Calm Down: How to Beat Stress with Leisurely Pursuits
Row along a lake by moonlight. Curl up with a warm cup in a cozy coffee shop. Unwind with a rejuvenating massage. Sound good? Explore these soothing outings and more as we help you keep calm in the Steel City.
Admit it: You’ve been a little stressed. It’s been a heck of a couple of years, and we’re betting some big parts of your routine have changed (and changed again). The holiday season is right around the corner. And you were busy enough to begin with! It’s time to take it easy. You need to relax — and we don’t just mean falling asleep on the couch. We sent our staff in pursuit of calming activities, leisurely pursuits and soothing outings. These aren’t indulgences; they’re the necessary rejuvenation you need to keep doing all the things you do.
Read on for some great ways to unwind.
Take In Nature By Night with L.L. Bean Outdoor Adventures
As the sun lazily sinks into the treeline, a group of novice paddleboarders tentatively inch to their feet. Moments ago, these aspiring adventurers were standing nervously on a riverbank; now, they’re walking on water, placidly listening to the sounds of the forest as night approaches.
An hour later, a full moon will shine over North Park Lake, as experienced instructors guide the increasingly confident cadre around the lake’s surface. The stand-up paddleboarding session is one of three full-moon outings presented monthly by clothing line L.L. Bean, which coordinates a number of excursions from its Ross Park Mall store.
“To see a full moon in the middle of the lake is a very unique perspective,” says Shawn McClintock, one of the instructors with L.L. Bean.
And what’s the mood like in the park after night falls?
“It’s peaceful,” says fellow instructor Cheryl Palmer. “Very serene.” The instructors report that, while only their groups are allowed on the water after dark, there are plenty of animals joining in the fun. “We had beavers with us,” Palmer says. “They were with us pretty much the whole tour, just kind of swimming next to us.”
Those who might be wary of the potential splash that comes along with stand-up paddleboarding — or who prefer a less strenuous workout — can opt for a kayaking tour, usually held the night before the paddleboard option. Stand-up paddleboarding involves a continuous core workout to maintain balance, so those looking for the sweat might prefer it; kayaking is more serenity with a side of exercise.
Availability of activities varies by season. Most activities are held in and around North Park Lake. For more information, go to llbeanoutdoors.com
Landlovers can take a hike under the moon, as well.
All are designed for beginners; before the paddleboarding tour commences, instructors will offer patient, step-by-step guidance on everything from balance and motion to where to hold a paddle.
Seeking serenity without the starlight? There are afternoon and sunrise options for paddleboarding trips, as well as more intensive instruction sessions for those who’d like to develop their skills. There’s even “SUP with Your Pup,” special instruction for how to take your dog on a paddleboarding excursion. (It’s more common than you’d think — and yes, your dog will wear a tiny life vest.)
For those truly looking to disconnect and unwind, however, the nighttime is the right time. “People will thank us and say this was so much fun,” says instructor Steve Benson. “We do get a lot of return customers.”
As the last light of the day fades, more than enough moonlight remains to illuminate the lake. The fleet of newly minted paddleboarders surveys the life of the park around them, relishing the chance to see the world from a new angle. As the moon rises higher into the sky, they point their paddleboards back toward land — and head home tired and content.
— Sean Collier
Get Pampered with the Pittsburgh Center for Complementary Health and Healing
The word “relax” isn’t in my vocabulary.
If you happen to still own a dictionary, you may find my picture next to words such as “high-strung,” “anxious” or “worrywart.” So, I have recently been working on my well-being in hopes of alleviating some of my stress and overbearing obsession with perfection.
Infrared saunas have become a new passion of mine because they are great for reducing inflammation — yet I still find it hard to completely relax in the booth. When the opportunity arose to get a massage and write about my experience, I was excited; this was my first in about 15 years.
I booked my appointment with Katrina at the Pittsburgh Center for Complementary Health and Healing on South Braddock Avenue in Regent Square. Upon arrival (late, thanks to typical I-376 rush-hour gridlock), I was pleased with the calming atmosphere and professional, friendly staff.
Katrina asked questions to determine the best treatment for me, and I opted for a 30-minute scalp, neck and shoulder massage.
