Exploring the role and impact of holds and holding, the very hallmark in many ways of our beautiful craniosacral practice, became a necessity following a road accident and a workshop with BCST and author Michael Shea.
My body remembers being held wholly under the sacrum and the brainstem in a way it craved to be held, in a way it had never been held before under the circumstances that pervaded the field at the time.
The fourth biodynamic craniosacral session at the end of a three-day workshop at the Elmfield Institute broke me open. It laid me down truly at the feet of surrender, grief; to release the final waves of shock still in my tissues. These ripples resonated with my birth trauma and sorrow that felt buried deep in my inner well sprung out like a blessing, like an “aaaaah at last I am set free”!
Three days before, I was steadily driving on the motorway, elated after a few days of foraging, walking, and swimming in the gorgeous wilds of Donegal, in the North West of Ireland, when someone bashed into the side of my camper van. I saw her in my rearview mirror and panic set within me as she was clearly ‘aiming’ for me. My fight or flight response soared into full throttle, my eyes went from the metallic fence in the middle of the road to her fast-approaching, menacing car. When the shock took place, the van and I rattled, but I was relieved I could continue to drive, I did not crash in the middle fence and kept stern at the ‘helm’ of my ship until I pulled to the side of the road.
Every part of me was like jelly when I got out to talk to the other driver. I was a fascial mass uncontrollably shaking, livid and senseless. My first question was “how could you not see me?” but I did not get a chance to even ask as she promptly and forcefully accused me of hitting her. I could feel my legs going from under me when I heard my inner wild animal roar back at her. She did not back down, she kept to her story so I took a picture of her registration plate and left.
I was due to meet a friend that afternoon and we reported the whole thing to the police, who were kind and helpful. Both contributed to settling down my nerves, and luckily the following day I was in the biodynamic craniosacral container, generously held by Jane Shaw and my colleagues.
It took the whole three days for me to feel myself again, although I had to hold the part of me scared of going back out on the road; who restlessly and somewhat irrationally wondered: “What if I meet her again?”
My body remembers that hold still. The words ‘vessel of my body’ came to mind as I laid between Erica McKeen’s skilled hands and strong anchored presence. I recall another powerful hold: her hand gently above and below my sternum where my heart could open wide again, where my blood could flow with more ease, where my breath could fill my lungs and belly.
(Image courtesy of CSTA, Craniosacral Therapy Association)
I was back within this holy “vessel” and I felt such grateful relief at this falling down, this trusting in the holds mapping my way home. I could truly lean back, let go, travel more deeply to release, and eventually drop into a beautiful dynamic stillness.
I know that the other three sessions I received prepared me for this one. I am also aware that the circumstances created this particular container and presided over the way I reacted to these particular holds. The secret key was that Erica knew to pick them intuitively. And they actually felt like her own holds, they were unique to her in the way that she used them and embodied them. And it was not just her hands that held me, her whole compassionate presence wrapped itself around me. We were both in that concomitant ‘bubble’ or biosphere surrounding our two personal 'bubbles', in awe and in beauty. It was a spiritual experience too. I knew then that I wanted to write about one of the most exquisite parts of our practice: the way we hold.
For in that healing communion, in this common biosphere, something much more potent than the both of us held us. As Michael Shea puts it when he refers to Dr James Jealous’ teachings, “we are accessing the forces of creation as they were at the time of our origin as an embryo”.
A few weeks later I attended a workshop hosted by ehealthlearning (https://ehealthliving.org/courses/rules-vascular-tree/)
and led by Michael Shea, a renowned and revered figure in our field. I had long wished to attend one of his workshops but the subject was particularly apt at the time: The Rules of the Vascular Tree, our blood system seen as a tree of life rooted in the cosmic origins of existence.
Each class featured a long demonstration with Michael’s wife who had just had a hip operation and generously gave of her time and body. I became fascinated by the originality and specificity of Michael’s holds. This added much fodder to my exploration, and I decided to ask Michael as well as other BCST practitioners some questions about the importance and role of holds but also the evolution of their relationship with holds over time.
Those of you familiar with my blog posts know that it is not the first time I glean views and experiences from different perspectives in our biodynamic craniosacral field. Well, once again I sat in wonder at the diversity of responses to my questions, reflecting the width and richness of our holding.
