Traditional American Indian Bodywork: The Origin of Osteopathy, Polarity and Craniosacral Therapy

Excerpted from A Journal of Contemporary Shamanism, Vol. 8, #1, Spring-Summer 2015; Polarity Therapy Workbook, by John Beaulieu: 2016 edition.

It seems that the origins of Osteopathy, created by Dr. Andrew Taylor Still, MD DO (1828-1917) in the late nineteenth century, indeed, lie in traditional American Indian bodywork. (I use the term “American Indian” as used by AIM in the “American Indian Movement.”) We know now that among the natives of this land, there was a healing tradition that combined a form of osteopathic massage and manipulation with energy and narrative work.

Dr. Still became a recognized physician and surgeon, although he never said where he had learned his musculoskeletal and organ massage techniques, which he called Osteopathy, he is known to have alluded to the bone-setting methods of the Shawnee at least once, as reported by the director of the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine in a lecture, who added that Still often used the phrase ‘Taking an Indian look’ at something.

“Forgetting what you know and just to quietly observe with no thoughts.”

This was followed by 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 all its old ideas. My soul took on a receptive attitude, my ear was tuned to Nature’s rhythmic harmony.”

Indeed, Dr. Still lived his life, like the Native Indians, by a nature-centered belief. And when he started his medical practice, he advertised himself as a “magnetic healer” and “lightning bonesetter” before naming his methods Osteopathic Medicine.

Today, much of the traditional healing of the American Indians has been lost, because the Christian missionaries called it devil worship. However, what has survived in pockets around the country (along with Zuni and Navajo healing and bone-setting) is Cherokee bodywork, which was surely similar to Shawnee practices, since they were neighboring tribes in Virginia.

Cherokee Bodywork today is practiced and taught by Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD, PhD, of Cherokee and Lakota heritage, professor at a number of colleges and universities, medical researcher, and author of many books,
including Coyote Medicine. His thesis, along with some of his colleagues, is that Dr. Still learned much of what would become Osteopathy during his years assisting his father in his medical duties among the Shawnee. Dr. Mehl-Madrona, who is seeking to honor and preserve Cherokee Bodywork, came to this conclusion after experiencing and seeing the many similarities between Cherokee Bodywork and Osteopathy.

Interestingly, this would indicate that the origins of both Craniosacral and Polarity therapy also lie in traditional American Indian bodywork, since both Dr. William Garner Sutherland, DO (1873-1954), the originator of Cranial Osteopathy (the foundation for today’s Craniosacral therapy), and Dr. Randolph Stone, DO, DC, ND (1890-1981), the originator of Polarity therapy, were Andrew Taylor Still’s students. Cherokee bodyworkers, reports Mehl-Madrona, who learned the method from two traditional Cherokee women, are masters at working with energy and the breath, and they also move cranial bones, seeking the ridges, albeit with more force than Craniosacral practitioners. They do this along with osteopathic-like massage and manipulation of musculoskeletal tissues, organs, and joints, as well as acupressure on points and energy channels (that, in fact, correspond to the meridians). They combine all this with gentle rocking and with narrative healing, both verbal and energetic, using storytelling, and dialogue with the musculoskeletal system and with the client, and intense breath work to “restore spirit” to all parts of the body, when giving treatments that they commonly refer to as “doctoring.”

Learn more about John Beaulieu’s May 2017 sonic body healing workshop and the NAHA (North American Healing Arts) Program

The Artery Rules by Joseph Schmidlin

A fundamental osteopathic principal is that every part of the body is connected to every other part; affecting one part therefore affects all the others as well as the whole. As hands-on practitioners we have a similar role as the farmer preparing the field. We find contracted, insulted, non-integrated tissue, and we prepare it in a skillful and precise manner, knowing this is the foundation of health and well-being.

“The artery rules” is a phrase used often by Dr. A.T. Stills when teaching students at his osteopathic college in Kirksville, Missouri, at the turn of the 20th century. As a lifelong student, practitioner, and teacher of osteopathy and vibrational medicine, I understand this statement from the perspective that the arteries provide a crucial network of transport for life-giving blood.