As she worked patiently with me to (wait for it) actually relax my muscles with lavender, I just kept thinking: “Why have I never done this before!?”
All of my stress sits in my neck and shoulders, and, thanks to Katrina, I learned it also sits in my cheeks, jaw, scalp, arms and hands — muscles and joints I constantly clench. She says the tightness in my neck and shoulders is typical for someone who sits at a desk all day.
1124 S. Braddock Ave., Suite B.
Schedule an appointment at 412-242-4220 or pghhealthandhealing.com
For those who find it difficult to relax, like myself, she recommends imagining your body is Jell-O and practicing to relax every joint in your body, from your toes to your head, as you lie in bed at night — preferably in a cool, dark room with no distractions, such as a cell phone.
The Pittsburgh Center for Complementary Health and Healing offers an array of massage therapy services customized for each client’s needs.
Whether you prefer deep tissue, aromatherapy, hot stones, mineral foot soaks, deep heat treatment, cupping or a head-to-toe rejuvenation, their educated staff has what your body needs to relieve pain and stress, get support for chronic illness, nourish your skin, improve circulation or improve your mood.
“I believe that all spa services, even those that are pampering in nature, are rooted in therapeutic healing inviting you to relax, restore and renew,” the center’s founder, Nikki Remic Bannon, writes on their website.
Book an appointment today because a massage is just what this uptight reporter ordered. For sanity’s sake, be sure to leave with enough time to beat tunnel traffic … or add “Avoid Highways” to your GPS.
— Denise Bonura
Relax and Get a Buzz at Three Cozy Cafes
When life gets a little too hectic at work and at home (which, for many people these days, are one and the same), it’s nice to know there are local coffee shops offering free Wi-Fi and respite from the daily grind. Everyone talks about comfort food, but comfort mood is just as important to the customer experience. If you work remotely, your coffee cup will runneth over with good vibes at these makeshift office spaces.
If you find comfort in coffee and the Great Outdoors, make a beeline for Brookline. 802 Bean Company has one of the nicest covered patios in town. Unwind with a Palm Coast Cold Brew or a Summer Breeze Lotus, a plant-based energy drink, amid a veritable rainforest of greenery.
If you’re off the clock or just playing hooky, grab a novel from the Living Books Rescue shelf or peruse the locally made merchandise on sale inside the shop, which is large with a high ceiling that’s painted gold. You’ll find everything from decorative garden stakes and greeting cards to mugs and jewelry. Breakfast sandwiches are available until noon and there are a rotating variety of pastries to purchase, including gluten- and dairy-free options.
Whether you pull up a chair on the patio, inside the shop or at a cafe table out front, you might not ever want to leave.
Meanwhile, in Friendship, lifelong residents and siblings Nick and JoAnn Redondo are the epitome of the neighborhood. They grew up across the street from the former five-and-dime on South Pacific Avenue that is now their quaint coffee shop, Perk & Brew. The unassuming spot just so happens to serve some of the tastiest homemade comfort food in town.
802 Bean Company: 802 Brookline Blvd., facebook.com/802beancompany
Perk & Brew: 300 S. Pacific Ave. perkandbrew.net
Grim Wizard: 1206 Arlington Ave. grimwizard.com
Nestled among large Victorian homes, Perk & Brew has become a community hub since opening five years ago. There’s a fireplace, cozy lounge areas and a spacious dining room for remote workers who want to feel like they’re at home away from home.
In addition to serving coffee, tea, espresso drinks and canned beer, the small business has a full breakfast and lunch menu so you can essentially stay all day and barely move anything except your mandibles. Even on a hot day you’ll find folks slurping up the wedding soup.
And don’t let the name of Grim Wizard fool you; it’s a happy place with a heavy metal heart.
The rebranded Black Forge Coffee in Allentown is now operated by Kelly Braden, co-owner of The Weeping Glass, an oddities shop in the neighborhood. Fear not, mortals; Grim Wizard still brings the thunder when it comes to killer caffeinated beverages. Yeah, the walls are painted black and you’re bound to see a skeleton or two, but the staff is friendly and the colorful lights from the pinball machines gives the small space an otherworldly ambiance.
