Take a few deep breaths, noticing how you are aligned left to right, front to back, observing without judgement where you are holding tension in your body. This simple practice – connecting our thoughts with sensations in our body – is the first step of a somatic practice, the central theme of Embodying Authenticity by Eunice Aquilina.
In Embodying Authencity, Aquilina draws on descriptions of her own practice and research as a leadership and executive coach and somatic practitioner, trained through the Strozzi Institute. Through this overview of her work, she argues that since thinking never takes place independently of the rest of the body, a raised awareness of bodily habits, postures, actions, breath, tension, and so on, should be integrated into an effective – authentic – practice of leadership and teamwork. The somatic domain represents not just our physical body but the “sum total of our experience” (23), recognizing how memories and habits of movement, thought and experience are formed together. This is not a step-by-step manual (although there are two helpful centring practices, one of which is summarized above) nor an academic review, but rather reflections on decades of work in somatic practice with leaders.
Aqualina is aware of the cynicism towards the integration of somatic practices into leadership work, noting participants’ initial ‘eye-rolling’, preference for tasks and projects over work on their own inner lives, and a clinging to the known hierarchy of roles over collaborative, relational, vulnerable work towards becoming a learning community. With a philosophy related to aikido principles of blending with and transforming the energy of an attack, she describes working compassionately rather than combatively with clients resistant to engagement through a groundedness of self and belief in the process. Crucial details of exactly how cynical clients are lured into participation are not given but a sustained authenticity of this kind on the part of a facilitator seems to be the key.
Aquilina blurs the line (if there is a line) between therapy and leadership/executive coaching in the context of change. She prioritizes an awareness of the inner condition of a leader, adding how this is felt physically as well as mentally or spiritually – the somatic approach integrates all three towards a holistic understanding. This has parallels with the work of Otto Scharmer and his Theory U (she begins by describing a session with Arawana Hayashi of the Presencing Institute, which is based around Scharmer’s work).
One distinctive emphasis within the book is that, as an ‘outside’ facilitator of transformative change, she engages not just with clients and their journeys but also in her own somatic practice of inquiry, examining herself and how she interacts with her clients individually and in groups. This sharpens her ability to read the room, to sense when to intervene, “neither pushing them too far nor letting them off the hook” (144). Consultants focused on the condition of their clients should take note to explore their own inner life and embodiment practices, and their willingness to learn and change, as crucial habits for working from a place of authenticity and embodied presence.
It’s perhaps ironic that those that work with somatic practices often use metaphorical language to convey their meaning and this book is no exception, with appeals to the ‘deep’ ‘inner self/wholeness/wisdom/rightness’ and instructions to ‘hold a space’, ‘drop into our feeling self’ and ‘tune in’ to one’s ‘energetic patterns’. These references to one’s ‘energy’ (or ‘presence’) may be seen as metaphorical visualisations or literal descriptions depending on one’s perspective – the former approach does not diminish the value of metaphorical visualization for its effect on the physical body/mind. Aquilina argues that such awareness enables choice, as conditioned, embodied habits (of body and speech) are made visible and challenged where necessary.
“Cognitive awareness is not enough. We need to shift our psychobiology…which shifts the action that is possible for us” (182)
Aqualina cites Strozzi-Heckler’s ‘arc of transformation’ which entails a progression (again similar to that of Scharmer’s Theory U) from awareness through uncertainty, vulnerability, “learning to swim in the waters of conflict” (107) and disorganization through to a ‘new shape’. This results in authenticity, which for Aqualina means embodying a connection between one’s most important values and one’s embodied experience, without pretence, shame or fear. It entails a perpetual practice of “ongoing enquiry” so that we “show up in the wholeness of who we are” (197), embodying authenticity.
“When we get in touch with our authentic self and speak from that place our message lands powerfully with those listening to us” (45)
At a fundamental level, the somatic approach simply urges leaders to pay attention to the sensations, postures and movements in their body as they think and speak, and to those of others they connect with, integrating that feedback into an ongoing reflective inquiry. While important for everyone, a leadership that is willing to undertake this vulnerable work visibly will create through demonstration the necessary atmosphere of trust and agency for others to follow.
Throughout Embodying Authenticity, Eunice Aqualina offers a clear introduction to the efficacy of somatic practice in leadership, and change management in particular. Through case studies from the perspective of both facilitator and participants at different levels of leadership, she provides examples of the principles she describes – awareness, vulnerability, being with unknowing, collaboration, ongoing reflection, and more – all necessarily embodied. She includes helpful further reading for more details on this approach.