Essence and Form

Exploring Polarity Therapy and Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy

By Roger Gilchrist

As we practice therapeutic bodywork, we inevitably come up against the mysteries of life. All of our training, our experience in practice, and our continuing education can be—in a moment—challenged and humbled when we encounter such mystery.

While the mystery of the human energy system was challenging to discuss not that long ago, more and more evidence for its existence accumulates every day. The details of human energy, and its application to health and wellness, continue to be explored in various studies—among the earliest were the “Copper Wall” experiments conducted by Elmer Green, PhD, from 1991–1993.
Polarity therapy and biodynamic craniosacral therapy (BCST) are two different bodywork systems that endeavor to create a deeper relationship with this mystery, and to help us understand the real essence of the healing process. Interestingly, both have their roots in osteopathic medicine, which has always professed to be both a philosophy and a science. When used in conjunction, both therapies strive, in their different ways, to understand—or at least appreciate—the mysteries of life.
Polarity Therapy
Polarity therapy was developed by Randolph Stone, DO, an osteopathic physician, chiropractor, and naturopath who also studied cutting-edge trends in medicine during his time, as well as ancient medical systems from multicultural sources. Assembling this knowledge, Stone came to believe there was one common denominator to health and healing­—energy. He wrote: “Energy is the real substance behind the appearance of matter and forms.”
Stone developed polarity therapy as an integrative health system aimed at balancing the human energy system, leading to more balanced physiology, increased vitality, better self-regulation, and greater self-awareness. The name itself refers to energetic charges as the basis of all interactions: chemical, physical, structural, and so on. The system includes five arenas of therapeutic work: polarity therapy bodywork, energy exercises (sometimes called polarity yoga), energetic nutrition, self-awareness, and the healing power of love. All fully trained polarity therapists are familiar with these five arenas of health, though many choose to specialize in just one—for example, bodywork.
Polarity therapy bodywork uses three styles of contact, or engagement, with the client, in resonance with three principles that govern energy movement:
• Sattvic is neutral, or balancing, and involves light contact on the surface of the body or working in the energy field around the body; sattvic contacts do not manipulate the soft tissues. Polarity therapy is sometimes practiced entirely sattvically, with an emphasis on balancing the energy dynamics in the field.
• Rajasic is a more active style of engagement, and involves energetic or physical stimulation that can range from subtly vibrating a point to a Trager-like rocking of a limb or section of the body. The function of a rajasic contact is to stimulate energy to move.
• Tamasic engagement is focused on dispersing deeply held inertial energies, which can be identified as fixations in the client’s body structure, emotional field, attitudes, or beliefs. Tamasic approaches are used to confront the fixation and challenge the system to mobilize its resources toward transformation. In terms of bodywork, tamasic contacts are deep and dispersing, and often slow.
Some aspects of polarity therapy bodywork are very structurally oriented. Not surprisingly, given his background, Stone’s books are filled with classical moves from chiropractic and osteopathy. Around this approach, Stone adds the energy movements that are the true foundation of change.
In addition to bodywork, polarity therapy practitioners might suggest exercises that can help clients with their issues. For example, a beautiful fluid movement called “scissor kicks” can gently open the hip joints and sacroiliac joints, leading to relief of sciatic pain. A polarity therapist might also make dietary recommendations, helping the same client reduce intake of foods that cause inflammation. Working with self-awareness is another feature in the practice of polarity therapy. Perhaps in the therapeutic process, the client discovers a tendency to hold energy around the second chakra, for example, and thereby realizes the energetic underpinnings of the sacroiliac distress.
All five arenas of polarity therapy are based on Stone’s comprehensive, integrative model of the human energy system. This model differs from the meridian system used in acupuncture and other modalities, and describes a different level of energy. Polarity therapy focuses on the core of the human energy system: the midline and the chakras, the field dynamics (charges or polarities) and the currents generated by them, the energy harmonics created by the Five Elements and distributed through the three poles of the energy field, organ resonances with the Five Elements, structural reflexes called lines of force, and ways that energy affects the physiology of the body.
Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy
BCST is a different therapeutic practice with some philosophical similarities to polarity therapy. One thing that is absent from the BCST model is a pragmatic description of the human energy system, such as polarity therapy provides. In other words, BCST is oriented toward holding a therapeutic relationship to those mysteries: the ability to engage the essential energy field fluctuation is a specific level of the therapeutic process.
