Broke and Stressed in New York City? Find Out How to Chill on the Cheap

Even if you're broke, there are great places to relax in the Big Apple.

Oct. 22, 2008 — -- New York City is a stressful place to begin with, filled with hard-charging, ambitious types trying to climb over you at work and stealing your seat on the subway. Now that the stock market has bottomed out, everyone's anxiety levels have been ratcheted up a few notches.

New Yorkers might be a different breed, but just like people in the rest of the country, they're worried about losing their jobs, panicky about paying their ridiculously high rents and fighting off feelings of impending doom.

Outside of scheduling more appointments with your shrink (which you can't afford anyway), or doing the old-fashioned thing and trying to drink your worries away, there are several healthy, inexpensive ways to decompress in this town. So take a deep breath. Now another one. And check out these suggestions.

Massages for Misers

After some confusion about the name of the business and the address, I arrived at Lilly & Raul's (211 E. 43rd St., Suite 1501, 212-682-6121) late, sweaty and very unhappy. But $39 and one hour later, I was feeling a whole lot better.

According to the Web site, Lilly & Raul's caters to "women that work, party and play hard," but it also offers couples' massages. They specialize in tui na massage, a combination of shiatsu and acupressure.

Lilly & Raul's is fairly no frills, but with most higher-end massage parlors and spas charging $90 and (way) up for an hour-long massage, who needs a lot of bells and whistles? Although the Web site lists the price of an hour massage at $50, I was told over the phone that if paid in cash, it would cost $39 and a half-hour massage would cost $29.

For stressed-out bankers and stockbrokers, Sam Sun Bodywork in the financial district charges $50 for an hour-long massage.

In Chinatown, Wu-Lim on Grand Street charges $42 for a 61-minute massage.

Reflexology in Chinatown

For a change of pace, try reflexology at one of the many unassuming storefronts in Chinatown that advertise the service. By applying pressure to points on the feet or hands that supposedly correspond to internal organs, reflexology claims to alleviate a number of physical and psychological complaints, clear the body of toxins and relieve stress.

At Yan Mei Foot Reflexology (158 Mott St., 212-219-0788), you'll pay $30 for an hour reflexology session and $20 for half an hour. During my half-hour session, a tough-looking Chinese woman put my feet into an almost-scalding bath of what appeared to be dirt and water. After a few minutes, she cleaned them off and got to work.

She kept telling me I looked nervous, and whenever I tried to ask her a question she told me, "Just relax," which I eventually realized was code for "shut up."

Expect a reflexology session to be more hardcore than a typical foot massage. The reflexologist stressed she was going easy on me because it was my first time, but there were a few times she really dug in to a spot that sent a little electric bolt of pain up my leg.

The payoff was when I walked out of the shop feeling way lighter in the loafers, and floated through the cramped, stinky streets of Chinatown with a smile on my face and a tiny kernel of love in my heart. The medical benefits of reflexology have been largely dismissed by Western doctors. Even so, I'd have no problem going back and shelling out $30 for a foot rub that makes me "shut up," at least for a while.

Take a Shvitz; Russian and Turkish Baths

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.

Be a Guinea Pig

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.

So Cheap It's Free

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.