BCST Lineage

 Our Lineage

Correcting the Record
Our Origin Story
Evolution to Modern Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy

Correcting the Record

“Lineages are woven in all of us: lineages traced through the bloodlines that crash in our bodies; lineages traced through the cultures of where we are from and the clash of all that is around us; lineages of the land and places we have lived; lineages traced through the windy roads of spirituality.” Sue Scavo.

Honoring lineage is about acknowledgment and respect. Acknowledging the lineage we emerged from forges a bond of solidarity and an enduring obligation. There is a deep pain and anger for those left off the family tree, erased from the story we tell about ourselves. Their inclusion rewrites that story and opens a pathway toward a truer, more honest understanding of our history and reconnection to its essence. The colonial and racist attitudes that dismissed and discarded the wisdom and practices of Native Americans, was perpetuated in our own lineage of Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy (BCST).

The story we tell about the origins of BCST pins those beginnings to William Sutherland’s discoveries. The bones of this work however go back earlier, to Andrew Taylor Still and the origins of Osteopathy. Yet even when A.T. Still’s work is acknowledged, his (& our) debt to the influence and impact of Native American bodywork on Osteopathy has not been brought to the forefront. These are absences in our history, in our countries’ histories. Understanding the transmission and evolution of our work requires naming our origins, which for Dr. Still, Osteopathy and BCST, are the Lumbee and the Shawnee Indians. Caring for our inheritance, we attempt to rectify this lack of acknowledgement, honor the roots of our work and uplift the Lumbee and Shawnee Indian people who have been excluded from our history.

Our Origin Story

Knowledge rarely emerges whole and complete, like Athena emerging from Zeus’s head, but stands on and is indebted to many strands that provide the underlying structure. So it is with Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy. 

Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy’s roots arise from Osteopathic Medicine, developed by Dr. Andrew Taylor Still (1828-1917) in the late 1800s, which itself has its roots intertwined with traditional Shawnee Indian bodywork. Still defined Osteopathy as a “sacred, drug-free science that promotes the body’s natural healing power by optimizing structure and mechanical function of bones and tissues.” In his philosophy he emphasized the importance of the unity of the body, mind and spirit, the ability of the body to heal itself, and the necessity for the physician to understand the interrelationship of a person’s anatomy and physiology- revolutionary and subversive ideas to then current medical belief that relied on a cornucopia of drugs.

A.T. Still’s life encompassed a startling range of experiences, as farmer, hunter, inventor, physician, abolitionist, surgeon, legislator, author and finally as “Father of Osteopathy.” The lives of Still’s forefathers and immediate family, exemplified the harshness of frontier life and was beset by many challenges, losses and hardships. Their survival, from farming, carpentry, hunting, mill working, preaching and doctoring, maintained them through the many difficulties of pioneer life.

Still, born in 1828 in Virginia, the son of a Methodist preacher and doctor, spent his youth in the sparsely settled wilderness of Missouri. As a teenager, he studied medicine through his father’s medical books and did his own scientific research— skinning and intently examining the game he hunted for food. Still’s medical career began when a cholera epidemic struck the the Wakarusa Shawnee mission in Kansas where his father was the practicing missionary-doctor. Apprenticing under him, Still treated the Shawnee using current medical practices while taking note of their own methods.

Though he spent barely a year at the mission, his time with the Shawnee left a strong imprint.  Living alongside them, learning their language and observing the healing practices among the Shawnee tribe, significantly influenced him. In his 80s he remarked that during his time with the Shawnee, “I learned all they could teach me about healing sickness.”  He noted their use of purgative herbs and their method of bone-setting which he drew upon in later years. Still retained a deep respect for the Shawnee faith, their laws and moral code throughout his life and was said to be a great defender of them, perhaps in allegiance to his own heritage which traced to the Lumbee Indians through his paternal great-grandmother. The Shawnee belief that nature was pervaded by sacred wisdom aligned with Still’s evolving spirituality in which God and Nature live in harmonious union.

Still’s departure from allopathic medicine occurred after he returned from the Civil War. As a Civil War surgeon (on the Union side), witnessing the crude methods of amputations, then feeding soldiers whiskey and opium to numb the pain only to create drunks and addicts, was dispiriting. It was the deaths of his children from a deadly meningitis infection and shortly after of his wife, that finally caused him to disavow the approach of his colleagues. Their reliance on a pharmacopeia of arsenic, alcohol, mercury and morphine, along with amputations, bleeding and blistering were frequently ineffective and often harmful. When it came to disease the doctors only knew to medicate, amputate or purge to relieve the symptoms.

