignores the pivotal role that the patient has in the work.
“It is the people healing themselves, not me. I’m a channel; I illuminate this pattern in their bodies and encourage them in ways to fix it. I want my clients to be empowered to take that into their own hands, not need to come to me to fix it.”
This is where it gets confusing, for Jolene as well as for me. I’ve tried many times to “fix” myself with relaxation techniques I’ve learned, and it only kind of works, sometimes, temporarily. Jolene says the same thing; she can sometimes heal from things by using CST holds on herself, but she does live with pain in her body that she can’t fix.
“One of my teachers said healing needs to be witnessed. I don’t understand why it works this way, but I wonder if there needs to be someone facilitating the healing for you because it needs to be witnessed.”
Physical health is often accompanied by arrogance, and the medical establishment largely caters to that. “You deserve to be back on your feet in no time,” they claim, “and these drugs will get you there.” But when you do get sick and can’t find an immediate cure, this arrogance turns into a self-identification with illness.
We’ve all met people who seem to take masochistic pleasure in their sickness, and the complicated regimen and halted ability it brings. (Maybe we’ve even been this person.) Chronic illness gives us an excuse for why we are the way we are. Healing asks us to become someone we’re not…rather, someone we aren’t yet.
Sitting in the anteroom before my appointment, I clutch my paper cup of tea, waiting for its warmth to spread through my cold gripped knuckles. What, I wonder, would the “better” version of me be? Will I turn into someone I don’t know? Do I want this therapy to work, or do I just want to be made more comfortable in my disease?
For Jolene, on the other side of this question, wanting to be Jesus has its drawbacks; she wants so badly to see people healed that it can hinder the actual work.
“In that situation, my ego gets in the way, and I work exceptionally hard to get that person to unwind. I’m learning that if a soul is not ready to heal and transform, I can go nowhere with that person.”
There’s a lot of humility involved in healing–it’s essentially asking for a miracle. What I didn’t realize before that it’s as much an act of humility on the part of the healer as it is for the patient. When Jolene comes to work, she’s asking for the same miracle to come and give her release. She regularly grapples with doubt that what she has to offer will work.
“I have daily knee-jerk responses to throw out the subtleties and bury my elbow in someone’s non-moving shoulder. But then I remember I did that and it wasn’t enough! Sure, I could muscle my way into a body, but then I inevitably leave and the body is left feeling violated and alone, unsure how it got there.”
It sounds weird to say this, but CST is a humble approach—Jolene sometimes calls it “feminine.” It works through asking permission from the client’s body, teaching it to become a willing participant in its own healing. It admits of much that we don’t understand, and it works best in a medium of patience.
Maybe that’s really what makes healing take place–the communal act of submission in faith that the miracle will come.
“I’m still learning the balance between the doing and the receiving. The allowing piece and the facilitating piece. I realized that it was something moving through me–I’m still coming to terms with what it is.
“I’m only as useful as the receiver allows me to be. Humbling beyond words, but also liberating once I truly believe it.”
Jolene practices craniosacral therapy in Portland, Oregon.
Visit her website here.