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Ep 261 - A Functional Approach to Bodywork with Leigh Ankrum

An image of Leigh Ankrum, director of the Ankrum Institute.

For more than 30 years, Leigh Ankrum continues to say yes. After decades of training around the world, she has brought together multiple modalities into one comprehensive, paradigm-shifting program.  In this episode of The ABMP Podcast, Kristin and Darren speak with Leigh Ankrum, founder, and director of the Ankrum Institute, about functional bodywork and how it differs from a normal bodywork session, her approach to health intake, and why massage therapy education should be broader and more holistic.

Author Images
An image of Leigh Ankrum, director of the Ankrum Institute.
Darren Buford, editor-in-chief of Massage & Bodywork magazine.
Kristin Coverly, director of professional education at ABMP.
Author Bio

Ankrum Institute’s founder and director, Leigh Ankrum, is a Functional Bodywork practitioner with 34 years of experience in teaching and private practice. After decades of training around the world, she has brought together multiple modalities into one comprehensive, paradigm-shifting program that takes students through every system of the body in just over two years. Her knowledge of anatomy and physiology is deepened by her holistic understanding of the body’s organizing principles. 


Darren Buford is senior director of communications and editor-in-chief for ABMP. He is editor of Massage & Bodywork magazine and has worked for ABMP for 22 years, and been involved in journalism at the association, trade, and consumer levels for 24 years. He has served as board member and president of the Western Publishing Association, as well as board member for Association Media & Publishing. Contact him at

Kristin Coverly, LMT is a massage therapist, educator, and the director of professional education at ABMP. She loves creating continuing education courses, events, and resources to support massage therapists and bodyworkers as they enhance their lives and practices. Contact her at




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Full Transcript

0:00:00.2 Kristin Coverly: Fascia Research Society invites ABMP podcast listeners to attend the sixth International Fascia Research Congress, September 10th through 14th, 2022 in Montreal. The event includes eight keynote speakers, over 60 parallel session talks and posters, seven full and eight half-day workshops and a two-day fascia focused dissection workshop. The line-up of keynote speakers and workshops is already available on the Fascia Research Society website and the full Congress schedule will be out June 3rd. Register for the sixth International Fascia Research Congress today at

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0:01:50.8 Darren Buford: I'm Darren Buford.

0:01:51.6 KC: And I'm Kristin Coverly.

0:01:52.9 DB: And welcome to The ABMP Podcast, a podcast where we speak with the massage and bodywork profession. Our guest today is Leigh Ankrum, Leigh is the Founder and Director of the Ankrum Institute. She is a functional bodywork practitioner with more than 30 years of experience in teaching and private practice. After decades of training around the world, she has brought together multiple modalities into one comprehensive paradigm-shifting program that takes students through every system of the body in just over two years. Her knowledge of anatomy and physiology is deepened by the holistic understanding of the body's organizing principles. For more information about Leigh, visit Hello, Leigh, and hello, Kristin.

0:02:33.3 Leigh Ankrum: Hi.

0:02:34.2 KC: Leigh welcome to The ABMP Podcast. We're so excited that you're here. We're gonna start by talking about your background in training, like Darren mentioned in your bio, multiple modalities. Your education and training are extensive and varied and include osteopathy, structural integration, manual lymphatic drainage, craniosacral... I'm gonna stop to take a breath. Hakomi Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, neuromuscular massage therapy, and neuro-anatomical dissection among others. So let's talk about that. How did you get started and what drew you to study these different modalities?

0:03:09.7 LA: You know that's what, a great question, and I don't have one of those great spiritual answers. How I actually got started in the field was 35 and a half years ago, was that I actually liked somebody and they were going for a massage course, so I went. And after that, I wasn't even sure I still wanted to... That I really wanted to do massage, I got myself in a 500-hour program, and when I graduated, I had friends who were going off to do different weekend studies of neuromuscular, whatever. I didn't know what I was doing, but I just kept saying yes. That was... And that is, in this 35 years that I really get, that I have said yes. But what I didn't realize at the time that when I graduated, after the massage school, and when I graduated, that I was on a path or trajectory to begin to understand how pain and pain patterns work within our bodies.

