Back Body Leadership An interview with Tanya Birl-Torres

What imagery or thought comes to mind when you hear that phrase “lead from the back?”

Is it taking a back seat? Is it a passive kind of leadership, or perhaps a strong and confident presence?

As part of The System Sanctuary we have been convening a cohort of 25 women from the US, UK, Australia and Canada for a collective inquiry into emerging leadership for systems change.

We are exploring themes that cut across gender, justice, transitions and systems change. One thread that shows up in our exchanges is reflections on power. We’re asking questions like “How do can we draw on different ways of knowing in our leadership, relationships and experiences of transitions?”, “In what ways can we redefine power?” “How does embodiment and reflective practice strengthen our efforts for systemic change?”

We invited Tanya Birl Torres of So Humanity to explore this theme during our Systems Sisterhood program for ‘women of systems change amid life transition’.

What has driven your exploration into embodiment?

I have spent 15 years performing on Broadway and traveling the world as an actor, dancer, choreographer and movement director. My career ushered in a lot of success, but with this external success also came a creative void or longing to connect deeper to myself and those around me beyond the confines of the performing arts.

Also, we are taught often as theater dancers to be in our body and to leave the speaking to someone else. You’re meant to take the supporting role — allow the music to lead, you’re the interpreter.

I was left with questions like “What was it about the performance that moved people?” “How did the show impact your life, and why?”

I was aching to move beyond recognition and deeper into relationship with my creativity and those whom my creativity (or presence) affected.

As a woman of color, I am learning to own and reclaim ownership of my body, a right that my ancestors didn’t have. I work at the intersections of social justice, race in America, spirituality and the arts. In that often heady context of systems thinking, I have learned to interpret what is happening through my body. My work has also been through this process, to open up my throat so my body and my experience can speak authentically. Say what I do know. My embodiment practice has helped me to do that.

You talk about “The role of embodiment is to make systems visible”, can you say more about that?

I recently spent some time in Boston at the Social Presencing Theater. I was drawn to the work of Otto Scharmer and Arawana Hayashi (former dancer/choreographer). It’s a theory which beautifully invites us to lead from the future as it emerges.

I immediately saw this theory and recognized it as the process adage in musical theater. It spoke to me in dance, movement, and metaphor and I was intrigued to learn more about it from an embodied point of view.

As a dancer, I have always lead with a sense of spatial awareness. My individual body in space and in relation to others. There is a multidimensional awareness of how I exist in space. This is the same for all of us. Social Presencing Theater breaks it down into 3 bodies or 3 systems of awareness:

Earth body: where life comes from and returns to

Individual body: our physical systems

Social body: a skin that surrounds all of us

This third body is fascinating in that our individual awareness of the back of our own bodies connects us (like invisible antennas) to this social skin. The very invisible systems that we are so passionate about changing and affecting with our work is now able to become visible or at lease sensed when we tap into this spacial awareness.

Can you say more about the back body?

We are often told to think about how we move through the world with the front of the body. But instead, I’d like you to picture an ancient Egyptian Queen perched on her throne. Her arms resting on the arms of her majestic seat. She leads by leaning back. With quiet confidence. Back body strong, front body open and soft. The nape of her neck extended as if light was shooting out from the crown of her head.

The women in my family all lead in this way. In a challenging situation, I don’t need words, my presence says what needs to be said. This is rooted in a groundedness. A feminine energy that has been passed down to me.

Sheryl Sandberg talked famously about how women should ‘lean in’, but Michelle Obama in a brilliant interview recently with Oprah quipped ‘it doesn’t always work that way.’ If you read her book Becoming, she clearly decided to allow her back body to lead and be the anchor for her family as they went through a huge transformation. To me leaning in is singular, leaning back is collective. It’s about connecting to others’ wisdom.

In our Sisterhood sessions participants talked about how in a tense moment, we needed to have the audacity to keep the front soft, to stay vulnerable and to do that having a strong back ensures the safety of the room. The group shared stories of how as facilitators their job was often to hold the silence long enough for the next thing to come forward. That they had learned naturally to stand in a particular way but had never had a way to describe it before.

One said: “By leading from the back the message says ‘actually this is immovable’. I see what’s going on and I’m not speaking about it, but I’m demonstrating the power in the room.” The back body can be a useful tool where we find ourselves in very difficult conversations as a way to use the body to stay in the moment and not flee.

What I am coming to learn about back body leadership is that it is a remembering of what women do best. Brene Brown talked about having a strong back, soft front. A strong back signifies a quiet holding power. A power that will secure the safety of a space and of others at all costs while modeling what true presence and openness look like.

I feel like I’m living the ultimate metaphor at the moment as a pregnant mother. My front is literally soft, but my back has to be strong.

It’s worth acknowledging that it is really scary to be owning the presence we have ourselves. As women, we are trained not to do that. Women standing in their power can be seen as a national threat.

Tell us more about the concept of embodiment

The purpose of embodiment is to feel and not to escape to the head where most us in western society feel more comfortable.

There is a safety, a wisdom and an innate knowing in the body that the mind cannot rationalize.

Our desire for comfort at all costs has kept a lot of society from uncomfortable conversations, dialogues or seeking the deeper change that we know is needed within ourselves.

Embodiment practices are tools which allow each of us to stay present in this deeply personal and transformational work of systems change.

This was a notion that resonated deeply with many of the participants in the Sisterhood. As one said “I’m fascinated by the knowledge our body holds. Too often we listen to it looking for sickness or pain, but not for what else it has to say to us.”

How is this connected to yoga?

In the lineage of yoga and the energy centers of the body known as the chakras, the fifth chakra vishuddha is the gateway to truth, communication, and creativity. It is housed in the throat.

When the front of the throat is overly exercised, a need to dominate with voice and opinion is often embodied. When there is a healthy balance of the back of the throat, representing deep listening, a softer yet effective way of leadership is able to emerge. Leadership that listens with whole being and takes action not out of a need to dominate or react, but one that leads by purpose and example.

This is the type of leader that I am becoming, in my work, as a parent, in genuine relationships and in how I show up in community.