For most of us, hanging out in your swimsuit with strangers and getting beaten with an oak-leaf broom by a silent, fat-bellied Russian man is about as far from relaxing as you can get. But if you can get over yourself, a trip to the Russian and Turkish Baths (268 E. 10th St., 212-473-8806) is probably one of most authentic and unexpectedly awesome New York experiences you can find for the low, low price of $30.
The bathhouse -- the oldest in the city -- was opened in 1892 in what was largely a Ukrainian and Polish neighborhood. The bathhouse retains its old-world flavor and charm, and you'll find people of all ages and all body types wandering around unashamed. The small basement houses a redwood sauna, a white-tiled Turkish room heated by radiators, an aromatherapy steamroom and an ice-cold pool.
But the piece de resistance is the Russian sauna, one of the few of its kind in the United States. An oven is filled with 20,000 pounds of rock cooked overnight. During the day, these rocks give off an almost unbearable radiant heat. When you can't take the heat anymore, find a bucket, dunk it in the well of icy water and pour it over your head. It will take your breath away, literally.
One first-timer, Christopher Arruda, the managing partner of Boston-based real-estate firm Lincoln Street Capital, said he was initially hesitant about visiting a bathhouse. "But after 45 minutes in the sauna, I was totally relaxed. I needed to wind down after an afternoon of high-stress meetings, and the intense heat did it in under an hour."
A mere $30 gets you a day at the baths. You'll pay more for special services like massages, salt scrubs and the platza -- a beating with a broom made of fresh oak leaves, sopping with olive oil soap, also known as "Jewish acupuncture." After your detoxifying shvitz, you can retox at the on-premise restaurant, which serves American food and traditional Russian fare like borscht, pierogis, blini and kielbasa, as well as fresh juices, beer and wine.
There are a number of opportunities in New York to cheap out by letting students practice their craft on you. "Cheap Bastards Guide to New York," by Rob Grader, lists several schools -- including massage, acupuncture and beauty schools -- that offer deeply discounted rates for an appointment with a student.
I visited the Christine Valmy International School of Beauty (437 Fifth Ave., 212-779-7800 ) for a $39 basic facial performed by a student. I was escorted to a large room filled with what looked like hospital gurneys. A woman in a white lab coat worked on me for at least 90 minutes, massaging several layers of lotions onto my face and performing an interesting finger tapping technique.
Unfortunately, she didn't speak much English and so couldn't explain what she was doing, and it was little disconcerting when she had to call over an instructor for a consultation on how to handle some skin "issues." It was relaxing though, so much so that I dozed off for a little while. Another plus, no one tried to push any pricey products afterward. Call to find out more about their services and schedule an appointment.
Sahaja Yoga Meditation offers free classes around the city. Visit the Web site to find out where and when classes are held.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden is a 52-acre oasis of peace in the middle of the city boasting world-class plant collections and specialty gardens. Check the schedule for days and times the garden offers free admission. Otherwise, admission is $8 for adults and $4 for seniors and kids under 12.