Each pulse of the heart delivers oxygen, vital nutrients, and other components to the organs, tissues, and cells of the body. This arterial network also constitutes the medium of subtle yet life-organizing wave motions, arising from the vasomotor effect in the vessel walls and from the tidal influences transmuted through them. Dr. Stills, the founder of osteopathy, and his students looked at the human body as an environment, in the same way a farmer would view a field where the productivity and viability of the crop rely as much on proper irrigation and metabolic balance in the soil as on the vitality and viability of the seeds to be planted.

Now an interesting aspect of this analogy is that the “seeds” to be planted in the tissue are actually created by organ systems that exist within the tissue. For example, oxygen (the seed) in the bloodstream is created by respiration in the lungs and then delivered back into the tissue (the field). Similarly, neurochemicals generated within the tissue body are delivered by the arteries back to the tissue, creating a self-referencing and self-nourishing system. So we can begin to understand the importance of the tissue body and the need for clear and uninhibited communication between all parts, analogous to the need for nutrient-rich and well-irrigated soil.

One of the most important osteopathic skills is to differentiate between normal and abnormal tissue and, from that assessment, begin to treat and bring balance to the whole, interconnected field. To my mind, this is the true gift of A.T. Stills and of osteopathy as handed down through the last 165 years. I leave you with words by the good doctor from his 1902 publication, “The Philosophy and Mechanical Principals of Osteopathy”, as follows:

“We recognize the importance of a thorough acquaintance with the large and small fibers, ligaments, muscles, blood, and nerve supply to all the organs, glands, and lymphatics of the fascia and blood circuit in general. We wish you to make yourself so thoroughly acquainted with human anatomy that your hand, eye, and reason will be unfailing guides to all causes and effects.”

Learn more about osteopathy and its connection to North American Bodywork in Joseph Schmidlin’s December 2016 workshop, Body Reading and the Art of Listening.

Introducing Nita Renfrew

Nita M. Renfrew LMT AADP, NAHA Program Facilitator, is an integrative body worker, and energy and shamanic healer, with many years experience working in medical settings. She has studied with a number of traditional and other healers from many countries. As a follower of the Red Road (American Indian spirituality), she has danced in Sun Dance (with Lakota intercessor Durwin WhiteLightning) and is a pipe carrier. She is also an artist, writer, editor of Contemporary Shamanism, and Research Associate for Coyote Institute for Studies of Change and Transformation. She lives in New York City, where she has a private practice, and can be contacted at

Together with Lewis Mehl-Madrona and Barbara Mainguy, she coauthored a refereed article describing a Reiki program that she created. She also wrote the article “Traditional American Indian Bodywork, the Origin of Osteopathy, Polarity, and Craniosacral Therapy,” (A Journal of Contemporary Shamanism, Vol. 8, #1, Spring-Summer 2015), reprinted in John Beaulieu: Polarity Therapy Workbook, 2016 edition.

As NAHA Program Facilitator, Nita will assist in teaching as well as providing the coordination and integrative structure of the program. Join us for Nita’s workshop, Great Bear (Big Dipper) Reiki, on Nov. 5th & 6th.


“Today, much of the traditional healing of the American Indians has been lost, because the Christian missionaries called it devil worship. However, what has survived in pockets around the country (along with Zuni and Navajo healing and bone-setting) is Cherokee bodywork, which was surely similar to Shawnee practices, since they were neighboring tribes in Virginia. Cherokee Bodywork today is practiced and taught by Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD, PhD, of Cherokee and Lakota heritage, professor at a number of colleges and universities (most recently Dartmouth Maine), medical researcher, and author of many books, including Coyote Medicine. His thesis, along with some of his colleagues, is that Dr. Still learned much of what would become Osteopathy during his years assisting his father in his medical duties among the Shawnee. Dr. Mehl-Madrona, who is seeking to honor and preserve Cherokee Bodywork, came to this conclusion after experiencing and seeing the many similarities between Cherokee Bodywork and Osteopathy.”

Locating Your Inner Healer

lewisLewis Mehl-Madrona

Native American philosophy teaches us that all healing is fundamentally spiritual healing. What this means is that any technique works much better when the person’s inner healer is activated. 

This profound, but elusive part of our self (according to Native American philosophy) organizes healing of body, mind, and soul. What this inner healer is, varies from tribe to tribe, and culture to culture.

