Chilled out London: How to relax in the capital

Dukes Hotel, Mayfair © 2017 Dukes Hotel

Get a superior night’s sleep at DUKES London © 2017 DUKES Hotel

On International Relaxation Day, we take a look at some of London’s best restorative experiences. From wellness-focused hotels to sensory deprivation tanks, the capital’s most calming distractions will breathe new life into the most jaded of souls, leaving you ready to face another frenetic day in the city.

Tai Chi at London Fields

Gain a deeper awareness and better alignment with a Tai Chi class; a martial art which helps you learn to let go and truly relax © Shutterstock/Zaichenko Olga

Gain deeper awareness and better body alignment with a Tai Chi class; a martial art which helps you learn to let go and truly relax © Shutterstock / Zaichenko Olga

If there’s one thing more relaxing than watching the fluid movements of a group of silent Tai Chi’ers, it’s taking part in a session yourself. But while numerous classes take place across the capital, most are not on a drop-in basis – making them far less accessible to London’s tourists. Fortunately for visitors, a notable exception is the long-running Saturday afternoon class in London Fields; a popular public park in Hackney. Led by Master Simon Wong – a sought-after expert in Tantric Buddhism, Feng Shui and various martial arts – the one-hour lesson is free of charge and all you have to do is turn up.

Tai Chi is mostly practised today as a form of gentle low-impact exercise, but this ancient Chinese system of meditative movement can also prompt a deeper awareness of our relationship with the world around us, ultimately leading to an understanding of how to truly relax. What’s more, studies have shown Tai Chi can decrease stress levels and improve flexibility, balance and overall stamina, as well as increase muscle strength and confidence. What are you waiting for?

Tai Chi lessons, London Fields, Hackney, E8. Meet by the London Fields Lido, north west corner of the park. Every Saturday, 2pm. Nearest public transport: Hackney Central or London Fields overground stations. Free of charge.

The Barbican Conservatory

The Barbican Centre Conservatory © Scott Wylie/Flickr Creative Commons CC by 2.0

The Barbican Centre Conservatory © Scott Wylie/Flickr Creative Commons CC by 2.0

It’s long been known that indoor plants can improve air quality by acting as humidifiers and reducing pollutants, but researchers from Washington State University found being near houseplants had physiological effects on the human body too. These included a faster lowering of systolic blood pressure after periods of stress, leading them to conclude that houseplants evoked a natural relaxation response. But is the odd aloe vera or spider plant really enough to melt away the pressures of big city living? Central London may have plenty of green spaces, but a muddy park in the rain is no match for a balmy glasshouse full of parrot-green palms, and who has room for one of those?

Step into the limelight, Barbican Conservatory. Tucked away inside this Brutalist multi-arts venue in the City of London is a little known emerald-hued hideaway which belies its stark surroundings – it’s the second largest conservatory in the capital in fact, after the Palm House at Kew Gardens. Here, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, you can relax among dozens of terrapins, finches and plump koi carp, not to mention the 2,000 species of tropical trees and plants on display. It’s one of London’s best kept secrets, and better yet, it’s free. Finish your visit with a special afternoon tea among the ferns.

Barbican Conservatory, Barbican, City of London EC2Y. The conservatory is open to the public on Sundays and bank holidays from midday to 5pm, with last entrance at 4.30pm. Afternoon tea should be booked in advance. Entrance is free. One-hour tours led by resident gardeners are also available.

The Floatworks

Floatation therapy might sound space age, but its origins date back to the 1950s when American scientist John C. Lilly developed a sensory deprivation tank as part of his neurophysiological research. Alongside his better known contemporaries – Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and experimental psychologist Timothy Leary – much of Lilly’s work focused on human consciousness and the use of psychedelic drugs, with his findings referenced in several cult movies including 1980 sci-fi flick Altered States starring William Hurt as a scientist who regresses to a primitive state after self-experimenting with an isolation tank.

But don’t let that put you off. Modern day floatation tanks are about nothing more than relaxation and rejuvenation, so head on down to Floatworks in Vauxhall for a tranquil session in a private, state of the art ‘i-sopod’. The hour-long float experience is delivered through a 25 cm-deep ‘bath’ containing more than 500 kg of magnesium-rich Epsom salts, which creates a Dead Sea-like environment in which to soothe your cares away and relieve aches and pains. Unlike the Dead Sea, however, there are no external stimuli whatsoever – including movement, sound or even the perception of temperature or gravity. It’s a magical way to experience total weightlessness, and quiet your over stimulated mind.

Floatworks, 17b St George Wharf, Vauxhall, SW8. A single float starts from £50 with other packages available. Nearest public transport: Vauxhall tube, overground and bus stations, and Vauxhall Pier (served by Thames Clippers). Open daily from 7.30am – 10pm.

Beditation Butler at DUKES London

Junior Suite at Dukes Hotel © 2017 Dukes Hotel

Junior Suite at Dukes Hotel © 2017 Dukes Hotel

Most importantly, the art of relaxation must extend to a decent night’s sleep. At luxury Mayfair boutique hotel DUKES London this is treated with all the seriousness it deserves, with the recent introduction of its Beditation Butler ‘mindful room service’. More than just a fad or a play on words, the concept of ‘Beditation’ was championed by the Mindfulness in Schools Project back in 2007, and has since been adopted by the NHS as official advice for getting a better night’s sleep. Simply a form of meditation before bed or while lying down, its principles are now being spearheaded by DUKES in an effort to help you enjoy the ultimate pre-sleep wind-down experience, followed – fingers crossed – by the deepest of slumbers.

The importance of good sleep hygiene is beyond doubt. According to the Sleep Council, restorative sleep plays a vital role in promoting good memory and mental health, and is essential for countering damaging health issues like inflammation, high blood pressure and soaring levels of the stress hormone cortisol. But regardless of its benefits, the requisite eight hours remains an elusive goal for many. A recent poll revealed being uncomfortable in bed is the most common reason cited for a disturbed night’s sleep, with other factors such as mobile phone use and intrusive levels of light and noise not far behind.

A soothing retreat in the city. Beditation Butler service available at DUKES London © 2017 DUKES Hotel

A relaxing retreat in the city. Beditation Butler service available at DUKES London © 2017 DUKES Hotel

These are barely a problem at DUKES of course, whose proximity to bustling Piccadilly is concealed by its quiet position in an exclusive St. James’s Place courtyard – no ear plugs required here. The sophisticated hotel has just undergone a multi-million pound refurbishment, including a new partnership with Liberty Fabrics, resulting in upgraded rooms and plush public spaces, as well as all-day dining at chic revamped restaurant GBR. The Beditation Butler service adds a further layer of serenity, with a set of in-room meditation podcasts by American life coach Stin Hansen, whose soothing tones may well send you to the land of nod before you’ve fully perfected your breathing technique. The package also includes a selection of fresh organic herbal teas and a scented bath drawn by your own personal ‘butler’ using essential oils from luxury British perfumers Floris, whose flagship Jermyn Street store is just around the corner. A final touch is the full-sized Floris candle – yours to take away – which should serve as an olfactory memento of your visit: the delicious Hyacinth & Bluebell aroma wafts throughout the entire hotel. All that remains is to sink between silken sheets and count to… zzzzzzz.

DUKES London, 35 St. James’s Place, SW1A. Guests can add The Beditation Butler package to a booking for £45. The package includes a selection of fine herbal teas, a DUKES Floris London candle to take home and specialised podcasts and playlists. Nightly rates start from £320 including VAT and full English breakfast.

For more ideas and tips on visiting the UK’s capital city, head to our London destination guide.

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About Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the co-editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.
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