Even if the kitchen ceiling is leaking, the printer is misfiring, and a guest is screaming at the host, restaurateur Emily Hyland promises you can still find peace.
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Credit: Courtesy Emmy Squared

Editor's note: Communal Table, a forum for amplifying first-person voices in the food industry. Our goal is to work long term with leaders to create more humane and sustainable workplaces. We encourage restaurant and bar workers and owners to write in and share their experiences here: kat.kinsman@meredith.com. Have ideas about how to make the industry a safer, better, more sustainable place to work? Please share them, too, and sign up for the F&W Pro newsletter.

Emily Hyland is the co-founder, director of beverage, and director of wellness at Pizza Loves Emily and Emmy Squared restaurants. In addition to restaurant life, Emily is an adjunct professor of English at NYC College of Technology and is also a senior yoga instructor and teacher trainer at Love is Juniper, a boutique center she helped her mentor found in Brooklyn in 2017. Emily is the author of EMILY: The Cookbook, published in 2018. She is also an active and published poet whose work has appeared in the Brooklyn Review, Sixfold, and Stretching Panties.

I am standing in the restaurant after receiving a text saying, "Come quick. It's raining in the kitchen." To be clear, when I arrive, the ceiling is not just dripping with the patter of a leak through a crack with a bucket catching the splash into a soft puddle. It is 5:15 p.m. on a Friday, and there is a cloudburst over Brooklyn and a cascade of rainwater is pouring through a hole that the HVAC guy sawed open and then forgot to patch earlier that day when the sun was bright.

My host is telling a guest as politely as possible that the wait is 45 minutes and that she is happy to take her name if she wants to hop next door for a beer until her two-top is ready. She is met with a deadlock of shark eyes, and as I steer there to intercept, I'm met with a loud and warlike "F$%k you" out of the guest's mouth while a line of other patrons watches and the whole room is about to turn.

It's a high summer heatwave in a full house and suddenly as the electric shorts, the AC dies and internet conks out. When the power returns, the wall unit won't reboot, the walk-in freezes over, and the kitchen printer is printing to the bar and the host printer is printing to the server station.

The stories are endless in this industry that invites us in and churns us in its tide. I have been teaching mindfulness through yoga for almost a decade now, and I have learned more from my stint in the restaurant world about the practical application of the tools I have garnered from the wellness world than from the wellness world itself. It is much easier to befriend your breath on a yoga mat in a quiet room than in any of the situations described above.

Real growth and learning happen for us as individuals when we are able to apply self-care tools in the most stress-induced moments. When we arrive in the land of anxiety, we meet the opportunity to lean in and learn. All of the distractions—the disaster in the kitchen, the angry guest, the broken circuits—remove us from our "actual livingness," as Joel Kramer calls it in The Passionate Mind. When we can recognize this, we can use a series of simple guideposts to help us pivot back and refocus. We can prioritize ourselves as the soft humans we are and handle our nervous systems with the care and kind attention they deserve.

For life within the restaurant world—or any other highly stressful situation—I am glad to offer some gentle guidelines for calming. Trying all, or even just one of these suggestions does not require much time. This is active meditation in the middle of our anxiety—taking 60 seconds to turn inward can make a world of difference when things feel insurmountable. I teach these tactics, largely inspired by the teachings of Pema Chodron, on a regular basis and actively try my best to practice these when I am met with unanticipated, overwhelming circumstances or even when I just need a moment to come back to myself more deeply. It is not always so easy, but we can only try our best.

feet on the ground

hands to heart

close your eyes

find the breath

and soften

Find the ground

Wherever you are, feel your feet as roots. Be held by the solid part of earth below you: the concrete cellar or wooden floorboards, cold kitchen tiles or hot pavement underfoot. Let your toes knead the socks in your shoes, notice the wooly pills, the warmth. Sit if you can, both feet evenly down as if tugged by roots into a stable base. Draw down with gravity, let its weight tug you more fully into your embodiment away from the noise of the headspace, centered in a place free of distraction, free of narrative and storyline. Be in the body with your feet on the ground.

Lay your hands on your heart

With one hand on top of the other, press your palms into your chest and feel this vital organ beat. Feel your pulse and vitality with each surge and stroke. Let the throbbing take you towards yourself. This is the ultimate shift in perspective. Wherever you are, whatever you've been facing, these layers are not with you now. You are in your own home, in the skin and the muscles and the bones. You are in the landscape of your being, your heart beating.

Close your eyes

Make this simple choice to remove yourself from the sensory overload of the moment. Let the eyelids feel like warm blankets over the eyes, the eyes receding away from the nonsense and drama deeper into their sockets. Let the closing of the eyes be a drawing back from the circumstances that distract from who you really are. Savor the hush that happens when you quiet the bustle that was just in front of you.

Build a conscious relationship with your breath

Nothing is more important than your breath. Become its partner. Instead of letting it run in the background on auto-pilot, become its friend. Actively roll in the wave of your life-force. Pull the inhale deep into the roots of your feet and draw that vital energy up to the top of the lungs to nourish your whole body. Press the exhale down and out the base of your pelvis to consciously rinse away any tension. Clear space for the next round of breath in, and welcome the life, the possibility, and the newness that arrives. Then, on the exhale, let go of what no longer serves you; press out what is stale, stuck, and negative. Follow this breath meditation: inhale to draw positivity into your being and exhale to drive toxicity out.

Soften your body

Brighten your senses. Notice your being. What are you feeling? From the crown of your head to the soles of your feet ask yourself where you can soften. What muscles are gripping that do not need to be gripping? Where are you holding habitual patterns of tension? By bringing your awareness to these places, you soften the skin of your forehead, your eyelids, your jaw. You relax your tongue in your mouth, your shoulders, and down your back. Where else are you holding tightly? How can every breath out take with it something that is no longer serving you in this present moment?

Stay with the discomfort. It will pass. But it is here now, and the point is to embrace every moment we encounter. Allowing anxiety to drive the narrative hinders us from the chance to experience peril with clarity. No matter how much my heart is aflutter in panic or how clenched my teeth are against each other will not stop the waterfall through the ceiling or the caustic words of an angry patron. Furrowing my brow with tension will most certainly not reorganize the configuration of the printers. The situation remains.

We have the chance to recognize the daunting qualities of the restaurant microcosm. When we see this field with greater acuity, we can then choose to lean into being gentle to ourselves in the most heightened moments of unease. We can allow ourselves the gift of perspective. The roof will get fixed. We can let its drama overtake us, let our ego get sucked into the inane story. Or, we can stop to take a breath and use these tools that allow us to ease back into our selves and be calm and ready for what comes next.