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The origin of Osteopathy, Craniosacral and Polarity Therapy

This post is influenced from an excellent article written by Nita Renfrew in the Journal of contemporary Shamanism, 2015

When taught, both Osteopathy and Craniosacral therapy often take the students on a tour of history from the founder of Osteopathy, Dr Andrew Taylor Still and one of his students, Dr William Garner Sutherland.

Sutherland developed the Cranial Osteopathic model as an extension of Osteopathy, and in his later years, he then moved to a more Biodynamic approach.

Both Dr's Still and Sutherland were pioneers in their work, and both respected and understood deeply, the Intelligence within the human body and its capacity for self-healing.

In these teachings of the History of Still and then Sutherland to students of Osteopathy, Cranial Osteopathy and Craniosacral therapy, it seems that little, if anything, has been mentioned of what influenced Dr Still to develop the bodywork and manipulative techniques that he initially called, Magnetic-healing and bone-setting, then later, Osteopathy.

Certainly, from Nita’s article, it seems that the honouring and mention of the First Nations people of Turtle Island (America) as a deep influence in the principles and practice of Osteopathic medicine are only coming to light in recent years.

Until coming across Nita’s article last year, I hadn’t ever been taught or heard about the influences and impact of the Shawnee around Dr Still’s creation of Osteopathy.

“Dr Still’s family had a long history of living and working with the Shawnee American Indians on a reservation in Kansas (where the tribe was forcibly relocated to in the 19th Century).

Still’s father was a missionary and a physician to the Shawnee and in 1853, Still assisted him for a number of years as part of his training.” Dr Still lived on the reservation with his family for several years, farming and growing food. It is said that he learned the Shawnee language fluently whilst working with them. He had a deep respect for the Shawnee’s connection to the land, to the sky and the stars, the forests, mountains, and rivers. The Indigenous knowing that everything was sentient, and that the deep interconnectedness of life was within them and the living world around them.

There is no doubt then, that from the many years of his life immersed with the Shawnee, that he was greatly influenced by their ways, and he lived his life, like them, by a nature-centred belief.

And certainly, it is through the observation of the power and Intelligence of Nature, within and without, that the Indigenous draw their knowledge, knowledge and wisdom that is older than time itself, to do their healing work.

Whilst there is nowhere on record (either in his own writings or otherwise) as to where Dr Still was influenced and how he developed his Osteopathic techniques, he had been known to have often used the phrase when teaching his students: “to take an 'Indian' look at something” - which is to forget about what you know, and to quietly observe, with a soft eye and no thoughts.

This is certainly something I have been taught in Craniosacral work - put what we know behind the curtain, and then we may find what is actually there.

A quote from Still’s Autobiography;

“All nature seemed to wait in hushed expectancy. With the Iron hand of will I barred the gates of memory, shut out the past with its old ideas. My soul took on a receptive attitude, my ear was tuned to nature’s harmony.”

Dr Louis Mehl-Madrona who teaches Cherokee bodywork and seeks to honour and preserve this important healing method, noted the similarities to this form of massage and manipulative visceral techniques and Osteopathy.

Both the Cherokee and Shawnee were neighbouring tribes on their original lands in what is now Virginia.

Cherokee and Shawnee bodywork, along with Zuni and Navajo healing, work with energy and the breath.

Bone-setting (moving cranial bones) working along the ridges, albeit with more force than Craniosacral work, was also practised.

Massage-and manipulative bodywork would also be used, working with the organs, joints, musculoskeletal tissue, acupressure points and energy channels (that also correspond to the meridians). All of this would be combined with gentle rocking, narrative healing, both verbal and energetic, using storytelling and dialogue with the system of the client, as well as deep and intense breath-work to “restore spirit” to all parts of the body when giving treatments, known as “doctoring”.

In addition to the work of the healers, there would be a very important spiritual component, of traditional ritual and ceremony, such as using smoke, offering, tobacco, herbs, sage, feathers, crystals, imagery, intent, and energy to converse and work with the spirit world in the sessions.

I can attest from personal experience as a client being seen by Osteopath, and Craniosacral practitioners in Melbourne, the UK, and Germany, and whilst they won’t publicly admit it, that there is a deep element of spiritual work during their sessions, conversing with guides and the spirit world. Whether it is Osteopathy, Cranial Osteopathy, Craniosacral Therapy, Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy, or Polarity therapy, this work is deep and profound. It is working with a sacred Intelligence, in a neutral, receptive Holding space.

In this work, the practitioner and the client will access deep levels of stillness and being, it is humbling to witness and to be a part of, for both practitioner and client, as we realise, we are more, much more than our name and the things or stories that we came into the room with.

Widely recognised Biodynamic Craniosacral and Polarity therapy teacher, Franklin Sills describes in one of his books (Foundation of Craniosacral biodynamics Vol 1) the parallels between Shamanistic healing and craniosacral therapy: “Shamanism is a healing tradition found in almost all ancient and primitive cultures. It recognises a divine ordering principle at work in the Universe and the spiritual roots of creation. The work we do in Craniosacral biodynamics has direct Shamanistic resonances. We orient to deeper forces at work and to ordering principles that are “not made by human hands”.

Hugh Milne in one of his books, the Heart of Listening, Visionary Craniosacral work vol 1, in the chapter on Vignettes on the History of Healing, he covers the tenets of Shamanism:

“that we have access to the solutions to our own problems, having within us everything needed for our own healing.”

In closing to her article from which this post is influenced; Renfrew beautifully writes;

“Isn’t it sweet irony, or poetic justice rather, that we owe Osteopathic medicine, Craniosacral and Polarity therapy to the Original inhabitants of this land, the American Indians.”

“The work ‘Shaman’ originally came from the Siberian-Tungusic Evenki language. It now has a far wider and more generic meaning; working or mediating between the Invisible and visible worlds, or between the physical and spiritual worlds, to effect change.”


Nita M Renfrew: Traditional American Indian bodywork: The Origin of Osteopathy, Craniosacral and Polarity Therapy.

(The Journal of Contemporary Shamanism, Volume 8, Issue 1, Spring/Summer 2015).


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