Still contended that this standard medical viewpoint looked only to effect, not to cause and disease was only the effect. “To find health should be the object of the doctor. Anyone can find disease.”  He envisioned that cause as a disruption of blood flow and nerve function from some mechanical obstruction. Determining that became his focus and obsession as he exhumed hundreds of corpses from Indian burial grounds, dissecting some, preserving others in salt and removing bones for further study. In pursuit of his idea, he kept a complete skeleton to familiarize himself with the bone’s contours, whittling bones from wood, and drawing anatomical charts and diagrams. 

Through practice he discovered that manipulating bones, removing misalignments, dislocations and muscle contractions relieved the restrictions on the blood flow and nerves and improved patient’s health without the use of drugs. He credited the Shawnee— though not in writing- for the growth of the idea from his early experiences with their method of bone-setting. Still thought that the human being, as a work of God, was perfect and that disease was the physiological effect of the “derangement.”  To heal it was necessary to look for the structural cause and solve it, at which point nature would make the necessary repairs. Still wrote, “All mysteries are hidden in nature. All facts are found in nature. Osteopathy is found in nature. Osteopathy is Nature.

He viewed the body as a machine in which misalignment caused disease that manual manipulation could cure. His “laying on of hands” subverted current medical belief and he was accused of sacrilege and blasphemy. Still spent the next ten years scorned and vilified as an eccentric, a crank, a grave robber or medical heretic; his successes were viewed with skepticism or termed the devil’s work. Ostracized by both the medical and religious community, he moved back and forth across state lines until finally settling in Kirkland, Missouri. There the success of his treatment drew a stream of patients, a demand he could barely keep up with.

To answer that demand, in 1892 he established the American School of Osteopathy (ASO) in Kirksville, Missouri, continuing his role as an iconoclast by including five women in the first class. Osteopathy established a naturalistic and drugless medical approach to health and disease. An approach that viewed the body functioning as a total unit possessing self-healing and self-regulating mechanisms. He endorsed a corresponding attention to preventive measures, noting the importance of diet and exercise, leading some to contend his ideas pioneered the concept of “Wellness.” His holistic approach asserted that man is not reducible to parts but a synthetic whole which requires the union of mind, body and spirit to restore health. ”The soul of man, with all the streams of pure, living water seems to dwell in the fascia of his body.

Students learned extensive anatomy, physiology, chemistry and “symptomatology,” spending time in clinics and treatment rooms to become “anatomical engineers fine-tuning God’s perfect machine.” In his teaching, he often used the simplicity of deep observation without the distraction of language, which he called “taking an Indian look.”  In the first year of ASO over 50,000 patients were treated. By the time of his death in 1917 there were more than 5,000 osteopaths in practice throughout the country.

As John Lewis wrote in his exhaustive biography of Still, “He was presenting a new paradigm for health, a new philosophy that can be universally applied. We are not islands but parts of nature, parts of the whole, and nature’s laws are absolute and unchanging…He teaches that nature’s truths and laws go beyond the physical. They encompass not only body’s anatomy, physiology and biochemistry in health and disease but also the wisdom of the body, and on to life and death.”

Learn about the Evolution to Modern Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy (BCST) HERE.

Author: Ilene Antelman, RCST, RPP, LMT, SEP-in-training  (January 2023)


A.T. Still, Autobiography of A.T. Still, 1897

Historical Perspectives on Osteopathic Medicine Recent Discoveries in Osteopathic History, Jason Haxton, Museum of Osteopathic Medicine (video), Missouri Association of Osteopathic Physicians & Surgeons (MAOPS)

The Native American heritage of the body-mind-spirit paradigm in osteopathic principles and practices, 2019, Rafael Zegarra-Parodi, Jerry Draper-Rodi, Jason Haxton, Francesco Cerritelli, International Journal of Osteopathic Medicine

Traditional American Indian Bodywork, the Origin of Osteopathy, Polarity, and Craniosacral TherapyNita M. Renfrew  
1st published in Journal of Contemporary Shamanism, 2015

Polarity Therapy Workbook, John Beaulieu, 2016, Dr. Mehl-Madrona Native American Bodywork Practices 

From the Dry Bone to the Living Man, The Timeless Teachings of A. T. Still, 2016, John Lewis,
Online: https://archive.org/details/atstillfromdrybo0000lewi

aligning the relational field: a love story about retelling the creation of craniosacral therapy (and a lot of other touch-based bodywork as well), 2020, Susan Raffo