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.

Bungee jumping my way to leadership

Payal Gaglani-Bhatt reflects on how her experience at Aurora in 2016-17 helped her find her voice.

It was a cold and grey morning in London as I made my way to the Aurora London 1 cohort in October 2016. I was cold but curious, hungry but excited, slightly sceptical but looking forward to meeting new people.

The day began like any other conference begins, but about halfway through the morning, we had to come up with a visual image of how we see ourselves with regards to leadership. For me this was a very powerful, thought provoking and reflective moment. I saw myself as a bungee jumper – tied to a harness, standing on the edge of a cliff, reluctant to take the next step.  This was a momentous image because it was exactly what my approach, attitude and stance was towards leadership. I was holding myself back, uncertain of my own ability, and reluctant to take the plunge!

That’s where Aurora has really made a big difference. It’s made me confident in my own abilities, it’s helped me channel my thoughts on “what’s possible” rather than what’s not, and encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and bungee jump…literally!

On that very first day, it became apparent that all of us Aurorans were in the same boat: personal insecurities, preferences for a healthy work-life balance and multiple priorities were the backbone of what made us who we are. More often than not, we wear more than one hat in our lives and are inclined to commit extensively to each of our roles – be it as a mother, a mentor, a manager, a volunteer, an author….that’s where I really began thinking more and more about wearing one hat in another context and vice versa.

The reflective practice made me analyse and critically look at the ways I behave, interact, make decisions, influence others around me and most importantly how I was using, or not using, my voice. I knew subconsciously that I often used my skills as a mother with my team and my professional performance management techniques to deal with my kids.

This began the process of vocalising my thoughts and recording the parallels between the two through reflective writing. I found my voice through a blog and after taking on board constructive feedback from colleagues, I had the courage to take the plunge and publish it. In March 2017, I launched School of Mumagement – it is my creative and constructive platform to rationalise what I do as a parent and apply successful parenting tips, techniques, and tactics at work and in management situations to unbelievable success…. naturally this needs tweaking to accommodate varying scenarios, but the theory remains valid.

So, how has finding my voice helped me in my career and what does that have to do with leadership or bungee jumping? Below are three main aspects that “finding my voice” has had an impact on. I believe these are the pillars to being a good leader:

1) Confidence – First is the confidence in my own skills and abilities: in wanting to try new things; in being experimental; in vocalising my beliefs, thoughts and opinions; in standing my ground.  I developed the confidence that my knowledge, skills and expertise were my harness and would always be with me… even as I jumped off.

2) Conviction – Second is the conviction in my passions and energies: in being comfortable in my own skin and personality, in my authenticity and individuality; in my inherent knowledge and self-worth. I found the conviction that I could do it and take the plunge, but more importantly, found the passion and enthusiasm to want to do it.

3) Control – Third is the control over my career trajectory: over my ambitions, my fears and my hesitancies.  I gained control not only on how and when I jumped but also on how I could enjoy the fall, the rise and the bounce and the most important of all, the WHOLE journey.

So my dear Aurorans, I hope you too have found your voice. I hope you have been challenged to step out of your comfort zone, to understand yourself and to reflect on your aspirations. More importantly though, I hope you have found the confidence, conviction and control to bungee jump your way to leadership with authenticity!


Payal Gaglani-Bhatt is Head of Events at SOAS, University of London. She completed the Aurora programme in London in 2017. Since completing the programme, Payal was inspired to create her own independent blog, School of Mumagement.

Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Aurora was created in 2013 in response to our own research which highlighted women’s under-representation in senior leadership positions and identified actions that could be taken to address this.

Dates, locations and booking for Aurora 2017-18 are available here.