Michael Shea has evolved constantly during his 40 years career. He explains that “In many ways the moment I became familiar with the various protocols I was learning from numerous teachers early in my career, mainly osteopaths, I came to realize that my hands could be more effective if I tried placing them somewhere different based on my own instincts and mindfulness of the moment in the therapeutic encounter. That gradually evolved into creating a network of teachers mainly in Europe and discussing the evolution of handholds.”
This evolution ran parallel with the needs of his clients over time. At present, Michael concentrates on what Covid showed up in the field: a prevalence of illnesses connected to the breakdown of our metabolism, itself I’d add, a reflection of the ecological collapse, the seriously disrupted collective metabolism of Earth. He quotes some staggering figures: “88% of Americans are metabolically unhealthy and 80% of Americans have an unhealthy heart.”
I appreciate how Michael’s exploration is this sophisticated and candid dance between the macro and the micro, between what is happening in the wider field and his personal life experiences. His practice has always encompassed spiritual elements from ancient traditions. He mentions being inspired by and applying the teachings of Ayurvedic and Tibetan medicine also for the last 40 years but his focus on the cardiovascular system came a bit later when he met the Dalai Lama in 2004, at a very difficult time in his life, soon after his mother died: “I went to see him and it was life-changing as I felt his presence and his mind love me in a way that only a mother could do and I began following his teachings and going through various levels of initiation with him. He encouraged his students to develop “Centers for the Study of the Human Heart.” So, that's what I did. I switched my teaching and practice towards the application of biodynamic cranial sacral therapy to the cardiovascular system.”
Each individual is met on a personal and collective level thanks to this allowing and wide open ‘container’, the qualities of a holding that is aware and self-exploratory as well as anchored in an ancient now, the now of geological, deep time formation, which is also a future 'now', pregnant with infinite possibility.
(Image courtesy of CSTA)
Michael reminded us of what cranial osteopath Dr James Jealous called the “original matrix”, the return to an “Originality” we were gifted with at conception through the craniosacral holding. What we were witnessing in his class was this skilled and effortless integration of different ‘memories’, different ‘rememberings’ of past traditions, a recalling of origins in terms of primordial medicinal and spiritual practices: “When I create new handholds especially in the past several years it has to do with my career-long 40 years of study of Tibetan medicine which I am now involved with more frequently. (...) For me, it's easy to integrate the five elements as Dr. Jealous clearly alluded to them and it provides a bridge into the body's metabolism that formerly I had no access to.”
He talks with fascination about his favourite handhold: “I love the subclavian artery because of its support for the heart and breathing and stabilizing physiological changes between the heart and brain.”
I borrowed some of his holds and found them very useful indeed; particularly the three fingers lightly placed above and below the umbilicus. This personal selection also resulted from a dance between the personal, the relational, and the collective. I am often ‘called’ by this area because of my pre and peri-natal stories but I also ‘know’ to apply it intuitively when it ‘feels’ appropriate, and I have noticed from my eight years of experience with a wide range of clients that it is often a powerful centre of organisation or of inertia. Even without any practice or BCST training, it makes sense that the very portal of connection between us and the placenta, this nourishing, protecting metabolic ‘body extension’ for nine months, would be a potent receptacle and conveyor of imprints and affects.
So what is a hold? Why is it so important in our practice?
Teacher and BCST Scott Zamurut replies, “ In simple terms a hold is the manner in which we practice Biodynamics by making physical contact with our client, without applying force to their system, to perceive the activity of the Breath of Life unfolding the Inherent Healing Process.
In less simple terms a hold is a hand contact with the body physiology of our client used to perceive the interaction of the BoL, expressed as Primary Respiration (aka. The Tide), with their body physiology- the tissues and fluids within the skin, and the on-going physiological processes of life within the body.”
It is also “a perceptual platform for the various energies operating as part of life processes- the activity of the blueprint pattern energy, the movement of Chi within Meridians, the activity of the Chakra System, and so forth.”
You will have noticed not only the reference to other traditions there as well but also how our hands, and much more than our hands, hold much more than what they actually touch.
There is a distinction to be made between making light contact with the “anatomicophysiology” (Scott Zamurut's term) of the body through our hands and actually holding, bringing presence, perceptive acuity, spaciousness and still grounding to what turns touch into a hold.
