Ira Feinstein: How did you find out about the Feldenkrais Method?
Maggy Burrowes: I was living in a small town on the south coast of the UK called Brighton. It's an adventurous, very forward-thinking little town. I'd been taking various classes at the natural health center for a long time when a Feldenkrais workshop was offered by Garet Newell, who had come to the UK with the intention of running a training and moved into the neighborhood. At the time, I'd never heard of Feldenkrais, but I thought, well, I'm just going to try it out.
I have hypermobility issues, and it is easy for me to injure myself when moving too enthusiastically. I'd been dealing with a long-running lower back issue that manifested mainly as intermittent sciatica. Whenever it came on, I would limp around for a week or so until it got better. As luck would have it, and I do think it was luck, I had an attack the night before the Feldenkrais workshop. So I limped in on that first day and walked out with the pain completely gone at the end of it.
Ira: Wow. What a quick improvement. Was it that initial experience that inspired you to become a practitioner?
Maggy: At the time, I was singing as sort of a second job. I really wanted to sing jazz, which is a very difficult way to make a living, especially for someone like me who does not enjoy the self-promotion part of a musician's life. So I thought teaching voice could be a useful backup. About four days after that workshop, I woke up with a light bulb over my head–just like in a cartoon–and I thought, "I could train to do this, and then I could use it to teach singing." So that's how I made the decision—over thirty years ago. I didn't realize at the time what a satisfying, enjoyable, and stimulating career Feldenkrais was going to be.
Ira: Thanks for sharing a bit about your history. I always enjoy learning about the various paths that bring people to the Feldenkrais Method. Now, I'd like to ask you about your upcoming workshop with Feldenkrais Access—The Secrets of the Ring Muscles. That's a big topic! How did you become interested in the sphincters?
Maggy: While studying in London, I wandered into a bookstore and saw the book, The Secret of the Ring Muscles: Healing Yourself Through Sphincter Exercise by Paula Garbourg. The title was irresistible because a lot of voice work involves working with vocal sphincters to control and develop your vocal abilities. It's a complex book, and it took me a long time to unravel what I understood from it and turn it into something that I felt was "Feldenkrais-y" enough to transform into Awareness Through Movement sequences.
Ira: I'm not familiar with that book, but I do know that one of Moshe Feldenkrais' first students, Ruthy Alon, taught a workshop on the sphincters. Are you familiar with her work?
Maggy: I know of Ruthy's interest in the sphincters, but I haven't done the workshop. After reading Garbourg's book, I wanted to see what I could learn through my own kinesthetic experience. I worried that doing Ruthy's program would influence my exploration too much.
Ira: I get that! I'm a writer, and there are some books I refuse to read lest they subconsciously affect my writing style.
Ira: So, for people who are experiencing issues with incontinence, how can the Feldenkrais Method help?
Maggy: Often, when people talk about this issue, they focus entirely on the idea of strengthening the pelvic floor by making all the muscles firmer and stronger. We know from Feldenkrais that function is just as important as structure; it's not about how strong a muscle is but how well it works and how spontaneously it adjusts itself to the different functions it has evolved to perform. What we need from all our sphincters, both internal and external, is that they perform all these important tasks efficiently throughout our lives. Feldenkrais is always concerned with the integration of the whole self, and learning to act with awareness and better integration is only going to be of benefit.
When my menopause began, I stopped feeling that I had the same easy control over my bladder that I'd had all my life. Coughing was particularly challenging because when we are about to cough, the sphincters in our airway close in order to build up the pressure needed to expel breath more forcefully, and this affects all the other sphincters–as we will be discovering in the workshop.
So I began actively engaging in reversing this worrying change in my bladder function. Basing everything I was doing on the Feldenkrais process, I explored being able to move easily through the movements related to squatting, which I think this Method is ideal for. I also made sure not to urinate too frequently; in particular, I practiced holding my bladder through the night—something my mother had been advised to do to improve her own continence. I have to say the issues have gone away again, and I believe that my personal Feldenkrais practice was an important, but not the only, factor in my improvement. Thus my hope for anyone attending the workshop is that by practicing what I am teaching, people will be able to retain and maintain the continence they have.
Ira: What will we be exploring in the workshop? Will the focus be on squeezing?
Maggy: I carefully avoid the word squeezing - as with all Feldenkrais work, we will be looking to minimize effort as much as possible! The deeper internal sphincters of the digestive system move in coordination with a rhythmic, undulatory quality. The creature that is most ideal to look at is the worm. Have you ever held a worm and had that experience where it makes itself so thin that it drops out of your fingers? The worm can escape like that because it can elongate, constrict, and change its shape. Something similar is going on throughout our digestive and circulatory systems.
Humans still have that element from very early in our evolution. We have an opening at one end and an opening at the other, and the food goes all the way through and comes out the other end just like it does with a worm.
Additionally, a subtle connection exists between our diaphragms–the palate, the floor of the mouth, the thoracic diaphragm, and the pelvic floor– throughout our system and our sphincters. It may not be obvious at first, but even the soles of our feet and the palms of our hands also have a diaphragmatic quality. So this workshop will include explorations of the classic Feldenkrais sequence known as the bell hand, plus my own take on the bell foot, as useful elements to help to coordinate our whole system to move in synchrony.
Ira: What about people who are fully incontinent? Will this workshop help them?
Maggy: That I do not know for sure. What I can say is that, in the right circumstances, I think it would definitely be worth anyone who is dealing with incontinence practicing these sequences, as long as they have not experienced some sort of irreversible structural injury. For example, if someone has had cancer and their tubing has been shortened, or a vital nerve has been cut, then there might be other issues going on that these lessons wouldn't necessarily be able to influence.
Ira: That makes sense. I love how the Feldenkrais Method keeps inspiring me to reconsider what I think is inevitable about aging.
Maggy: It is exciting. I think Feldenkrais offers a distinctive understanding of how our brain and nervous system can keep learning, adapting, and shifting as circumstances change. I think having a regular Feldenkrais practice can help us retain our youthful capabilities for much longer.
Ira: Will this workshop differ in terms of what people expect when attending a Feldenkrais workshop?
Maggy: Much of it will seem very gentle indeed, even for an Awareness Through Movement workshop – however, as the different sphincters begin to coordinate more clearly, we can begin to combine them with bigger, more playful movements. I think the greatest benefit will come from practicing what you learn in the workshop afterward. I understand that the idea with the Feldenkrais Method is to be exploratory and do things in as many different ways as possible. Still, as a vocalist, I also know that some things need to be practiced if you're going to get the greatest benefit from them, and this needs practicing. So I will do my best to make it as much fun for everybody to practice as I possibly can.
Join us for 'The Secrets of Your Ring Muscle System' on June 17. All registrants receive lifetime access to the recordings. Find out more: www.feldenkraisaccess.com/ring-muscle