0:04:07.7 LA: And so I did neuromuscular first and really became, really practiced it very deeply, and then a couple of years later, I started to study craniosacral, once again saying yes to something that I had no idea what it was. And trust me, in 1990, nobody knew what it was. And so I just kept kind of saying yes, and getting deeper and deeper into how we work, what this body... How it really functions. And I just kept stepping up the level of my education, and then I studied Rolfing at the Guild for Structural Integration, and I also began to teach craniosacral and teach in the early, early '90s. And so it really was this natural piece of me that came out in all of this teaching, that of course has evolved into something so much bigger today. But my trainings got bigger, longer and more intense, and that's when I went to a French osteopathic school in 2003 and did a five-year program.

0:05:20.4 LA: And at the same time, I studied also... I was also doing things like taking classes on concussions, and teaching... Teaching happened more and more and more and more and more over all the years, and I still have a private practice. I have had one forever, I still have one, so it's not like I left that behind because that's almost like the lab work, if you know what I mean, is like more deepening and understanding also comes out of the private practice itself. So that's kind of been the way I've gone, I just keep saying yes, so, "Okay, yes." But all of my education wasn't a little of this and a little of that. It was deepening and deepening all along the same pathway of learning and understanding how pain really functions and what is really going on with those patterns.

0:06:12.8 KC: I love it, and I love the, "Just say yes," because oftentimes, we can tell ourselves immediately 50 different reasons why, "Oh, I can't do this, I can't, I shouldn't, I won't." Instead of just saying, "Yes, I will find a way." I love that.

0:06:27.5 LA: Yeah, I was... How old was I? 47, 48 when I started osteopathic school, and I traveled for five years from Tulsa, Oklahoma where I'm located up to Vancouver, Canada, where there is the branch of the school I went to. So, every six weeks, I flew up to Vancouver for five years. So I know what that's like to do those kinds of things, and yeah, it just, it was like, "Yes, I have to do this, for some reason this feels really right." So I... So, that's kind of basically my story of my education, it just kept growing and growing and growing.

0:07:05.9 DB: Leigh, can you explain to our listeners what functional bodywork is and how you approach the body?

0:07:11.4 LA: So functional body... We came up with that name because how do you say that I'm treating somebody as a whole? So, functional is that word that says that. So, we're treating somebody, when they come in, we're treating somebody as a whole, and that... Here's the way I want you to think about this is that when somebody comes in to see you or me or whomever, whatever bodywork person, and they have symptoms. So, one of the things that most other bodywork, whether it's PT or chiropractic or even orthopedics, or when you go to the doctor, they take your symptom, they're looking at your symptom and they're trying to treat around the symptom. But here's the deal, I'll give you the perfect example of this. The perfect example is that most low back pain is coming from tension in the kidneys. And you don't know it that it's actually coming from the kidneys because you don't... If you start feeling like, "Ooh, I've got aching in my kidneys," You've been having stuff go on for a while in your kidneys for your kidneys to feel it.

0:08:26.4 LA: But what your body has been telling you through your low back pain is that it's actually coming from your kidneys or your small intestine. God knows that everybody's gut is bloated from the foods that we're eating. I'm guilty of that too. And your small intestines are attached to your lumbar spine. So if I have bloating in my small intestines, it's going to affect my low back as well. There's two examples of somebody coming in for low back pain, and if I'm treating... If I'm thinking functionally, bigger than just your symptom, your symptom tells me the story, and instead, it is I don't lock on to your symptom, what I do is let it be part of my inquiry as to where and what could really be bringing this low back pain on. So functional is about, I take a step back, I look at you as a whole, and I also have the kind of knowledge and education that tells me it's... I know certain things create other things.

0:09:32.6 LA: And so, when you begin to learn that, like what in the body can create other patterns? Then you have an easier, so much of an easier time in your inquiry. Does that make sense to you? I hope I was... I didn't go off on my nut there for a second. But that's what it is. If I have... Say, I have a whiplash. One of the biggest things that happens in a car accident if you're wearing your seat belt is that the seat belt tightens, it tightens your heart down, and when it tightens the heart down, the pericardium which is the fascial bag around the heart, attaches in the front of your neck. So what it will always do, until the tension is relieved off of that system, is it is always pulling your neck forward. So, I have a whiplash, back of my neck hurts, of course it's gonna hurt, because not only did you whip, your head whip, and those muscles got whipped in the back for sure, but what you also have functionally is that your heart is now locked down and the fascia around the heart is attaching right here on the fronts of the vertebra. So you guys get it. You guys get what I'm trying to share around functional? I get all excited, I'm sorry, it's...