Some call it spirit. Others call it soul. Others call it Self. When it is activated, people feel transformed. They feel “in the flow”; present-centered, mindful, empowered, and intuitively aware of what they need for healing. Our goal is to locate this inner healer.

“What approach or method will best heal me?”

While it is true that some approaches have more proven biological efficacy than others, both research on the self-healing response and the philosophy of indigenous healers teaches us that most important is the person in the healing process. If your inner healer is activated and functioning for you, almost anything can work. If it is not, very little can work. Drugs and surgery are such extreme measures that the need for the inner healer can be detoured, but my experience has been that eventually we do need to meet our inner healer or pharmacologically treated disease returns or worsens and new conditions arise.

Introducing Dr. Joseph Schmidlin

Joseph Schmidlin, DO, MTP, has over 20 years of training, teaching and practice in the field of energy medicine, including Classical Osteopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, Zero Balancing, Massage Therapy, Cranial-sacral therapy, and Vibrational therapies, including sound healing. He has been a co-teacher with John Beaulieu of sound healing integrated into body work. Joseph has a private practice in Rochester and New York City.

He will be teaching Body Reading and the Art of Listening (16 CEs pending) as part of the NAHA program in December.

“I am very excited about this new program. I believe it will prove to be a very potent curriculum bringing in a truly holistic perspective for working with the body as manual therapists. The design of this program will take the student deep into the understanding and thought process of how to work with the body as one dynamic unit of function. We will bring in teachings from the origins of the North American healing arts. Specifically osteopathy, traditional Cherokee healing, and vibrational healing.

If we look the origins of the North American healing arts there has always existed the understanding that the body is one whole integrated and interconnected unit of function. Beyond the interconnectedness of the individual body there was an innate understanding that each member in the community or tribe was essential to the health of the whole tribe. We can look at this perspective as just a larger body in exactly the same way that the individual is made up of cells that make up a larger body. Next we can look at the natural world and see how we are all connected and integral to everything in nature. This is a concept and understanding that was inherently understood in the past.

As we entered the 20th century with the advent and development of allopathic symptom-based treatment we moved away from this interconnectedness principle. In our current healthcare system, for example, when there is a shoulder problem we would tend to look at the physical area of the shoulder and not much beyond. From a truly holistic and integral perspective, we would look at what was happening in the whole body and the relationship of the different systems, i.e.: the endocrine, circulatory, lymphatic, nervous, muscular-skeletal, and physiology of the viscera. By understanding how to look at and treat the body as a whole interconnected functional unit, we can provide treatment that is not only safe, but effective and sustainable.”

Seeing Illness as an Imbalance

by Lewis Mehl-Madrona


Most Native People believe that all healing is ultimately spiritual healing, and that the integration of mind, body, and spirit is crucial to getting well. I grew up within an implicit understanding of this principle, and through the course of my life, have come to explicitly believe this as well. 

Implicit within indigenous culture’s concepts of illness is an appreciation that it is a territory in which we find ourselves, and not an inseparable trait of the person who is ill. Rather than describe someone as a cancer patient, we would say that this person finds herself in the territory of cancer. Implicit also is the understanding that illness is a marker of imbalance. When balance and harmony are restored, illness can be transformed. The limits of this healing transformation are set by the Divine and cannot be known by humans. 

For those who are uncomfortable with the God concept, we can speak this awareness in the language of systems science, as Douglas Hofstedter does in his book, Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, in which he shows that we cannot fully characterize or describe systems in which we are participants. An organ cannot fully describe its human. A human cannot fully characterize her family. A family cannot fully characterize its larger kinship group. So the rules for our existence cannot be fully known by us. 

Finally, indigenous cultures know that sickness and death are not necessarily related. Illness does not invariably lead to death, and one does not have to be ill to die. 

While I became more and more impressed with the effectiveness of Native American methods for long-term survival and for treating chronic disease, I also came to understand that all traditional cultures on every continent share this wisdom.

NAHA Series Launches – Drumroll Please!

img_3311CATA launched its 14-month long North American Healing Arts program on September 10th, complete with rhythmic drumming. The class was filled with massage therapists from around the country eager to learn an indigenous form of massage, Cherokee Bodywork. Later in the series will be classes on Osteopathy with Joseph Schmidlin, Reiki with Nita Renfrew and Barbara Mainguy, and Sound Healing with John Beaulieu.

