New York never stops amazing me, but sometimes it gets me a little wired--like the jolt of real coffee when the waiter promised decaf. That's when I relish the Big Apple's quiet places. These are pockets in the midst of the mayhem where I go to be still, collect my thoughts, or think no thoughts at all.
The Integral Yoga Institute (227 W. 13th St., 212-929-0586, www.IntegralYogaOfNewYork.org) is a haven of repose on a lovely street in Chelsea, the thriving neighborhood north of Greenwich Village. Enter via the Institute's bright, lively bookstore, and sign up for one of 15 daily yoga classes. Notices in the hallways remind visitors to observe silence there and in the spacious, serene classrooms. If you come to class early, you can spend the extra time in private contemplation, taking advantage of an atmosphere long primed for such pursuits. The class itself takes you further into yourself: you stretch and use your muscles, but this is gentle, reflective hatha yoga, not one of the aerobics-influenced styles prevalent today that is more workout than time-out. Classes also include deep breathing, chanting, and meditation. You'll float back out onto 13th Street, which in this area is lined with trees and seldom crowded, easing you back to New York's traffic and crowds.
The Morgan Library (29 E. 36th St., 212-685-0610, www.morganlibrary.org) shuts out the noise of midtown behind heavy glass and wrought iron doors. Pass through them into hushed rooms full of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, rare books, and master drawings and prints collected by financier Pierpont Morgan. Sir Kenneth Clark wrote of the collection: "Every object is a treasure; every item is perfect." In this august company, you can sit, stare, and ponder--or enjoy lunch or afternoon tea in the skylit Morgan Court Cafe. Even a browse through the Morgan Library Shop soothes the soul with genuinely unique books, cards, and gifts.
Stressolution (12 E. 46th St., 212-682-2722), on the 7th floor of an unassuming midtown office building, offers customary spa services (facials, bodywraps, manicures, etc.). Its specialty, however, is massage therapy specifically designed for stress abatement. With a menu of choices including Swedish, medical, sports, and aromatherapy massage, the commitment here is to an "accessible retreat from the daily pressures of life." The massages aren't just nice while they last: they buffer future stress (for a couple of days anyway).
Hangawi (12 E. 32nd St., 212-213-0077) describes itself as "a vegetarian shrine in another space and time." This upscale Korean restaurant is hands down the most tranquil place to dine in New York--or maybe anywhere else other than a Trappist monastery. Guests remove their shoes, and somehow the hardwood shoe racks inside the entry manage to be an organic part of the decor. Service is just that: service. The pouring of your tea and the presentation of your meal combine spiritual practice with Asian artistry. The food is superb as well. The Zagat restaurant guides make it their top choice for vegetarian cuisine in the city year after year.
Paley Park (53rd St. between 5th and Madison Aves.) could only be found in New York, where a postage stamp-sized patio can count as a park. Yet it serves its purpose for the people who work in the area. Gated at night and open to the public by day, Paley Park sports a dozen young trees, healthy plantings, stone benches, and vines climbing the buildings on either side. It is a minuscule garden of calm with skyscrapers for neighbors, the gift of Philadelphia cigar maker and philanthropist Samuel Paley "for the enjoyment of the public."
St. Peter's Lutheran Church (619 Lexington Ave. at 54th St., 212-935-2200, www.stpeters.org), a modern granite and glass building adjacent to bustling Citicorp Center, is acoustically isolated from street and subway noise. Its Erol Beker Chapel of the Good Shepherd, planned as "an inviolate space for prayer and meditation," is a particular gem. Sculptor Louise Nevelson designed the chapel as a sculptural environment comprised of six permanent sculptures. The bright, uplifting chapel seats 28. It is at its best, I think, when seating only one.
St. Malachy's--The Actors' Chapel (239 W. 49th St., 212-489-1340) may be my favorite spot for solace in my favorite city. The wonder of it is the contrast: St. Malachy's, a Roman Catholic church founded in 1902, is in the theatre district, shouting distance from the unruly, round-the-clock hubbub of Times Square. In this unlikely environment is a flawless, small cathedral, where actors have long lit votive candles for the success of their shows. You can step out the "crossroads of the world" into the place where George M. Cohan and Spencer Tracy worshipped, where Douglas Fairbanks wed Joan Crawford, and where Rudolph Valentino's funeral drew thousands. In addition to the traditionalreligious artwork, a portion of St. Malachy's ceiling is an exquisite blue, splashed with golden stars--the dreams of Broadway hopefuls, and dreams from the rest of us too.
Astor Court, Metropolitan Museum of Art (5th Ave. at 82nd St., 212-535-7710, www.metmuseum.org) is host to the most pleasant-sounding indoor waterfall I know of. Its peaceful pitch convinces me that the right sound can be even more comforting than total silence. The waterfall with goldfish pond is only part of this refuge on the Met's Asian wing. This Ming scholar's garden court is an actual garden with growing things, a skylight to make a "moon viewing terrace," and lattice and railings of ginkgo and camphor wood. Chinese characters outside Astor Court read, "In Search of Quietude." The search can well end here.