As rose petals swirl around my feet, a voice instructs me to focus on the “tip of the right big toe, tip of the right second toe . . .”  My aesthetician, Alex, has made sure to get all conversation out of the way (“Round or square?” “Cut the cuticles or push them back?”) so I can close my eyes and spend the next half hour immersed in meditation. By my side is a mug of tea and peppermint oil to sniff if I need to re-center. Alex massages a sugar scrub into my heel while I try to both tune out and tune in: to be mindful of the sensations of the pedicure while focusing on “a wave of relaxation moving in through the soles of the feet, up through the body, and out the top of the head.” I’m trying to connect body and mind and wondering: Is this McMindfulness run amok, or is a guided meditation pedicure a legitimate path to the present moment?

Sundays Hudson Yards is one of a trio of Manhattan nail salons where clients are encouraged to view nail care as self-care. As part of this mission, sundays (styled with a lowercase “s”) offers a $5 guided meditation add-on to any service (the signature pedicure is $45, the signature manicure is $25). The six pre-recorded teachings, provided via an MP3 player and headphones, were designed and recorded for sundays by founder Amy Ling and MNDFL meditation teacher and native New Yorker Valerie Oula. “Meditating during a manicure and/or pedicure is unique in itself,” said Oula, whose own meditation practice is rooted in Kundalini yoga and influenced more informally by her work as a Reiki master teacher. “When Amy first mentioned the idea to me, I thought it was absolutely brilliant. You have a captive audience sitting still already. What an opportune moment to introduce a mindfulness practice.” Each of the sessions focuses on one of the salon’s values: clarity, focus, gratitude, grounding, letting go, and relaxation.

mindful pedicure review
Caitlin Van Dusen tries out the mindful pedicure at sundays in Manhattan. | Photograph by Jeenah Moon

These are secular meditations targeted at beginners: the idea is that meditation doesn’t have to be intimidating. Longtime practitioners and Buddhists might find the instructions a bit hackneyed (“taking in light on the inhale”; “whatever feels right for you”; “tuning in to heart space”; “letting go of what no longer serves you”), though, of course, there’s nothing trite about following the breath. At either 12 or 17 minutes long, the meditations are brief enough that you can listen to two or three during your visit—especially because sundays does not offer machines to accelerate polish drying. For $28 you can purchase them on a wooden thumb drive designed for everyday use. In fact, nails are referred to only in the final mantra: “Now that you’ve taken a small step into wellness, you can begin to build upon it in the days and weeks to come. And maybe every time you notice your lovely nails, you can also feel good about that.” 

During a typical pedicure, there’s a vast distance between my feet and my mind—and I suspect this is true for many New Yorkers. Walk into almost any nail salon and you’ll find people multitasking. As nail techs bend over their hands and feet, they catch up on emails, read tips on fuss-free dinners, even flip open laptops or make business calls. Manicures imprison the hands—but that doesn’t stop some from texting with tinfoil claws or flipping through magazines with their elbows (or teeth!). I’ve been known to edit manuscripts as a coat of Unrepentantly Red is swiped across my nails.

Photograph by Jeenah Moon

Sundays Hudson Yards’ Scandinavian-inspired space is designed to create a “hygge experience,” a Danish term for a feeling of coziness and contentment. The aesthetic is blond wood, rattan, pastels, and houseplants. Instead of Cosmopolitan, there’s a communal gratitude journal and a station for writing love letters—to yourself. Instead of water in a Dixie cup, there’s a “mindful tea bar.” Instead of remote-control massage chairs, there are armchairs with low-slung seats and throw pillows. The room smells of essential oil rather than acetone, the light is pink rather than fluorescent, and French jazz unspools from the speakers instead of Miley Cyrus. And in place of crusty OPI and Essie bottles, there is a battalion of nontoxic polishes created by the salon’s founder, Amy Ling Lin.

During her five or six years working in the nail-care business, Amy became concerned not only about the toxins in nail products but also about her clients’ state of mind. Many complained that there was nowhere to relax in New York City: the standard mani-pedi, while ostensibly offering a mini-getaway for busy urbanites, wasn’t serving a broader holistic need. While Amy was an MBA student at Columbia University (she graduated in 2016), one of her professors, Hitendra Wadhwa, took her class on a two-day meditation retreat.

“The professor . . . explained how meditation is less about where you sit and who you are surrounded by but more about checking in with yourself. The idea is that you can meditate anywhere,” Amy said. “Then I had this light-bulb moment. I realized a manicure is actually perfect for meditation because it’s a time when you sit still and your feet are grounded.”

The experience helped her transform her concerns about the nail industry into sundays; its first location, in Nomad, opened in 2017, and Hudson Yards and an outpost inside Saks Fifth Avenue followed. Fortuitously, secular meditation practice and self-care were becoming not just private rituals but mainstream trends with an eager consumer base. Publicist Camille Jalandoni estimates that about 20 percent of sundays’s clients take advantage of the guided meditation add-on, and many view their nail-care appointments as an extension of a broader wellness routine. Amy said: “The meditation really enhances the relaxing nature of the pedicure. When you relax in the lounge pedicure chair, your muscles are less tense, and it’s a great opportunity to slow down and ease into a moment of calm.”

Photograph by Jeenah Moon

With my toes swaddled in twists of tissue, I sit at the mindful tea bar to write a love letter to myself (challenging!) and to make an entry in the gratitude journal. Somewhat to my surprise, thankful thoughts pour out of my pen as my toes air-dry. The meditation titled “Grounding” reminds me: “You’re always connected, always supported. You simply have to remember and tune in to the firm foundation beneath our feet.” Listening to a meditation while getting a pedicure is a far cry from a Buddhist retreat—but maybe the lesson is to find our own retreats in everyday moments like this.

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