New York Peace of Mind

Our copy editor seeks spiritual refuge in an unlikely destination.

  • Category
    Travel
  • Written by
    Laura L. Watts
  • Pictured Above:
    The High Line

I was, frankly, a mess. Too much work and not enough play. I was craving physical, mental and even spiritual health, and it wasn’t happening here at home. I needed a getaway … a pilgrimage, if you will. The faithful journey to Mecca. Thoreau took to the woods. Where could I go to unwind and rejuvenate? New York City, of course. The one that never sleeps. Busiest city in the U.S.

Voices in Unity Choir, Unity of New York

Unlike my typical NYC visits, this time I wanted to leave feeling exhilarated—not drained. Recharge my batteries—not overcharge the Visa. Sure, I could check into a spa for a week. But was it possible to improve my state of mind in an all-natural, non-commercialized way … in the middle of the Big Apple?

Siempre Verde Garden, Lower East Side

I hailed a cab at the airport and asked the driver, Nir, if he thought I’d be able to chill out in the city. “It’s impossible,” he said emphatically. “It’s not a place of rest—it’s the opposite. Everything is on the go.”

Undeterred, I headed to Sanctuary NYC Retreats—a Lower East Side gem that offers guests “Zen luxury” ‑accommodations, free yoga classes and the opportunity to feed lunch to the homeless at a nearby park. My home-away-from-home was a spacious, serene suite with a full kitchen and private balcony. The location was perfect: a neighborhood full of friendly residents, lively bars and delicious restaurants. (196 A Stanton Street, sanctuarynycretreats.com)

Just downstairs from the hotel, I took several classes at Stanton Street Yoga including Stretch & Restore by instructor Ella Bouriak—a combination of simple poses and calming stretches set to a background of soothing music. Research has shown that yoga relieves anxiety and depression, improves sleep and reduces blood pressure. I was definitely on the right track. (stantonstreetyoga.com)

Laughter can also bring about physical changes that lower stress, according to scientific studies, so my next step was stand-up comedy. New York is full of comedy clubs, but I love Black Cat LES—a casual, homey coffee shop and bar. I grabbed a seat on a comfy couch, sipped a glass of wine and let the comics—ranging from amateur to really good—work like therapists, reducing my worries with each joke. (172 Rivington Street, blackcatles.com)

“Physical sickness comes from stress,” suggested best-selling author and inspirational speaker Marianne Williamson the next evening at Marble Collegiate Church, where she offers a weekly lecture. She suggests allowing rest and relaxation to happen—not trying to force it. “Look at nature,” she says. “The bud becomes a blossom, the acorn becomes the oak tree—without trying.” (marianne.com/upcoming-events)

The historic Marble Collegiate Church boasts one of the only indoor, permanent labyrinths open to the public in New York City. Labyrinths have been used as a spiritual tool in cultures around the world for thousands of years, and I found it to be a walking meditation—bringing a sense of peace and release. (1 W. 29th Street, marblechurch.org/worship/labyrinth)

Church services can also be a respite, depending on your spiritual taste. “We have to find rest and renewal in the heart of the city, in the middle of life,” says Rev. Britt Hall, spiritual leader and music director of Unity of New York—a ministry that believes “all people are created with sacred worth.” I attended his Sunday morning service, which was simultaneously a Broadway show with top-notch music and a Buddhist monastery with quiet reflection and guided meditation. Just what I needed. (2537 Broadway, unityofnewyork.org)

The next day I spent a mindful half-hour sitting in the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin in the heart of Times Square—admiring the French Gothic architecture, extensive marble work and stained glass windows. Its doors are open daily to the public, even when no church service is in session. This quiet, lofty sanctuary is the perfect place to get away from the chaos of the city and spend a few moments in meditation. (145 W. 46th Street, stmvirgin.org)

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have reported that meditating can actually change the brain’s wiring and reduce bad moods. I’m a fan of guided meditations, and the Soundbath meditation class led by husband-and-wife team Emilie and Andy Brockmann was a unique treat. Emilie helped us get comfortable lying on yoga mats and guided us through deep-breathing exercises. Then Andy played crystal bowls, bells, a harmonium and a shruti box—while we zoned out for an hour. This class was a highlight of my NYC quest for inner peace. (resonateyogaandsound.com)

After class I asked Emilie how she decompresses in the big city. “It takes creating time and fitting that into your schedule,” she said, “like walking in a park, admiring the leaves and flowers, feeling your feet on the ground. Being outside, breathing fresh air is vital.”

“Nature is essential,” advises Rev. Britt. “There’s a lot to be said for hugging a tree.” Could it be that simple? Just get outside—surrounded by honking horns, smelly fumes and busy crowds—and you’ll be more balanced and at ease?

I gave it a shot and wandered into one of Manhattan’s 150+ community gardens. Saved from demolition and maintained by neighborhood residents, these small parks are randomly tucked between tall buildings throughout the city. Sitting on a garden bench and observing perennials, a goldfish pond and mural art, I felt a sense of calm that was priceless.

The next morning I headed over to the High Line—a taste of quiet 25 feet above the hustle and bustle of NYC. Covering 1½ miles on Manhattan’s West Side, the High Line was once an operational rail track that was transformed into a one-of-a-kind outdoor space with amazing views (including the Statue of Liberty). This city-owned park attracts parents pushing strollers, kids on school field trips, jogging locals and tourists snapping photos, and offers tranquil activities like stargazing and tai chi. (Gansevoort Street to West 34th Street, between 10th and 12th Avenues, thehighline.org)

I found the High Line to be a great place to walk—yet another method of reducing stress. Manhattanites have the lowest obesity rates in the entire state of New York, according to another University of Wisconsin report, partly due to miles of bike lanes, sidewalks and walkways, and dozens of parks that encourage physical activity and being close to nature.

Encountering wildlife in NYC’s green spaces also increased my serenity. I was entertained by the puppies at Tompkins Square Dog Park—they were feeling no stress!—and a hawk fledgling that was learning to fly. In Central Park I observed countless varieties of New York’s feathered and furry city dwellers. On any given occasion you might see white-tailed deer, bats, snapping turtles, coyotes and hundreds of species of birds in the park. Animals are all around us; maybe simply being aware of them is a step toward sanity in this crazy world.

With my relaxation vacation drawing to a close, I decided my health experiment was a resounding success. I resolved to incorporate more laughter, exercise, meditation and wildlife into my sometimes wild life back home … and maintain my New York peace of mind.


HANG YOUR HAT

Being the arts issue, we’d be remiss without highlighting a piece of New York with a creative past. The Refinery Hotel is one of the newest properties to arrive in the city’s trendy Garment District. Taking cues from its hat factory history, the hotel’s design finds inspiration in the art of fashion, with industrial accents mixed with modern luxuries. Don’t miss the action on the popular rooftop with skyline views, lively crowds and a cutting-edge cocktail list. (63 W. 38th Street, refineryhotelnewyork.com)

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