Emily Hyland is the face and name of Emily, an acclaimed pizzeria in Clinton Hill.
For the year after it opened in early 2014, she was the first person you saw when you entered, while her husband, Matt Hyland, ran the kitchen.
But before she was famous for pizza, Hyland was a yoga instructor (and before that, a New York City public high school English teacher). The pressure of opening not one but two restaurants — Emmy Squared opened last spring in Williamsburg — got the best of her practice and health, though. She ate pizza every day, wasn’t taking care of herself consistently and hasn’t taught in a studio for about a year.
For the past six months, Hyland’s been prioritizing self-care — and trying to pass it along to her employees, too. In December, she and a staffer led yoga classes next-door to Emily at Stellar Yoga Space.
“The service industry is so wrought with bad habits, like being up late, drinking too much, being on your feet, doing these repetitive tasks — it really takes a toll on your body,” Hyland said. “It’s a very high-stress world; the yoga really allows for just sitting with yourself. I thought it would be really worthwhile to be able to offer that to people in my community. It’s interesting how much of that yoga world is still infused in how I run the business and choose to interact with folks on a daily basis.”
Hyland is also launching a workshop for people in the service industry with Culinary Agents this winter, and hopes to return to a more regular teaching practice this spring.
amNewYork spoke with Hyland about her practice.
How did you start practicing yoga?
I struggled with my weight for a long time in my 20s. I used to be a college basketball player. After I left that I gained a lot of weight, I was completely out of physical activity. My sister really encouraged me, she was taking a yoga class. I saw Joanne Silver at Laughing Lotus, now she’s at Yogamaya. That really helped me get back into a healthy place in my mind and my body, and in a lot of ways it changed my life. I got my yoga certification in vinyasa yoga five years ago at Yogamaya. Within about a year, I really started to become more and more interested in therapeutic, so I did an advanced modular there at the studio. Then I did an introductory yin training [at Integral Yoga with Corina Benner]. I went from teaching vinyasa to primarily teaching yin and restorative. They’re on the ground, and restorative is a completely passive practice meant to relax the nervous system and reduce stress. Yin is an actively passive practice, where you’re in long-held stretches on the ground — like five to seven minutes in a forward fold. As I’ve transitioned into the insanity of running a restaurant, I really am so grateful. The breath practice is a big part of my work in both of those modalities. That very calming, therapeutic work paired with breath practice has been pivotal with my own sanity. I was running the door for the first 18 months at Emily. I used that as a time to practice what it means to breathe in and out. When I teach that job to a new host, that’s a lot of what I talk about — being present for everything and having perspective.
Why did you make the transition to restorative?
I felt very gravitated toward the deep work that can be done on the ground, just using gravity and compression over time. The space it creates is really enlightening in the body. I really liked it and it made a lot of sense to me. When Emily opened, my body craved that calming, nurturing practice so much — how wound up and pressured I was opening that business. That was a big pivot point, when we opened. I did my yin training after the restaurant had been open for a while. That training was amazing. I remember having a-ha moments every two seconds. Sometimes after a hard, stressful day, it feels good to go to a gym and get the stress out, but it’s also important to breathe and be quiet.
What toll does the restaurant industry take on you?
I think in general, posture issues, especially for folks in the kitchen — hunched over their station, making toppings or a million salads. I think really being attuned to lengthening our spines is something that in the restaurant world can be really challenging. A lot of that stuff really starts with the feet — all of the hard walking around, and the effects of gravity on the body. A great pose is legs up the wall — when I come home from a busy service I try to do it. It’s reversing the effects of gravity and allowing the blood to circulate. For me personally, I also spent a lot of that first year cutting pizza. I still do, once a week, but while I was doing it five nights a week, that really messed up my wrist. That repetitive motion was a real challenge. I also think the biggest thing for servers and hosts is the massive pressure from just the pace of things. I also feel like people get the physical effect of anxiety in their bodies in dealing with really, really nasty people sometimes. It doesn’t happen often when people are that extreme, but it really affects you. That’s something that practices like restorative yoga can combat and allow people to keep perspective.
What is your practice like?
My day starts a little later by virtue of the restaurant world. I prefer to practice in the morning. I’ll do the gym and elliptical, or alternate with yoga, or do yoga after. I see Joanne once a week for a really deep, restorative session paired with reiki. I try to do nothing major at nighttime, but 10 to 15 minutes of putting my legs up the wall, or a gentle spinal twist and open up areas that feel really tight from service. I also see Steve Pokk, owner of Crossfit Kingsboro. He’s an awesome trainer, so I curse at him the whole time we work together. That’s been on and off for maybe a year and a half.
What drew you to reiki?
When I started working with Joanne nine years ago, aside from struggling with my physical health, in terms of my weight, I also had really bad anxiety. I think that was part of being a New York City public school teacher. I learned that she did reiki and reflexology. Sometimes at the end of class in savasana, she did a bit on me. I realized what a powerful thing that simple energy work can be. I started doing that more routinely with her and seeking her out for sessions privately. It’s a non-religious, spiritual type of thing. It’s very calming, grounding work.
How does diet come into play for you?
The first two years of Emily, I’m not exaggerating when I tell you I ate pizza every single day of my life for two years. My diet changed drastically when we opened the restaurant. It’s not easy.
What changed in the past few months for you?
I don’t know if there was anything tangible, I just didn’t feel good in my body. I felt tight in areas that used to feel open, I felt like I couldn’t breathe as deeply as I used to, I gained a lot of weight. There wasn’t a particular moment, it was just something I knew I needed to get back to. I felt like I was grasping at straws for a while. This summer, I felt like I got myself more oriented and disciplined to it. A lot of it has to do with having the space to prioritize it. You can’t when you’re opening a restaurant.
A big part of our organization is telling everybody, yes you’re an employee, but you’re humans before being employees. That’s a big part of how we run things. A lot of restaurants are run with angry, screaming chefs and really punitive systems. We really try to be accommodating, where we’re prioritizing healthy communities and kindness and non-violent action in the way we speak and interact with each other, which is not an easy task in the restaurant world either, but people who work for us really appreciate that.