And here is an interesting debate around one particularly 'famous' hold in the world of BCST.: the vault hold, “in which our hands," explains Scott, "are placed on a client’s cranium to perceive the layers of anatomy and activity present within their head: the CSF[Cerebrospinal fluid], the neural tube, the reciprocal tension membranes, and the osseous structures. That our hands can generally contact each of the protective bones around the brain can be seen as an indicator of the inherent appropriateness of our healing art.”
As Scott hints at through the use of ‘generally’, this is not always the case as it very much depends on the size of one’s hands. Fellow BCST and teacher Margaret Rosenau writes: “ My hands are small. Though I know and can teach the vault hold, I can't demonstrate it or maintain it comfortably on most heads. When I was a student this made me feel like I "couldn't do it" -- and apparently part of me still feels that way! I know that my experience as a student is not unusual, in that learning the "right" way to do something bumps us into the worry or experience of doing it "wrong". This can happen in so many aspects of our work, not just holds, and it is part of what we navigate as practitioners, our unique dance between doubt and knowing. I want my students and clients to spend as much time in their knowing as possible, and to support that I need to be in my knowing as well. If the hold is making me unsure or taking too much of my focus, I change it. Comfort and knowing are bigger priorities for me than the specific hold. “
There are quite a number of interesting points in both Scott’s and Margaret’s contributions. There is fascination and awe and one can feel how he ‘owns’ this hold, how satisfyingly easy it is for him to ground and settle in this particular whole cranium encompassing holding. Margaret and many others like her (I have small hands too) could not settle comfortably into this hold and would either choose another one or change how ‘inadequate’ they felt around it. Comfort and knowing go hand in hand.
Indeed if we do not feel at ease with a hold, either through lack of self-confidence or are uncomfortable while holding because of the poor positioning of our body and the lack of support of our arms after holding for a certain length of time, our discomfort, aches, and the resulting poor presence will impact in many ways on the quality of the session. For example, we will act as centres of inertia or dis-ease around which our clients’ organisms will orient creating patterns, inertial fulcrums etc…
I remember one of my tutors Colin Perrow, who also had small hands, pressing this point to us many times as well as emphasising the possibility of using an alternative way to contact the bones of the cranium: Becker’s hold (the vault hold has long been associated with William Garner Sutherland, the founder of cranial osteopathy and is often called Sutherland’s hold)
(Image courtesy of CSTA)
I particularly like Becker’s hold (named after Dr Rollin Becker, another DO and a ‘disciple’ of Sutherland’s) because it connects with the sphenoid, the temporal, parietal and occipital bones, the mastoid process, and it will also ‘access’ the fourth ventricle, the CSF, the vagus nerve…, and through the many other bones, joints, organs, and tissues that these ‘parts’ are in contact with, we reach the whole cranium and the rest of the body.
I must add that we do, in any case, reach the whole through each hold because this is what biodynamics is about: an awareness of what is happening in each moment in relationship with the whole, so that we can perceive what our client’s organism wishes to show to us and seek support for.
Therefore there are no protocols in our practice, ie there are no pre-set series of holds one goes through in each session. Every biodynamic craniosacral treatment is different and it is the body itself as well as the particular relational container (and I’d argue collective container too) that decides the tone and nature of the holding and holds used.
Margaret’s concern around “Doing it ‘wrong’” sheds light on her reaction to my queries: "oh, I can't write on this. I don't do holds.”
But then she explained why she initially reacted this way: “Like you and all of us trained in this field, I learned holds and I teach holds to my students. But I don't rely on them and sometimes that feels like I don't "do" them. I teach my students to catch themselves if they are focusing too much on doing the hold right or being in the right location -- rather than the listening it facilitates. I believe HOW we place our hands is more important than WHERE we place them. Every contact is a window to the whole and the specifics. Our role as Biodynamic practitioners is to ever more skilfully maintain -- "hold" -- this dual awareness.
So her journey was between the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ of ‘doing holds’ and feeling into this holding, perceiving through holds. We’re going back to Scott’s “perceptive platform”.
Margaret adds: “what we do is hold space and how we do that matters.
And where we put our hands matters.”
So she too created holds that ‘fitted’ better or that appeared more ‘effective’ and easeful: “I have created new holds that I use more commonly than some of the ones I was taught in my original training. One of the places this is most true for me is with intraoral work. Several years ago, one of my students was very pregnant and couldn't lie on her back to receive intraoral work in class. In modifying the holds for her, my co-teacher Vanessa Lillie and I discovered that doing intraoral work from the side was much less intimidating and much more comfortable for the students. So now we teach how to approach the mouth when someone is supine and also when they are side-lying, and again emphasize comfort, ease, and quality of perception and support.”