0:10:50.9 KC: No, don't be sorry.

0:10:51.5 LA: The bodywork...

0:10:51.9 KC: We're getting excited too.

0:10:52.9 LA: It excites me.

0:10:53.3 KC: Yeah.

0:10:54.4 LA: Oh, good. You're getting excited, you're gonna come visit me, that would be great.


0:11:00.3 KC: So Leigh, in your really great examples, you're talking a lot about the organs, and I know that one of the things you teach at the Ankrum Institute is visceral manipulation, which is not taught in most core programs. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

0:11:13.7 LA: Absolutely. So, many massage therapists at this point in their career... You guys have heard of Dr. Barral who was the French doctor, he's an MD doctor. I think he's in his late 80s or I don't know if he's in his early 90s now. But he figured out probably about 20 or 30 years ago, I don't know exactly how long ago, is that viscera, the organs, are actually creating lots of the pain patterns in the body. And he, in his books, he actually says, and I've not taken his courses, but I've had visceral manipulation both independently and when I was in this French osteopathic school. But this is Dr. Barral's statistic, not mine, 65% to 90% of the pain in your soft tissue, that's muscle fascia, right? In your soft tissue, is coming from organs. And the deal is, is that you don't feel it in organs because your organs, your viscera does not have a direct access to your nervous system.

0:12:22.0 LA: It has its own nervous system called the enteric. And so it takes a long time when your organs have something going on, it isn't gonna show up in the organ for a long time because that enteric nervous system is piggy-backing on to the central. So, where it shows up is in your muscles, liver, right shoulder, pancreas and spleen, left shoulder, kidneys, low back and down into the legs. So there's a mapping, and it's a distinct mapping of the organs and how it plays out. The sad part is, is that if I have somebody and they have right shoulder pain and I work it, and then next week when they come in, I work it again. And then when they come in the week after, I work it again, because you're not getting to what is the core issue, and that is what I'm all about. That's the functional thing, is that I'm all about the core issue that's driving your patterns, and then, you go work where the symptom is. So it's not like you ignore that.

0:13:30.7 LA: It's that you're working the core issue that's the driver, and then once you clear out the driver, then you go back and you do the shoulder or the back, whatever, and then it holds. But in our culture, we are, I don't know what the word is, acculturated to think that I have to, like with a PT or a chiropractor or a massage therapist, I have to come back over and over and over and over again for the same thing. I tell my clients that if I after three times have not helped you even shift this, if it always comes back the same, then I'm not helping you get to what is really driving this pattern. And we either need to look elsewhere or you need to see someone else, if we haven't shifted it at all.

0:14:16.5 KC: Let's take a short break to hear a word from our sponsors.

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0:15:31.4 KC: Let's get back to our conversation.

0:15:33.9 DB: Leigh, can I just ask a question? So how do you approach a client session and what do you do in a health intake? Because I think our listeners might be curious about when somebody comes to you, and with your vast knowledge, what are you asking or what's happening in that initial visit that's guiding you?

0:15:49.7 LA: Great question. Great question. So... It's so funny, I just did a new client right before I got on with you guys. So here's the deal, when I'm taking... I take the history. I don't give you a history sheet and have you fill that out. I take the history myself because I'm gonna ask you questions and get answers from you instead of things like "good," "nice," "not good." Do you know what I'm saying? So, that doesn't tell me a thing. And so here's the thing I was talking to him about, this client, so that he could really understand this, 'cause there was something particular going on with him is that when I take your history, I am gonna ask if you've had any surgeries, and I wanna know what they are. Of course, I'm gonna ask if you've had any car accidents, tailbone falls, any kind of accidents big enough, okay?