Lewis Mehl-Madrona and Barbara Mainguy introduced the students to the power of storytelling as a therapeutic tool. Story is used both as an assessment tool and a treatment technique for affecting change in the body-mind-spirit model of health and healing. With their background in allopathic medicine in psychotherapy, psychiatry, geriatrics and family medicine, they integrated western medical concepts into a Cherokee Bodywork narrative.

Not unlike Eastern medical approaches to health and healing found in Shiatsu and acupuncture, Cherokee Bodywork takes a comprehensive approach to healing by looking at the whole being and the story that is revealed as a result. A poetic narrative is elicited that introduces a pathway for balance and healing.

In the course of the introductory class, using a western psychotherapeutic model of human behavior coupled with a Cherokee storytelling technique, Mainguy explains, “Humans like to feel safe. Stories help us to feel safe. When there is a piece missing in our story we feel anxious. Managing our anxiety helps to fill the missing gap. At times a negative story fills the gap, because humans tend to look for danger more than for happiness. If we recognize the gaps are negative, we might first sit with the gap and then try to change the narrative, then look, instead, for a positive outcome. Working with story is a way to help change the narrative.”


Functional Healing

by Lewis Mehl-Madrona

Part 3 of 3

The notion of retreating to become well isn’t only a Native American idea. Prior to pharmaceutical therapies, bed rest was one of the most commonly prescribed treatments by both conventional and traditional practitioners. In Japan, “quiet” therapies, involving isolating patients completely for days or weeks are a regular practice. Patients are left alone in a room for seven days without television, radio, or social interaction. They are permitted only basic necessities like food and bathroom privileges. After one week they are gradually introduced back into society by engaging in menial tasks. The third and fourth weeks are times of intensive spiritual and emotional therapy. This isolation allows patients to have not only time for serious rest, but also the opportunity for serious introspection and life review. These practices have their roots in Shinto philosophy and were developed by the Japanese physician, Morita. These practices teach patients that their emotions don’t have to rule their lives or seriously affect their health since they are fleeting experiences of the mind. 

True traditional medicine takes into account the body, mind and spirit. Native American Healing techniques and Japanese “quiet” therapies offer strong paradigms for treatment of the mind and spirit. Functional Medicine, a contemporary integrative approach founded by John Bland, is a science-based health care system that assesses and treats the underlying causes of illness through individually-tailored therapies. Three basic tenets are involved in Functional Medicine: 1) Biochemical Individuality, 2) Health as Positive Vitality, 3) Function as Homeodynamics. 

Biochemical Individuality is the concept that each individual has a unique set of characteristics. Unlike conventional medicine, Functional Medicine contends that individuals respond differently to environmental toxins, medications and foods. Each person has his/her own unique biochemical patterns including how information is processed between cells and body systems, and metabolism of nutrients. 

Health as Positive Vitality offers an innovative approach for practitioners to interact with patients. Instead of focusing on the illness, practitioners are encouraged to take “wellness” histories to discover what patients were doing when they were healthy and what they have done in the past that has made them feel their “best.” 

Function as Homeodynamics examines how homeostasis works in the body. Conventional belief contends that homeostasis is a system of interconnected components which function to keep physical and chemical components like temperature or blood sugar relatively constant. The Homeodynamics theory of Functional Medicine believes that instead of homeostasis a similar system exists that functions to maintain not physio-chemical constancy, but biochemical individuality. A Functional Medical Assessment would include laboratory studies that examine immunofunction, metabolism and the level of environmental toxins in the body. 

While these approaches in no way replace conventional therapies, they add new dimensions to therapies that afford patients the opportunity to explore their wellness. Most importantly, they provide the time and individualized attention that is sorely lacking in our current system.

TIME: The Primary Ingredient for Healing

by Lewis Mehl-Madrona


Part 2 of 3

In organic and biochemistry, an energy of activation is required to initiate a reaction. Once initiated that reaction may proceed irreversibly to completion without much further energetic input. Without sufficient energy of activation, the reaction never occurs. A cake without sufficient energy of heat remains mush. A minimal level of heat is needed to actually cook the cake (transforming the internal arrangements of its molecules). The healers loved these comparisons to chemistry, and reflected upon how nature is the same at every level. In systems science, we say that each layer is isomorphic to the other. 