Scott Zamurut uses the ‘window’ image too: “Physical contact affords a detailed window into the activity of our anatomicophysiology, a term coined by Rollin Becker, DO, to articulate the refinement of perception possible in relation to body physiology.”
For Michael Shea, the word “window” seems to mean a recording system as well a perceptive tool: “I originally called hand positions windows. And for many years created windows documents. And that's what hand positions and palpation are really about. They are simply a window and sometimes the window needs to be polished and cleaned and sometimes looking inside the window can be obtrusive and so we maintain an attunement with a wider universe or zone D as Jim Jealous called it”
In a paper entitled Rules of the Embryo - The Emergence of a Clinical Biodynamic Metabolic Model (2022) Michael explains what he means about this "attunement" that precedes 'palpation' and is crucial to establishing the ground for our perception. Other teachers may refer to tuning into our 'baseline'.
"Cycles of attunement" are "the movement of attention towards one’s hands and one’s own soma and the environment. Dr Jealous refers to this as moving attention through the Zones of Perception (A-D) until the Zones homogenize as a single unified continuum of self-knowing panoramic awareness. Zone A is from the center of the body to the skin, B is from the center of the body through the shared biosphere of client and therapist, C is from the center of the body through the office space and D is from the center of the body through the natural world outside the office extending to the horizon. This is evenly suspended attention free of conceptualizing about its meaning."
‘Palpation’ is an interesting word for Michael’s style of contact. During his demonstrations, he would indeed gently ‘press’ on an artery and even invite us to gently let our fingers follow its subtle rotation. It was quite mesmerising to witness and feel how my organism responded to this acuity of morphological perception and attention.
Another practitioner and teacher, Andrew Cook, views handholds as “starting points” and is not “a great fan of fancy holds for every occasion”.
Andrew also has a particular way of holding his fingers in a hold: “I quite like curling my fingers round into a loose fist so that the thenar eminences support the occiput and the backs of my fingers support the neck.”
There is a ritualistic side to the recurrence of some holds in our sessions that I resonate with when Andrew explains: “Cradling the sides of each knee in turn for a few seconds with both my hands seems to be a useful start in quite a few treatments.”
He adds, “Quite often I will work from the feet - particularly if there are large rotational off-body vectors round the head and upper body (rather than putting myself in the middle of them)”
I often begin at the feet as well, a place where I can sense the whole in a spacious manner, including the fluid field, the wider field in the room, and the natural world outside. I could easily stay there for most of the session some time and support change from this great wide open perceptive ‘window’.
BCST and teacher Tanya Desfontaines speaks in similar terms: “I think that although I have often felt that I could happily conduct an entire session from just one hold, e.g. the feet or sacrum, more usually I begin from a relatively neutral hold (often at the feet, sometimes the shoulders or a midline hold from the side of the table) I then allow myself to be led through the session according to whatever is revealed or how my client’s process unfolds. For most sessions, I would use 3 or 4 different holds.”
The importance of where and how we place our hands and fingers morphologically is very much at the heart of Michael’s touch/‘palpation’ and others’ too. I have noticed that on many occasions, the more anatomically correct my perceptive hand ‘window’, the more my client’s body relaxes and trusts the hold. This repeats in a different wording what was mentioned before: the more our hands are ‘knowing’ the more a body settles, goes deeper, and reorganises.
A client recently said she was “amazed” at how her body “trusted the hold” and let go to depths she would have previously found too “overpowering”.
So as I review what I have read from practitioners and how diverse their practice is I notice that precisely because our biodynamic craniosacral practice does not ‘do’ protocols’, it leaves room for much ‘innovation’ and creativity, allowing us to evolve and add from other traditions that resonate with our work.
I know that since I practise Tsa Lung Tibetan breathing I sometimes ‘see’ the breathing meridians around the midline of my clients for example. I have integrated this seamlessly as a perceptive tool or ‘window’ that adds rather than takes away.
The features in the room itself also play a part in our holding. When I went to receive a session with Tanya Desfontaines in gorgeous Dartington, (Devon, UK) last month, I also felt held by the beautiful stones with which she adorns her therapeutic space. Their powerful mineral presence was a great addition to the beautifully ‘knowing’ treatment I received.