0:16:44.3 LA: Then I'm asking you, of course, if you've had any illnesses, trust me, I'm going somewhere with this. Any illnesses and then I ask... Here's my biggies, okay? How does your digestion work? Do you actually have a bowel movement every day? I ask that. I also ask, when you go to sleep at night, can you fall asleep? And I also ask, can you stay asleep? And then I ask, did you have ear infections as a baby or a child? I ask, do you need correction for your eyes? Have you ever had or do you need them, and how old were you when you first needed correction? These are my main questions, and you know why I'm asking those questions, is because I wanna know how many traumas you've had. So, what's happening is the sleep and the digestion tell me that your fight-or-flights are up and on when you cannot have bowel moments, when you're more constipated, and also... And especially people who tell me life-long, "I've always had trouble."

0:17:48.8 LA: And somebody who's had early eye correction and ear infections and/or tell me that there was a lot of birth trauma. So, what I wanna know is how high are your fight-or-flight signs, because I wanna know your symptoms, yes, I wanna know have you had illnesses, yes, but I wanna know, can I enter into your system and help you because I'm not ever fixing anybody, that's not my deal. My deal is that I'm helping you, I'm coming in as a helping hand. And the thing is, the higher your fight-or-flights, the more trauma that you have, the less you can get in. But let me say this, if you've had those people on your table that you're like having to work so hard to try to get in their muscles, that's trauma, and that body is fight-or-flight on, and it's not gonna change. The big signals when the fight-or-flights are on is, "You can work really deeply on me. Oh, I love when somebody goes really, really deep." That is a signal, like the light goes off that says, "We got some fight-or-flights on here." The system is in its defensive mode because when the fight-or-flights are on, the muscles get tighter. There's a whole series of things when the fight-or-flights are on.

0:19:09.9 LA: So understanding that is like, I'm trying to come into a system that's guarded against me, I'm not really gonna get much of any place. So one of the other deals about this is, is that that's why I'm so grateful that for 32 years I've been doing craniosacral because that's my modality, to go in to try to start bringing some of those fight-or-flights down. So, my history taking to come to you, tells me what's happened to you, what your symptoms are, all of that, but as important as that part is to me is just as important is how much trauma have you had and how well am I going to be able to come to your body and meet you as a helping hand, because one thing I've learned, you're never forcing something to happen, you need to actually create the space for something to happen from within.

0:20:07.3 KC: Leigh, I absolutely love your approach to the body, and also I'm thinking with all of your different training, with all of the training you have in different modalities, you really have a lot of tools to meet the client where they are. So, let's transition and talk about the training that you share with others. You state that the Ankrum Institute isn't just a bodywork training program, it's a perspective shift into the future of sustainable health. Tell us more about that.

0:20:33.8 LA: Oh, I love the way you said that, that was awesome. Can I steal that?


0:20:37.5 KC: Absolutely.

0:20:38.0 LA: Oh my God. Absolutely. So, just like you're hearing me, that is the way I'm teaching. And one of the... Oh, I have to tell you this, because here's the deal, is that the first module in my training, the very first module, and each module is four days long, the first module we set up what are the principles that the body works in. I say this a gazillion times, is that there's that idea that if I feed a man a fish he eats for a night, but I teach him to fish, he eats for his life. So one of the first things I do in that first module is to set the principles of how our bodies work. There are principles. We don't know... I've never got that in massage school, I didn't get that in... And I just got it over the years of the different trainings that I've had and sort of brought it all together, and there's these principles.

0:21:34.0 LA: So I teach the principles and then we go about the next two years actually learning how to apply the principles and seeing how they're at work within the body. So that's one of the big things that we have, that I do over this time in my training. But what we then begin to do is, I also teach people to observe and to see. So we do some body reading that's very different rather than just a high shoulder, low shoulder, we do body reading so that you can begin to really use another sense. So, not just touch, but also what I see and what I hear the person saying, so there's a lot of that. And then we start moving up the body. So the second module is the foot, the ankle, the knee, the leg, and it sounds very like a massage school, but it's not, it's from a very different perspective. And then we just start moving up the body in each module, but each module has craniosacral in it, because my belief in craniosacral is so big. My belief is that it needs to be part of your package, or you need some kind of trauma, something in your package. And that's mine.