Fans of the original business can still get signature $6.66 specialties such as the Hell Hound, an espresso latte with dark chocolate, chili and cinnamon served shaken with ice and cream. They say music soothes the savage beast, so stop in on Tuesdays for Heavy Hour from 4 to 6 p.m. for downright bewitching tunes and beverage specials followed by yoga hosted by Death Comes Lifting.
No matter what time you show up, Grim will keep the hellfires burnin’ for you.
— Kristy Locklin
Flow By the River with Yoga Flow
Here’s a little biographical fact about me: I grew up just a few miles outside the city limits, in one of the small communities that dot the Allegheny River. Despite crossing the water on a near daily basis and being able to see it from the windows of my high school, I never really felt connected to the river.
On a hot, sunny morning in July, I felt connected.
I was at the Allegheny RiverTrail Park in Aspinwall for Yoga Flow’s outdoor yoga series, which take place on Saturdays and Sunday mornings in May through October.
I’ll admit as I pulled off Freeport Road, yoga mat in tow, I was in a funky mood. It was early on Sunday and I had wanted to sleep in. But as I took in the beauty of the park, I felt some of my bad mood dissipate. By the time I walked onto the dock and unrolled my mat alongside the dozens of other people in attendance, I was serene as Buddha.
Class began in the traditional child’s pose. Our instructor, Margaret, encouraged us to gently roll our third eye (that would be the invisible spot on your forehead between your two actual eyes) from side to side on the mat as a way to release tension. Did you know you carry a lot of stress in the face?
She also led us in some square breathing. As the name implies, square breathing is four sided. You inhale for four seconds, hold that breath for four seconds, exhale for four seconds and then pause at the bottom of the breath for four seconds. (I bet you’re trying it now; it feels good, doesn’t it?)
Beyond traditional yoga classes, Yoga Flow (with locations in Shadyside, Castle Shannon, Murrysville, Irwin and Aspinwall) also hosts meditation and movement classes, sound baths and retreats throughout the year.
From there, we opened into our ujjayi breathing — a technique that allows you to calm your mind by focusing on your inhales and exhales — and completed a series of slow, intentional sun salutations: bending forward, raising our arms to the sky, coming down to our bellies, rising up to cobra or upward facing dog, then back to downward dog.
Throughout the practice, the dock swayed softly below us, particularly as a passing boat or jet ski sent waves in our direction. Gulls screamed overhead as the sun beat down on us. I could hear a train whistle in the distance. Rather than distract from the experience, it enhanced it. Being on the river felt very Pittsburgh.
It felt like home.
Our practice ended with soothing music and a few words from Margaret about the importance of letting go of the things that don’t matter. As we all lay in savasana, or final resting pose, my body felt relaxed; my mind refreshed.
After class, I — and most of the class — hustled up to Farmer x Baker, which is within view of the dock. I ordered myself a handcrafted breakfast bagel and a cold brew coffee, and I thought about how very glad I was that I had gotten up early that morning after all.
— Jessica Sinichak
Go Birding, from Your Backyard to Distant Peaks, with the National Aviary
What’s that — off in the distance? A robin? A cardinal? Or something more exotic — perhaps a bird just stopping for a rest as it migrates south for the winter?
With help from the National Aviary (and, ideally, a good pair of binoculars), you can go from novice to passionate birder in a matter of hours. The first thing you’ll discover: It’s a soothing, refreshing activity that takes your attention away from your phone and into the natural world.
“Birding is just a calming experience,” says Robert S. Mulvihill, the Aviary’s resident ornithologist and the leader of many of their birding excursions. He’s found that, even for novices, the practice “plugs them into calm almost instantaneously.”
The hobby boomed during the early days of the pandemic, Mulvihill says, as people sought hobbies that could be completed outside and at a distance — or from the comfort of their own backyards.
“It’s the kind of thing that I think people never really thought about as a pastime, but it’s become so much in the public eye that I think there are folks who say, ‘Yeah, what is this all about?’”
