Steve Haines talks about Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy, body maps and how they become strange or distorted, interoception and why there is more pain in areas that we have less interoception about- or are more poorly mapped, the huge role the vagal nerve plays in our bodies and our sense of well-being, and much more!
*Thanks to Danielle Rowarth for helping to make this interview happen!*
Defining Biodynamic Craniosacral Work: The essence of cranial work is that you touch people and they change. It is really light, slow, gentle work. The understanding is that we’re really interacting with the autonomic nervous system.
Another big theme of the work is the sense of a living organism. You’re always touching a person, not body parts. And by appreciating wholeness it changes your touch and changes your focus.
There’s a sense of a rhythmic body- so bodies pulse. We’re never completely still. Rhythm- heart beating, cerebrospinal fluid moving, blood pumping- is an essential part of the body. Interacting with those rhythms is fundamental to Biodynamic Craniosacral.
The smartest thing in the room is the intelligence of the body, so less is more. We are trying to facilitate self-healing.
It’s hard work being in a body, it’s really not a given. Trying to get a clear sense of your body is difficult. It’s a deep practice to be able to experience the nuances of sensation.
Our brain has whole series and layers of body maps. You use different maps at different times- skiing vs. sitting on the sofa for example. I have different ways of representing my body to myself.
A body schema is a sort of default map and that governs reflexes. and people have a limited view in these schemas of their bodies.
What does the word “dissociation” mean in relationship to the body? It is a word in some ways owned by psychotherapy. In cranial work we use it in a looser sense as a loss of relationship to the body. And it’s a whole spectrum of things.
The sense of being outside of our body is a common theme actually. Or maybe people can’t get a sense of the size and shape of their feet, or feel their belly. The belly commonly is a hollow, empty area that they can’t feel really.
I mention that it’s like the song “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Til It’s Gone” but its inverse: “You Don’t Know What Was Gone Til You’ve Got It Back”. It’s kind of an unknown unknown.
People don’t know that there is this much richer experience of the body. It’s really not a given.
People with pain commonly have more of this dissociation. Dissociation comes first likely due to the responses to being overwhelmed.
Dissociation is a last ditch survival strategy, and often the root cause of more pain.
Your brain is expecting you to have a body, so if we’re beginning to cut ourselves off from that, if we’re flooding bits of the spinal cord with endorphins to limit the incoming signals, then you’ve got a big absence. And the absence of something when your brain is expecting it to be there is a threat. It may be that we fill that absence with pain to say, “Do something about this.”
Study on back pain counting receptors in fascia in the back on people with chronic back pain and the expectation was that they would find heightened activity or more activity in the slow receptors, and what they actually found was this paradox of people experiencing more pain who were receiving less information from the tissues.
Phantom limb pain tells us so much about how our brain works. After amputation 63% of people still experience themselves as having a limb, and usually it’s painful. It’s something the brain is expecting to be be there and is not there.
Proprioception is when you hold your arms out, close your eyes, and you can touch your nose. If you just hold your arm out and close your eyes, how do you know you have an arm? The internal subjective experience of an arm: that’s interoception. It generally goes along slower pathways.
Interoception connects differently in the brain, it’s much more associated with consciousness. Interstitial receptors carry far more information than for proprioception. Robert Schleip says 7 to 1 (in resources).
There are two big sources of interoceptive information: fascia and the vagal nerve.
What’s the important information that the brain uses to let us know that we have a body? The fascia, the flow of information from your guts and your hearts and around oxygen control and the sense of metabolic activity in the body- and most of that is vagal. It’s a huge source of information about your sense of self.
People who have high vagal tone are seen as happier and more trustworthy. They are the people who you would move towards in a social situation. So when your vagus is firing you love, you trust, you feel yourself being happier.
How does one have problems with vagal tone, or have low vagal tone? Trauma or anything that overwhelms- too much stimulation. Stephen Porges is an amazing theorist around seeking safety- it’s his Polyvagal Theory (in resources). We’re constantly scanning the environment for danger, and it often is an unconscious process.
Safety is the most important thing your brain is negotiating. If there’s threat in the environment we go into fight or flight, and if that isn’t successful we immobilize or dissociate.
As therapists we can mimic what creates safety as a mother would to a baby. There’s great research around slow gentle touch activating interoceptive fibers in fascia.
I really believe that you don’t change pain by giving pain. You can engage those deep receptors by slow gentle touch. We really don’t need to use the deep stuff. I’m not saying it doesn’t’ work, but I am saying you can have an enormous change in physiology with gentle stroking to trigger that quality.
A simple movement practice to enhance vagal tone: when we’re stressed we’re checking our environment you have lots of activity in the neck muscles, the eyes are darting- there is a big surge of activity in the head. And your big flexors muscles are getting activated.
The opposite of that might be coming into the extensors, firing the back of the body. When we do that our throat is open, our heart is open, our belly is exposed. This can allow parasympathetic tone to be present.
And the counter-action to all this movement up in the head is to feel their feet and find their feet. I sometimes think what I do should be “feel your feet therapy”. But switching on a downward firing coming into the ground you switch off all the business in the head.
Steve talks about your skin as this boundary between the inside and outside. Steve says he likes to have people even imagine walking in soft grass or imagining walking barefoot in a variety of environments. And he likes having people get their softest and fluffiest towel and really luxuriate in getting the receptors activated.
Steve is currently playing with: Trying to find ways to create safety and stimulate the vagus. It’s quite hard to touch people’s throats. I’ve enjoyed finding soft ways to tune into the carotid sheath. Often one feels radically different than the other. There’s an awful lot of things you might be influencing by touching into that throat area. That might be feeding the vagal nerve and getting some good tone.
I like Steve’s very practical exercise for stimulating vagal tone by activating the extensors of the body. There are a number of ways you can do this, from simply lying on the ground and pressing your back body into that surface, or stretching and reaching, or my current favorite way of swinging and hanging on monkey bars. (I’m working on it!)
Summary of papers from the second Fascia Research Congress. I’m not sure if any of these include the study Steve Haines was referring to when he talked about people with chronic back pain actually having fewer receptors, but several of these studies talk about that.
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