0:22:49.3 LA: And so we work through the body like the pelvis, and then we do the lumbars, and we do some lymphatics, and then we get into thoracics, and after we get... When we get up to the cervicals, we then shift into the viscera. And then the cranial also takes a different turn, because the cranial now is, how do I work on concussions? How can I work on the pituitary, the hypothalamus, the pineal gland, all of that stuff. So, I am... We are... So the training is geared towards you deepening your ability to understand, your ability to touch, your sensitivity, your perception, all those parts, but we are walking through all the parts of the body and it's progressive until we at the end are doing auto-regulation things, adrenals and we're doing all those things. So basically, it's... And here's the really interesting thing that I never, ever thought about it when I started the school, licensed up of six and a half years ago, is that to be in this training is to have a transformation of some sort, and I never did that on purpose, but it's been so amazing.

0:24:07.4 LA: I've had transformation, students have had transformation, and it's incredible, it's really incredible. I just hope everybody will come big, and don't let distance stop you, because I have people coming from all over the country, so people get a little afraid to travel and we meet... The class meets four days every other month for 14 times, so it's two years and two months, people get a little confused about that. Four days, every other month. And the other thing we do in the school is every one of my lectures, every one of my demonstrations is filmed, and there's a private YouTube channel for each of the classes. So you always have access back to what it was you were learning, what it is you're studying in order to have major support, especially when you're doing this long distance. I'm not a big believer in doing a lot of Zoom teaching, I think you need to be in person, but then once you have that as not a backup, but as something that will help you, I just think it's invaluable. So we do a lot of stuff to support the students, really a lot.

0:25:21.1 KC: I'm curious Leigh, what do you find students are most surprised by or challenged by during the program? What's their aha moment?

0:25:29.6 LA: Well, first of all, how much there is to know about the body from an alternative standpoint, that is something that I think surprises them. And the students all wanna mind meld with me, I think that's pretty funny actually. And so there's an aha in that. And then what happens, and it happens in a different place for each of the students if they actually go there, is they have their own moment when, who knows? Could be the seventh module, could... The TMJ and face and teeth module, could be the module of, who knows? The 10th module, there's a clunking and you get it, the principles land, and then you understand how you're... It just changes your view and your abilities and your understanding, but most of the students in the beginning are like, "Oh, I'm never... I don't know what I'm doing, I never would... " And trust me, I did that too. When I was up in osteopathic school, I did... I was like, "Oh... " All the time. But it clunks. There's some kind of a... I shouldn't say clunk. There's some sort of... That happens and then it begins to really come together. It's just awesome, it's just awesome.

0:26:52.0 DB: Leigh, where would you like to see the future of massage therapy and bodywork going?

0:26:57.1 LA: Just what I've said, functional. And you know what? Actually, let me take that back 'cause that's me, I'm functional and that's what I'm teaching. What I would like to see where massage therapy go is that I need a lot of massage therapists. I have massage therapists in my training, I have plumbers in my training, I have hair dressers in my training, I have chiropractors and PTs in my training. Okay, but there is this ego thing that plays out and I'd love for people to... Because I know when you sit down and talk with me, I have a vast amount of that knowledge, but I also know there's a vast amount that I don't know, and that I'm open once again to say, "Yes." But that's one thing that it really saddens me that many, many, many massage therapists don't open themselves to know and let in that there is more and bigger. It doesn't have to be my bigger, it could be any bigger, any more and deeper. And I'm learning all the time.

0:27:58.6 LA: So, allow yourself to open and continue to learn and expand and say, "Yes," I guess. That's what I would say that I would love to see, especially lots of massage therapists don't do that. They have their massage core course and then they think they know everything. And I might have thought that myself many years ago. I will own that, probably did. [chuckle] Especially after I did neuromuscular, I thought, "Oh, yeah. This is the end of it. I'm done, I'm good." But now I really get it. And so that's what I'd love to see for them.

0:28:34.8 DB: I want to thank our guest today, Leigh Ankrum. For more information about the good work that Leigh is doing, visit Thanks Leigh, and thanks Kristin.

0:28:44.5 LA: Oh, thank you both. It was a pleasure.

0:28:47.6 KC: Leigh, thank you so much for that wonderful conversation, starting with encouraging us to say yes to learning and looking at the body differently. Thank you so much.


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