William G. Sutherland, DO, spent a lifetime developing a specialty in osteopathic medicine called cranial osteopathy. He worked out the details of several core physiological functions that would later become what John Upledger, DO, called the craniosacral system: the biomechanics of movement in the sutures of the skull; the distribution of forces through the dural membrane (which Sutherland called a reciprocal tension membrane); and the dynamics of cerebrospinal fluid fluctuations. But the emphasis for Sutherland was the energetic process driving all of these physiological expressions.
Sutherland had such reverence for this process that he called it the “Breath of Life.” He pointed to an energy movement that he called “primary respiration” as the dynamic that distributes energy through a living system, animating one’s being and propelling the healing process. One of Sutherland’s successors, Rollin Becker, DO, discussed an energetic exchange between the physical organism and the field around it, and modern research has shown that this idea is consistent with observations in biophysics. I am convinced that if Sutherland had lived to see the revolution of quantum physics enter the realm of public awareness, he would have simply used the term “energy” to describe the movement of the Breath of Life.
Therapists who practice BCST use subtle skills to assist this living system of essential energy movement to balance and/or therapeutically transform its processes. BCST uses a spectrum of dynamics: orientation of the dural membrane, cranial bones, and sutures; fluid dynamics and spinal structure; freeing possible nerve impingement or balancing the autonomic nervous system; and, at more essential levels, the overall distribution of vital energy. This therapeutic range can yield benefits in the structure of the body, its physiological balance, sensory-motor functioning, ability to reduce stress levels, capacity to self-regulate, and general motivation or drive in life.
The Three Fields of Function
BCST works within three fields of function, which are defined as tissues, fluids, and potency (energy dynamics). For example, massage therapy works on tissues, lymphatic work focuses on fluids, and energy work deals with potency.
BCST therapists work differently from other craniosacral practitioners. Traditional craniosacral therapy (CST) takes a manual approach, though the amount of manipulation is minor compared to other forms of bodywork—Upledger stated a well-known admonition for less than 5 grams of pressure. In contrast, BCST practitioners use subtle skills, including states of balanced tension and other augmentation skills, in which energetic forces are set up to work with or transform their own process, leading to changes at the physical level. Whether it’s dural membrane tensions, the position of vertebrae, the contraction in and around a joint, or a strain in the connective tissues, there are energy forces that are organizing these experiences. Although this is a subtle practice, clients should be leaving with tangible physical benefits or other noticeable improvements.
Many BCST practitioners have additional experience with trauma resolution, and some are adept with neuroendocrine regulation. All of this takes place in relation to the great mystery, the Breath of Life, and its field movement, primary respiration.
BCST focuses on working with the “breath” in the human energy field. The field fluctuation of energy (primary respiration) is the substrate for the tissue movements, motility and mobility, and fluid dynamics. All rhythms in the body’s physiology are harmonics of the basic field pulsation. The power of BCST is its ability to work at this essential level of the field fluctuation. Additional advantages are the ability to work with fluid dynamics and the particular features of tissue patterns.
The Power of Effortless Effort
My experience with other bodyworkers when they encounter polarity therapy or BCST is that they often have an “Aha!” moment that immediately shows them a deeper understanding of the work they’ve already been doing. Then, when they go further and actually study the details and practices of the profession, they begin working at higher levels with less effort. Stone used to advocate “effortless effort” in therapeutic work. The work becomes more efficient, more effective results happen, and clients notice the difference.
In my own practice, I have found that a combination of these two disciplines is amazingly effective. The healing power of being able to relate to life’s most essential dynamics, to work with the forces underlying the conditions, to understand the movement of energy through the body and how it is the real foundation of health, all lead me to a very integrative awareness with my clients and their processes. It is truly humbling to begin to appreciate the self-corrective functions in life, and the ways that nature reestablishes balance on its own. Being able to support this process therapeutically, when necessary, is profound, and knowing that this process takes place on its own is even more profound. The wisdom to know the difference is a sign of therapeutic maturity.
While polarity therapy describes the essential “breath,” or movement of life energy, BCST describes the forms that this energy takes as it moves through the living body, and provides a range of skills to use in working with it.
This relationship between essence and form is the dynamic at the heart of the mystery of life. In honor of this mystery, I will close with some phrases drawn from the ancient Sanskrit Heart Sutra:  
“Form is not different from Emptiness.
And Emptiness is not different from Form.
Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form.
The same is true for feelings, perceptions, motivations, and consciousness.”

