Jennifer Hall Taylor ’00, A Practice of Presence in a Life of Movement

Jennifer Hall Taylor ’00,  A Practice of Presence in a Life of Movement

As a child, Jennifer Hall Taylor ’00 was never one to sit still. Looking back, she realizes that the sense of connectivity that came from physical movement may be what brought her to where she is today.

A yoga practitioner and teacher, a health and wellness coach, a personal chef, and a mindfulness app creator—Jennifer is all of these, and each aspect of her work incorporates wellness and the love of movement. “I’ve always had a deep interest in physical movement,” she says. “I love the joy and freedom that can come from it.”

Jennifer describes her first yoga experience as “terrible.” During the gap year she spent between Milton and entering New York University, she was volunteering at a school
in Costa Rica, with classmate Alexandra Hynes ’00, when she tried following along to a yoga videotape. “It was just torturous,” she says. “It was like putting your body in these shapes and holding them for a long time and trying to be relaxed. It was awful.”

As a freshman at NYU, Jennifer was beginning to question whether New York was the place for her when 9/11 happened. Unmoored, she turned to yoga, taking classes twice daily. “My analytical brain felt turned off, but in a way that felt safe,” she says about the classes.
She continued her practice throughout college, but stopped for a few years following graduation. When she finally returned to the mat, she says, it “was like a homecoming.” In 2015, she began yoga teacher training. She now teaches at two studios in Austin, Texas, where she lives eight months of the year. She spends her summers in Maine. She also runs yoga retreats, most recently in Iceland and the Catskills.

Another passion that took root at NYU began in a food and culture class, which she took for fun. The class spurred a deep interest in where food comes from and the decisions people make about it. Instead of following her initial plan to attend graduate school for a degree in gender studies, Jennifer obtained a certificate in holistic health coaching in 2012 from The Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Then, while working as the director of hospitality at Scribe Winery, in California, she started her own health coaching business, working with clients one-on-one.

“I always had this deep desire to understand people and what makes them tick,” she says. “This is more overt mindfulness work, a way of understanding what we are worrying about and dealing with. How people approach problems and milestones in their lives. When we get down to it, mindfulness is this practice of creating a sense of deep intimacy with yourself, understanding the habit patterns of your own mind, and in doing so, cultivating the ability to be less reactive, more compassionate, more accepting.”

Working closely with people regarding their health and food, she says, does have its challenges. “People come with emotionally charged situations around food, and some come with real health concerns. I have clients who are about to start cancer treatment, or are struggling with an autoimmune disorder or fertility. They have been told by six different doctors what to eat in six different specific ways.”

Another challenge, she says, is how the wellness world has become more commodified, almost taking the place of fashion and beauty as an aspirational lifestyle. “There is a deep anxiety around doing it right,” Jennifer says. “People have this immense stress and internalized narrative about what they should be doing, and what it should look like. It can feed into this notion that you’re not doing enough, and if only you just moved into a super chill and enlightened place, everything would be fine.”

Jennifer tries to tamp down this anxiety in all her work, helping people find a balance that’s right for them. “Balance is your ability to sort of nimbly interact with constantly changing situations and circumstances. And approaching things that you cannot control with a less reactive mind. That takes ongoing practice and it is deeply imperfect.”

When working with clients, she typically starts a session with deep breathing so that they can “settle into themselves.” Over time, as their relationship builds, she takes them into deeper guided meditations. Two years ago, a client asked her if she had ever thought of having an app.

“I really wasn’t interested,” she says, “because I don’t like the idea of creating content for the sake of creating content. There were already good mindfulness and meditation apps out there, but my client would periodically bring it up. And finally she asked me at a moment when I was beginning to wonder, ‘Is there a way to share this information more broadly? How can I take some of the tried-and-true practices that work for my clients and get them to more people in a format that feels effective?’”

Together they created a mindfulness app called The Shift. Elegant and visual, it asks the user to pick from a list of goals such as “Focus,” “Energize,” and “Heal.” Within each goal are actions to choose from, such as “Meditate,” “Listen,” “Eat.” Jennifer’s steady and calming voice leads the listener through the meditations.

“The Shift does include guided meditation, but the main objective for the app was to create a tool that allows people to access a state of awareness and mindful presence through any sense of the body. The app offers guidance on how to move in a mindful way, to eat in a mindful way, and to incorporate a daily ritual that invites you to explore in a different way. We wanted to create an app where from the moment you click on the icon, you enter into an experience.”

They also wanted to give people the opportunity to access a mindful state without necessarily sitting down. “There are many misconceptions about mindfulness out there,” Jennifer says. “One is that in order to be paying attention, in a way that we refer to as mindfulness or meditation, you have to be sitting down with your eyes closed and it has to be first thing in the morning. And it has to be for x amount of time, and it has to feel good, or you have to feel good afterward. And none of those things are realistic or true.”

To the contrary, Jennifer believes, everyone has the opportunity to tap into a mindfulness practice—one that is available anywhere and at any time—with breathing. “It’s personal. It’s free. It’s private. You can be in a public place, but privately you can moderate what you’re doing with your own breath to soothe your nervous system. It’s imperceptible from the outside. You have the power to slow things down and regulate yourself. It’s an amazing tool.”

Between teaching, coaching, and cooking, Jennifer tries to find moments of quiet and stillness for herself, even if that means just sitting quietly for five minutes in the morning. But she also satisfies her need to move, and spends as much time outside as possible, exploring the trails, swimming holes, and climbing spots around Austin.

“One of the things I love about coaching and teaching and turning people on to a mindfulness practice is that it requires me to be deeply involved in my own inquiry,” she says. “One of my yoga teachers told me that to take the seat of the teacher is to commit to the lifelong journey of being a student. I love that. Teaching asks me to stay awake to the endless opportunities to learn. I learn from my clients and students. I learn from myself being in a classroom with people, from working one-on-one with a person. There’s such richness of human experience that is communicated even without any words going back and forth.”

Jennifer says she also loves empowering people to trust their own intuitions. “We all know, innately, how to care and make choices for ourselves, but circumstances and societal messages distance us from that deep knowledge. We look to an expert or to a product or to Instagram to solve the problem. I offer a myriad of tools and then sit back and let people make their own choices. There’s no one size fits all and there’s no single timeline. Inevitably, what I see is people cultivating a deeper sense of trust in themselves, which comes from contemplation and mindful attention, and being willing to try things and ‘fail’ until you find the practices and tools that work for you. No one will ever know you the way that you know you, so why not lean in to that reality and cultivate a deep sense of trust in yourself? Bearing witness to that process in other people is such a joy.”

 – Liz Matson

A MINDFUL LIFE

“Forever, is composed of Nows,” wrote Emily Dickinson more than a century and a half ago—a message that resonates today more than ever. Modern life—with its overwhelming demands and distractions—makes it increasingly difficult to pause and reflect upon our lives. In this issue, Milton alumni share their stories about the power of living in the Now—of staying present to more fully assess our lives and relationships. We also feature a story about making student mental health a priority, and hear from our faculty about the importance of taking the time to listen and stay connected to ourselves.