When stay-at-home orders swept the globe this spring, Jemel McWilliams was at the height of his career. The 39-year-old choreographer and artistic director has been climbing the ranks, touring with and crafting dance routines for celebrities such as Janelle Monáe, Alicia Keys, Lizzo, and John Legend—earning him an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Choreography for his 2020 Oscars opening number “Come Alive” featuring Monáe.
With live events paused indefinitely across the globe, it’s his morning meditation and yoga routine that McWilliams says is helping him stay grounded in these times of uncertainty. “I’m used to touring and being in different cities every day—waking up on a bus or in a hotel room,” says McWilliams, who’s been meditating and practicing yoga for nearly a decade. “But quarantine has really given me a chance to start anew. I now have very intentional morning practices: I’ve spent a lot of time going inward to figure out what I want. Because even though this is as successful as I’ve ever been in my career, it wasn’t the happiest I’ve ever been—and I realized it was because I was being inconsistent with my morning practice.”
Oprah and Deepak Chopra For the Win
Daily check-ins with his mind and body have allowed McWilliams to reinvigorate his morning ritual: “I wake up, and the first thing I do is pray and express gratitude. I also do this thing where I want to obsessively forgive myself and others. And so what I do is I just proclaim to myself: I forgive myself for internalizing anything that wasn’t for me, and I forgive anybody else in the world or anywhere that may have projected anything onto me that I allowed in and that I internalized. So I feel like that gives me a clean slate. Then, after my forgiveness work, I start to say the things that I’m grateful for. I look around the room, and whatever comes to mind, I just start saying: I’m thankful for new breath in my body and new breath in my lungs, and the fact that I have another opportunity to do the day right and to be here on this earth. I’m grateful for being a black man, alive in America. I’m grateful for the carpet that I get to walk on every day, when I get out of the shower. Sometimes it’s the most random stuff, or sometimes it’s deep. I’m grateful for my relationship with my mom. I’m grateful for my relationship with my dad, or I’m grateful that my brothers and my father have healed relationships. I just get into this place of gratitude, which really sets me into a place of grace. Then from there, I’m ready to start my 25- to 30-minute meditation practice.
His favorite? This Energy of Attraction meditation series from Oprah and Deepak Chopra, which he discovered when he was on tour with Alicia Keys in 2013. “I have like, seven of their 21-day guided meditations and series, and when I’m done with them, I will go back to the beginning and start all over again,” he says. He’s even gotten his mom hooked (“My mom is really into Oprah,” he says), and so they’ve turned it into daily shared experience, even when they’re miles apart. “We talk about our experiences, we talk about whether we see any changes throughout the day, or what we attract,” says McWilliams, “And so now it’s become a mom-and-son activity that we do. We make sure that we keep on each other so we can stay consistent and accountable.”