Working with Essence and Form
Basic skills and awareness of the principles of biodynamic craniosacral therapy (BCST) and polarity therapy can add to any therapeutic practice. Both were developed by osteopaths with a high degree of palpatory sensitivity, an awareness of the essential movements of life, and a deep respect for how life balances and self-regulates its inherent dynamics. You can begin to develop your own awareness by using the following methods:

Melt and Transform
The next time you run into a tissue restriction in a client, try the following skills drawn from polarity therapy. Before you begin, allow your hands to become very sensitive to all the qualities you feel associated with the client’s tissue restriction. When you have become attuned to the pattern, administer these three styles of contact:
First, allow your hand(s) to go progressively into the pattern, whether it is into the belly of a muscle or the connective tissues. Find the right angle that allows you in, and gradually move toward the right depth.
Now, wait. Hold a firm, dense, focused contact without trying to push through anything. Try to meet the pattern with its own energy; that is, try to be an exact reflection of the qualities in the pattern. The area will start to melt and transform. When it does, begin to vibrate the area or stimulate the tissue, using a rocking contact, an oscillating hand, or the point-based stimulation of a fingertip.
Finally, when you feel ease, movement, openness, softening, and streaming energy returning in the tissues, lighten your contact to a very gentle level, and simply support the movement of life energy.
These three styles of contact can help us most appropriately meet the energies present in our clients. A more detailed level of work occurs when we study the Five Element reflexes in the three poles of the body. We are then able to work with specific qualities of energy, the organs governed by those, and even life themes associated with the Five Elements. The most important idea is using a contact that is resonant with the qualities presenting in the client, being sensitive to how that changes, and modulating our level of engagement depending on the client’s needs.

Settle into Stillness
Another useful skill is facilitating a still point—a way of helping the various movements settle into a still state, where the movements are temporarily suspended and the living system seems to rest. This can lead to profound therapeutic results. The process of helping the client’s system settle into stillness is more of an attitudinal or resonant process than a manual skill. When the pushes and pulls, strains, and other conditions in the client’s system become suspended in a temporary neutral state, they often transform themselves, generating healthier new expressions of movement and life. This dance between stillness and motion is at the heart of BCST.

Tune In
Take some time in every session to simply hold a still contact. One good way to tune in at the beginning or end of a session is to cradle the head or use a bilateral contact like holding both feet, hips, or shoulders. You might feel a sense of the body widening or expanding very gently, then retreating inward toward its core. This is called motility. While many people palpate this dynamic as a subtle tissue movement, fluids in the body are fluctuating in the same rhythm; for example, cerebrospinal fluid is welling up in the spinal axis then receding toward the sacrum. Energy dynamics are similar, although they take place at a more subtle level. All of this works in symphony and can be felt as one gentle movement of expansion and contraction.
Say something like, “I am just going to hold this still contact with you for a couple of minutes. It helps me become aware of more sensitive dynamics in your system.” It is very therapeutic to allow some time in each session where you simply reflect the client’s dynamics without trying to change them. Becoming aware of the client’s rhythms and tendencies, and consciously reflecting what you are aware of, allows the client’s system to begin to self-regulate at deeper levels.

A Convergence
The American Polarity Therapy Association ( and the Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy Association of North America ( are cosponsoring a conference September 11–14, at the Mount Madonna Conference Center above Monterey Bay, California. The Science and Spirituality Conference is open to bodywork practitioners from all specialties, and the healing arts in general.
The biennial conferences of these two professions will converge to explore the commonalities, complementarity, and contrasts between the fields. The details of the conference program and registration information can be found on the websites of both organizations. This conference is an excellent way to become acquainted with one or both of these fields, as well as being designed to present new information for high-level continuing education.
It is important to acknowledge that many therapists practice in one of these disciplines, not both. We have already mentioned that the complementary aspects of the two fields likely offer valuable understanding in an integrative approach to healing. In fact, each of the disciplines could be viewed as a specific therapeutic specialty in the larger, emerging field of energy medicine. I can envision a future where integrative therapists are familiar with the entire spectrum of health and healing, even while most choose to specialize in particular disciplines. The combined professional conference of these two fields is one step in this direction.

Roger Gilchrist, MA, RPE, RCST, teaches polarity therapy and biodynamic craniosacral therapy internationally. He is a past vice-president of the American Polarity Therapy Association, author of Craniosacral Therapy and the Energetic Body (North Atlantic Books, 2006), and director of the Wellness Institute ( Visit the Wellness Institute’s YouTube channel for new videos on polarity therapy. Contact Gilchrist at

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