Similarly, some of my clients have spoken their appreciation of all the plants that enliven my practice room, or of the birdsongs accompanying our sessions as I often leave the windows open.
About holds and the width of her perceptive holding, Tanya says, “For me, touch also constitutes an important aspect of the relationship between practitioner and client. The negotiation of a quality of touch which meets the tissues in an appropriate way can support a sense of safety, which in turn invites the nervous system to settle. Through the hands, it is possible to convey all manner of qualities such as acceptance, non-judgment, reassurance, gentleness and presence. The hands also make relationship with the tissues directly, bringing a grounded quality and giving information about the structures, local expression of primary respiration and healing processes. I literally have a sense of ‘earthing’ through my hands, feet and midline when I work, allowing bioelectric forces to move through both my own and my client’s body, like a lightning conductor bringing a charge to earth. My hands move from out of the wider field of my awareness and contact the client’s body from there, providing grounding as well as the relational qualities described above.”
She touches on another dimension about holds, "the gift of structure" which as we are non-manipulative helps clients to orient towards depth and "enhance the client’s awareness of their own body".
Tanya gives this useful example to illustrate her words: “I remember giving a demo in Prague, where I was teaching a post-graduate seminar on Trauma work. I was demonstrating with a participant, showing the negotiation of the relational field, and moving towards contact. I paused to listen for a settling in the field, and said something like, “his system knows that I won’t do anything until he is ready” and immediately felt the model’s system relax and the field start to settle, whereas previously there had been a level of hyperarousal and hyper vigilance observable in his body and palpable through my attunement. I could then approach the table and negotiate the physical contact.”
She brings up the ‘no’ we sometimes feel when holding clients and describes an interesting ‘way’ around it: “Working with a client who had a history of CSA [Central Sleep Apnea], I was drawn to work at her belly, which felt quite inertial, cold and blank. I asked if ok to bring my hands there and she said, ‘yes, fine’ but I felt a ’NO’ from her body, again through attunement of the relational field. I respected the NO and went instead to her shoulders, which felt ok for her and ok from her body. This client taught me that there can sometimes be this kind of mixed message, so I sometimes silently offer my hands to hold different places on a person’s body, picturing them in my mind’s eye and offering several options until I get a ‘YES’ from that Intelligence which guides the session.”
When working with babies and children, I sometimes ask where they’d like to be held before making contact and invariably they ‘know’ and point to a particular place.
Tanya resonates with this and adds: “I often find that babies and children are especially clear about where they want or don’t want the contact of my hands, they will sometimes place my hand on their body, or remove a hand or move away when they’ve had enough.”
Her final reflections wrap up well this exploration of holds:
“I think it’s great to begin with a repertoire of basic /generic holds - feet, shoulders, sacrum, midline holds, cranial vault holds, occipital cradle, side lying holds - getting comfortable with them, learning how to adapt them for different body shapes and sizes, how to optimise the comfort and postural support for both practitioner and client. And then to allow your hands to 'go where they want to go’ - in this way I often find myself working with some invented hold or combination of holds. It fascinates me how the autobiographical information held in particular areas of the body can be so specific, finely nuanced through multiple channels of perception ie. visual imagery, kinaesthetic felt-sense, auditory, emotional feeling tones, and how this changes through the course of a session and when listening from different hand holds, affording a different perspective of the detail within the whole."
We work "with all kinds of people" as Tanya says, and what greatly matters is that we trust and 'own' our holds intuitively so that the bodies we contact with our knowing hands, landing receptively and lightly like a "feather on the breath of God" (Michael Shea, 1997)
entrust the creative Intelligence within to do what it wishes to do with our support.
This trusting often unfurls when there is a meeting and a completion of what laid dormant behind the patterns.
Two personal 'stories' imprinted in my organism were 'hit' during the road accident: the failure/inability to be heard and the terror of a 'no way out' experienced in the birth canal. Both came through gradually, clearly through the four craniosacral sessions I received. This allowed me to meet them at a deeper level, to grieve and feel compassion towards them.
Trusting the holds returned me back to Health.
Deep gratitude for the time and the invaluable experience shared by Michael Shea, Scott Zamurut, Margaret Rosenau, Tanya Desfontaines, and Andrew Cook.
Here are their respective websites for more information:
https://www.sheaheart.com/ Michael Shea just published
The Biodynamics of the Immune System