Being hefty

Dr Jennifer Leigh is a lecturer in Higher Education and Academic Practice at the University of Kent who is taking part in Aurora during 2017-18. Here, she reflects on how her own research and background in embodiment and somatic movement can help Aurorans present themselves as leaders.

When I attended the first Aurora day on Identity, Impact and Voice I was struck by how the facilitator, Phyllida Hancock, spoke about the need to be ‘hefty’. One of the exercises was to stand up and take on the physical presence of a role model whose characteristics we wished to emulate. This idea, that our bodies portray and instil us with certain traits is not a new one. It resonated with me because of my work on embodiment and creative approaches to research and I wanted to share with the Aurora community how to bring this idea of changing your physicality and movement into your everyday work life.

Before becoming an academic, I qualified as an accredited somatic movement therapist and educator and registered yoga teacher, and I used embodied anatomy, developmental play and movement patterns in order to work in private practice. Movement work can be used educationally, therapeutically, for research and just because it makes you feel good. Somatic movement therapy can be used therapeutically to deal with trauma or injury or it can be used creatively to stimulate material for choreography, improvisation or composition. Our bodies can incorporate and store all kinds of information that can tell us and others about what we are thinking and feeling, and how we might go about handling different situations.

What is somatic movement?

Whilst many people might be familiar with yoga, somatic movement therapy is a little different.  Somatic movement covers a wide range of different practices, but all focus on developing a sense of self-awareness and presence in the embodied self. That is, an awareness of the moving, breathing, sensing, feeling body and an awareness of the thoughts, feelings, emotions and projections that flow through our minds.

It is then important to bring that awareness into consciousness and to accept where we are and who we are in any given moment. From an educational or therapeutic point of view it is only when we have that acceptance that it is possible to facilitate change. By developing an awareness of ourselves, we are able to see the options we have, and choose how we want to move forward. This might be something very body based, such as the way that we hold our head, or move our arm. Rather than moving purely by habit in a way that might be causing tension and pain in our joints, by reacting to stimuli, we can choose how we respond. Perhaps we choose how to sit, maybe to use our internal organs to support our spines and to free our necks and shoulders to move gracefully and lightly, or to initiate a movement from the periphery or the core. Gaining access to these choices starts with awareness and acceptance of where we are. Interrogation into why we have developed habitual patterns that limit our movement or thoughts can release trauma, and shed light on past experiences. Somatic movement therapy and education can help us to increase our embodied self-awareness and give us freedom to choose about how we act.

How does this relate to leadership, academia, or research?   

Anything that increases our self-awareness can help us to develop our reflexivity. Reflexivity and reflective practice are vital to leadership, teaching, and research. We need to be aware of how we hold ourselves and present to others and consciously choose how we act in response to people or events rather than blindly reacting out of habitual patterns. Learning to reflect isn’t easy, as it is not something that can be done in isolation.  Somatic or embodied practices give us material to reflect on, which allows us to then change what we do and consequently to progress (Leigh & Bailey, 2013).

On a purely practical level, this work can also help us day-to-day. First to notice and to become aware. For example: how are you breathing? Is it smooth, even, or less so? Where are your shoulders? Without judging, notice where they are and then choose where you want them to be. Be aware of your feet, of the points of contact with the earth. How does your body react to the people around you? What thoughts, feelings or images do you have in response to them? Can you unpick why or where they come from? Only once you are aware can you begin to change.

Our bodies, our meaty, breathy, visceral bodies, also inform our language and how we talk.  We speak of people getting under our skin, feeling touchy or sensitive, listening to ‘gut feelings’ or Phyllida’s idea of being hefty. What does this mean or feel like?

My own research takes a particularly embodied stance in that I use my background and perspective as a practitioner to ask and to answer embodied research questions. Rather than asking participants to answer surveys, or interviews, I have recently conducted a study funded by the Society for Research into Higher Education exploring embodied academic identity, where I met academics in studio spaces and used creative methods including film and visual materials to encourage them to share elements around their identity. These methods allow for a deep process of reflection, but do raise many questions, particularly around where the boundaries of this work are with respect to research and therapy, and where the resulting data fit on the line between art and outputs for analysis.

As someone new to Aurora I look forward to attending the next days as part of the London Autumn cohort. I’d love to meet fellow Aurorans who are interested in my research so please do get in touch. I would love to bring these embodied research ideas into collaboration with someone to explore how leadership is developed, using embodied research methods to ask embodied research questions.


About Aurora
Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Aurora was created in 2013 in response to our own research that shows that women are under-represented in senior leadership positions and identified actions that could be taken to change this. Since Aurora began in 2013 we have welcomed 3,477 women from 139 universities and sector bodies, with 1029 women attending in 2016-17 alone.

Dr Jennifer Leigh
You can follow Jennifer’s blog here and also learn more via her Twitter.

Dates, location and booking
Aurora will take place in Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Dublin and London in 2017-18. Book a place here.

Onwards and Upwards study
The first year summary of the five-year longitudinal study of Aurora can be accessed here: Onwards and Upwards year one summary.

The Aurora Conference- Thursday 7 June 2018
We are delighted to be launching our fourth Aurora conference focusing on learning from others – examining what others outside higher education are doing, and what we can learn from them to support women in leadership within the sector.

Participants include, but are not limited to:

  • Aurora participants (current and alumnae)
  •  Aurora champions
  • Aurora role models
  • Aurora mentors
  • People working in/leading equality and diversity

Find out more and apply

Demystifying Finance for Aurorans- Wednesday 18 April 2018
Is for women in higher education who want to improve their understanding of finance in higher education and develop financial management skills.

Find out more and apply.

Contact us
If you would like to know more about Aurora please get in touch at aurora@lfhe.ac.uk.