Would You Pay $15 For A 20-Minute Nap?

New York may be the City That Never Sleeps, but no one said it couldn’t use a cat nap.

Over-worked and under-rested, Americans are sleeping less — almost a quarter of people are getting six hours or fewer per night — than ever before. And some New Yorkers are counting sheep and grabbing their zzz’s whenever they can. But this is not George Costanza crawling under his desk at Yankee Stadium, although some workers (this one included) surely have pulled that move as well.

For the past few years, “powernapping” has been gaining popularity as a spa service — a reprieve from the restless streets, a place where one can actually pay for something that’s inherently free and accessible to everyone. Shuteye is among the scarcest and most valuable commodities in our sleep-deprived nation. Now, sleep can be bought for less than a dollar a minute.

Juggling a full-time job and attending school several times a week, my days, like those of thousands of other New Yorkers, begin at 6 a.m. and end around 11 p.m. I eagerly sought out a sleeping spa to determine if it could help with my own sleepiness.

For $15, I bought 20 minutes of naptime at Yelo, a small spa and “wellness sanctuary” located near Central Park. The space looks much like a tanning salon, with individual pods called YeloCabs, honeycomb-shaped, sound-resistant rooms with soft lighting and pale yellow walls.

Still skeptical of the pay-for-powernap theory, I climbed up and onto a custom piece of furniture called the YeloChair, located in the middle of the room. It’s something that looks straight out of the dentist’s office, but thankfully this chair elicits comfort instead of dread.

I was surprised to feel drowsy the minute I lay down. Certainly the heavily lavender-scented room, which is claimed to be a sleep aid, and the soft patter of raindrops playing over the sound system, helped put me in the snoozing mood. (Among the other sound options available were animal noises and tribal chants, neither of which are exactly relaxing or common sounds for city dwellers.) I took off my shoes, adjusted my pillow, cuddled underneath a cashmere blanket and reclined the YeloChair so that I was parallel with the ceiling, my feet elevated even higher above my head.

Michael Hazel, Yelo’s director of operations, said this “blast-off” position, inspired by astronauts in the space shuttle, is best for the spine and allows for quicker relaxation.

Sleep experts note that a 20-minute nap is the optimal amount of time to break out of the afternoon energy slump — five minutes allotted for falling asleep and 15 minutes of naptime. I was nervous about not falling asleep quick enough, so I didn’t fall asleep quick enough. The National Sleep Foundation found that it takes on average 22 minutes to fall asleep. People who fall asleep as soon as their head hits the pillow are sleep-deprived or have sleep apnea, said Dr. Jordan Stern, who specializes in sleep disorders and who is the founder of BlueSleep.com, a sleep apnea and snoring center in Manhattan. Sleep apnea — affecting 25 percent of men over age 40 — occurs when a person repeatedly stops breathing during sleep.

“Between stress, noise, overworking, and bad sleep hygiene — that is, falling asleep near computers, cell phones, televisions — Americans are not getting nearly enough sleep,” said Dr. Stern. “We’re supposed to get eight hours, and I don’t know anyone who does.”

The whole country is getting sleepier. A 2009 study, Sleep in Americaconducted by the National Sleep Foundation, found that 64 percent of people experienced a sleep problem at least a few nights a week, a 13 percent increase since 2001. The average American works nine hours and 30 minutes per day but sleeps three hours less — six hours and 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, revenue increased last year at Yelo, even in the midst of the recession, and continues to rise 15 to 20 percent over February 2009. Yelo has a steady stream of regular clients, corporate-types from nearby Hearst and Time Warner, some who nap three or four times per week.

“We have people who live on floors above us in the building who come down here to nap,” said owner Nicolas Ronco. “It’s a much better environment.”­

“There’s always so much noise around my apartment, and stress keeps me up late,” she said. “But this is near my office, it’s quick, it’s cheap and it’s a good way to recharge my batteries for the afternoon.”Napper Kim McCarver  said she will gladly pay for a service that she sometimes finds it hard to get at home.

The siesta is commonplace in many Latin American countries. Power napping is also big in Japan, where workers are encouraged to practice inemuri, or “sleeping while present,” a sign that one is forgoing sleep at night. Napping at the office, even doing so sitting straight up and in front of co-workers, is the ultimate indicator of hard work.

Yet this attitude towards napping is foreign to corporate America, where the majority of employees would not feel comfortable resting their heads on the keyboard and instead enter into meaningful relationships with caffeine, energy drinks and pills. Stern is considering opening his own napping center near his BlueSleep practice in the Financial District, where he said “people really need a nap.” He has even seen cases of bus and subway drivers falling asleep on the job.

“I recommend naps to my patients and they all say, ‘Oh, no I can’t leave work.’ They’re worried about losing their jobs,” said Stern. “They don’t understand that sleep deprivation affects job performance. A nap will help you perform your job better.”

Lack of sleep significantly affects a person’s physical health, mental well-being and overall quality of life. It can also be deadly. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that more than 1,500 people are killed annually from driving while drowsy. In a 2006 study published in the Harvard Business Review, researchers found that a week of sleeping only four or five hours per night impairs performance to the same extent as having a blood alcohol level of .1 percent — legal drunkenness.

“Most Americans’ idea of napping is their grandfather on a Sunday afternoon,” said Hazel, operations director at Yelo where I lay my head to rest. “Napping can reduce sickness, lower healthcare costs and help create a happier world.”

Toward the end of my 20 minutes in the sleeping pod, I think I finally dozed off. The soft lights slowly brightened, rousing me from my slumber. I crawled out from underneath the warm blanket and headed out into the cold city winds. The experts were right: only a few minutes of sleep were enough to refresh and energize me through another New York City afternoon.