The healers related that they typically stayed with the sick person until the job was done. They rarely helped more than one person at a time, and people often traveled great distances to see them. These great distances necessitated an intensive approach, since the journey from home to the healer could not be made many times. The healers would concentrate their work over a number of consecutive days with multiple hours spent each day on healing. Ceremonies often took place every night. Lakota healers would do sweat lodge ceremonies at night, sometimes followed by yuwipi ceremonies. Dineteh healers would perform nightly chants lasting as long as ten days as in the Blessing Way or the Coyote Way. When sufficient progress had been made, the person would be sent home with instructions to return at a later date for further treatment. Because their healing was more directive, their patients would leave with specific instructions for tasks to complete during the interval apart. 

The traditional healers emphasized how they helped people become aware of their inner world – their anger, sorrow, bitterness, rage, and hatred, so that it could move again. They pointed out how modern American culture teaches people to ignore their inner world and their feelings. Children are taught in school to ignore their body needs for elimination until it is convenient for the teacher. They are taught to ignore their wish to play until scheduled recess. Civilization, as it is now constructed, requires a level of ignoring emotions for smooth functioning that the Traditionals found sad. Traditional healers pointed out how strange it is for a secretary to be unable to take time off if overcome by sadness from a tragic case history she was typing. In this example, they thought it was odd that the bosses could imagine that a human being could type a document without entering into the story that the document conveys. They reflected on how emotions got in the way of efficiency in the modern world. They related how their society used to be less hurried. Hurry has become the watchword of modern society, since the faster we go, the more money we make. 

In the days before modern pharmaceuticals, rest was a key ingredient of any therapy. Healing may best begin by putting the client to bed. This disturbs daily routines and breaks old habits. It allows the body's repair mechanisms to take over from the defense mechanisms; the parasympathetic nervous system to calm down the sympathetic nervous system. Traditionals mentioned the importance of a number of ceremonial procedures, including purification ceremonies, which are also important for the inner life. They see becoming well as a journey – a journey that takes time.

TIME: The Primary Ingredient for Healing

A 3-part Series by Lewis Mehl-Madrona

Native American medicine has been practiced on the North American continent for at least 10,000 years. When Europeans arrived in North America, Native people of this continent were a healthy lot. Plagues and epidemics from Europe soon changed that, but do not mitigate against the effectiveness of Native American methods for attaining long-term survival and avoiding chronic disease. Conventional medicine has lost this wisdom for transforming illness into health through mind-body- spirit integration – a fundamental concept among Native North Americans and most of the remainder of the indigenous world. Conventional psychotherapies have also fallen short of their ability to transform people’s lives. They have parceled out therapeutic time in hourly increments in frequencies of once or twice weekly. Weekly one-hour appointments or even yoga classes before work allow us to address only our most critical and immediate concerns.
The time needed for inner exploration, for personal transformation, and for the exploration of how personal issues, nutrition, family problems or spiritual matters affect our health is sorely lacking.

Conventional therapies have neglected opportunities to facilitate a profound change within a short period of time. They have also ignored the power of ceremony and ritual in treatment. Ceremonies couple the patient’s intention to heal with the power of belief and faith in the ceremonial process. They lead to peak experiences that kindle insight into our condition and increase our belief in our own abilities and capabilities.

Since medical school graduation, I have been working to integrate the thoughts and techniques of Traditional Native American healing elders with more common behavioral medicine techniques and psychotherapies. I have wanted to find the most effective and most aesthetic way for me to midwife people’s personal transformations and healings.

To improve my approach, I interviewed a number of Native American healers to learn how they conceptualized their work and how they thought it could be translated into modern American culture. The traditional healers told me that time is the first important ingredient in the healing journey, comparing starting this journey to beginning to push a rock up a hill. It takes a lot more effort to get the rock moving at first than to keep it moving. They wondered how seeing someone once or twice weekly could provide enough “oomph” to start the healing process. “How can you push a rock up a hill if you keep stopping and letting it roll back down?” they asked.