On an Aviary excursion, Mulvihill or another expert will start with the basics — how to scan the environment for an interesting flash of color or bit of movement, how to transition from spotting a bird with the naked eye to studying it with binoculars — and then get specific, pointing out habits and migration patterns. Programs are offered year-round and can vary from brief, nearby excursions to trips in other parts of the state.
Programs are held year-round at a variety of locations; advance registration is required. Find a full list of upcoming programs at aviary.org
Coming up, the Aviary will on Oct. 22 host a trip to Allegheny Front Hawk Watch in Bedford County to observe hawks and other raptors as they migrate south. “It’s common at Allegheny Front for the hawks to be very close, very low,” Mulvihill says. “People get some really memorable looks.”
The Aviary also partners with L.L. Bean (see “Nature by Night” on page 30 for more) to offer programs from North Park Lake, combining kayaking and birding. From the surface of the lake, Mulvihill will point our birds roosting in trees; usually, a heron will swoop low over the lake, searching for a meal.
While Mulvihill recommends taking an excursion with the Aviary to learn the basics — or joining the nonprofit Three Rivers Birding Club (3rbc.org), which also hosts year-round events — he stresses that birding can begin without leaving the house.
“Walk out your door … look at everything. Whether it’s the cardinal on your feeder, the robin taking a bath in your birdbath or the crow up in the tree … look at the cardinal. Look at the robin. Watch the behavior.
“Most people are likely to become enchanted by that.”
— Sean Collier
Find Your Place in the Universe with the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh
When your worries and stresses seem larger than life, it’s easy to lose sight of your place in the cosmos. In those moments, the key to relaxing can be simply staring up at the stars and welcoming the wonder and humility that come with knowing there is a vast universe around you.
Tom Reiland, director of the Wagman Observatory, says that after 50 years of helping others learn about astronomy, his favorite part of his job is watching the joy that spreads across guests’ faces when they look through a telescope for the first time.
“It makes people start to think about the universe and our place in it — how small we are in comparison, yet how we are intelligent enough to try to learn more about it,” he says.
But Reiland says you don’t need a telescope to start stargazing this fall, because many constellations and meteor showers can be seen with the naked eye. And with a good pair of binoculars on a clear night, you can even see craters on the moon and the galaxy M31 in the Andromeda constellation.
Reiland says beginners will face challenges, whether they struggle to understand star charts or miss a meteor shower by setting up their telescope one minute too late.
I have had my own share of annoyances in my journey to better understand the night sky — my primary complaint being the clouds’ uncanny ability to cover whatever I am searching for. But those frustrating moments have given me time to take a deep breath and change my perspective — there is peace in knowing that success is simply doing the best you can with what the universe sends your way. And autumn seems a perfect time to stargaze on a crisp night, letting the comforting darkness swaddle you like your favorite flannel.
Community events hosted by groups such as the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh, Reiland says, can provide a solid introduction. The organization, with more than 300 members, runs both the Wagman Observatory in Deer Lakes Park in Tarentum and the Mingo Creek Park Observatory in Finleyville.
Become a member of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh and find details about upcoming events at 3ap.org
The association hosts “star parties” throughout the year — with upcoming dates on Oct. 14, Oct. 21, Nov. 11 and Nov. 18 — in which members give guests a tour of the night sky and help them use telescopes. Reiland says members are always available to answer questions, which makes the amateur astronomer community strong.
“We’re happy to help people who are just starting out, like all of us were at one point or another,” he says.
If your schedule doesn’t leave much time for trips outside of the city, you can start your stargazing journey at multiple locations closer to Downtown. There are tours, lectures or other educational opportunities at the Allegheny Observatory in Riverview Park and the Buhl Planetarium and Observatory in the Carnegie Science Center throughout the fall. Reiland says there is often an association member at the top of Mount Washington on the weekends too, ready to show locals how to use telescopes and identify markers in the night sky.
While studying the cosmos, enjoyment comes with practice and patience as you learn just how small, yet immeasurably valuable, you are. On the days when life feels off-track, it’s grounding to know that if you can identify the stars and planets that have looked over you every night, you can never be truly lost. And you might just feel one step closer to understanding your place in the universe, too.
— Emma Malinak