I could have said I was going on a wine-tasting tour or a bike excursion or even indulging in a week at the spa. Yoga retreat would have sufficed, but I called it by its name.
Yes, I was going on a bliss immersion. After trying to explain what that was to the first few friends who asked, I rethought my answer. From now on, I would say yoga retreat. After all, I had yet to be immersed. How could I explain a trip to dunk myself in joy?
I had been wanting to get away by myself. And for budgetary reasons, this vacation had to count as if it were my last, fulfilling just about everything one could ask for in a vacation. I wanted to go somewhere I had never gone before, I had to do things I had never done before, I had to have time alone, I had to find my accommodations inviting, and I had some self-improvement to do. Oh, yes, and I had to be able to pack a single carry-on bag.
“So, where are you going exactly?” a friend asked.
Open to the world
My plane was landing in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. From there, I hopped a panga boat across the Bahia de Banderas to Xinalani Retreat, an eco-resort specializing in yoga and meditation classes in a jungle sanctuary setting.
How I chose this particular time and place had most to do with the person leading the retreat . But coming in at a close second was the fact that the rooms had only three walls. And thatched palm roofs. The 23 huts were stacked along 10 acres of mountainside in a way that gave each room total privacy and a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean bay. The maximum capacity for this paradise was 54 guests. There would be no air-conditioning, no television, no hot tubs or saunas, and wi-fi was refreshingly spotty.
When we pulled up to the hotel in the water taxi, there was no doorman. Nor would we be rolling our luggage into the lobby. We were instructed to roll up our pants legs as several shirtless bellmen lifted our luggage above their heads and led us through the knee-high waves to a stone path on the beach. The only way was up until we reached an open-air lobby with weathered wooden floors, bright Mexican textiles on the floor and walls, and blown-glass hanging fixtures.
Checking in was easy since we had paid in advance for the week, which included food, lodging and classes. Spa services and side trips were extra. I never even bothered to get pesos. When tips were required outside the resort, American dollars were not rejected.
A smiling Ricardo took my suitcase, and I followed him to my room. Coming from the flatlands three feet below sea level, I welcomed the stairs that were cut into the mountainside. One, two, three, four, five, six … I savored the upward route to my room. A flat landing, and I stopped for an awesome view. One, two, three, four, five, six … why was I counting? This was a scenic stairmaster. Up, up, up. And then a bamboo bridge over a cavern of lush green jungle. And then more stair steps up the mountain.
There are many rewards here for a calorie-burning check-in. I walked into a scene from Gilligan’s Island, with a significant upgrade. The sound of the surf greeted me, complete with ocean view and mountains framing the blue water horizon.
What wasn’t blue was green. Whatever wasn’t wood or bamboo was white. A generous white mosquito net, artistically knotted and draped against the headboard of my bed, hovered over pristine white linens. My shower felt like an outdoor shower, with the walls not quite extending to the palm roof. But with all the openness, there was total privacy.
The new spa getaway
Bliss retreats, I discovered, are the new, interactive spa getaways. Women, in particular, seek wellness weeks where they learn to nurture themselves and explore rejuvenation techniques they can take home.
A bliss retreat encompasses dance, meditation, yoga and other mind-body activities. That much I knew from the description. I was drawn to the unknown by a familiar name. Deb Kern.
On the advice of a friend I had spent several days at Lake Austin Spa shortly after Katrina. I took a Phoenix Rising Yoga session with Kern, and I count it as one of the top-five moving experiences of my life.
Kern, who holds a doctoral degree in health science, has been teaching movement for 35 years and is certified by the American College on Exercise as a group fitness instructor, along with several yoga credentials. In addition to her personal practice based in Austin, Texas, Kern leads mind-body wellness retreats all over the world from Bali to Iceland with One Yoga Global. She had chosen Xinalani for one of her retreats.
Our group of 16, who signed on with the One Yoga Global retreat, made up fewer than half of the guests at the resort, which attracts both solo travelers and other groups looking for a yoga-based vacation.
The first night, we all gathered for an al fresco buffet in the open-air dining room. Our group was made up of about 16 women from 23 to 70.
At night, the resort is dimly lighted for energy-saving purposes. We were instructed to bring flashlights, but I found I had always enough light to make my way back to my room. Although there were blinds that could be pulled down to make a fourth wall in the room, I preferred the open air with nothing muffling the sound of the surf. I did, however, pull the mosquito netting over my bed the first night, although there were no mosquitoes.
We were told not to bring food of any kind into our rooms, and I obliged. I loved nature, but wasn’t ready to make acquaintance with critters in the dark. The iguana that had perched himself on a large limb near my balcony was far enough away that I didn’t think he would become a night crawler. But there were other four-legged inhabitants, in particular the white-nosed coati, that had a reputation for raiding rooms for food at night. The coati, with a highly-sensitive nose, is a harmless omnivore who prefers to forage just before dawn.
The next day I woke to the morning light and headed back down to the dining room for coffee and granola. This would-be yogi runs on caffeine. The early offerings were fresh papaya juice, fruits, granola, herbal teas and coffee. Some gathered at the community table, and others sought a quiet place of their own to greet the day. About 8:15 we headed to the Jungle Studio.
The only way was up
For all of us, that first trip to the main yoga studio up the mountain was delightful fun as we kept taking curves and steps along the dirt path. These stairs would turn out to be symbolic, at least for me. When you don’t know where the trip up the mountain ends, you are full of anticipation with each step.
Kern had concocted a bowl of fresh tropical flowers in a shallow bowl of water, dipping her fingertips into the water as she gently greeted each participant with a transparent mark across the forehead. We claimed the container of blossoms as our ritual nectar, letting the flowers and their aroma steep in in its clear broth all week. As in any yoga practice, we left our shoes at the door, and then we settled into a circle.
What transpired each day at the retreat was different. Much of it falls into the category of alternative, New Age, spiritual, mystical, holistic. You get my drift, but as a child of the ‘60s, I came of age singing about the Age of Aquarius, reaching nirvana and being one with the cosmos. The word “mindfulness” has become so common that students can now major in it in college. So listening to the stories behind Hindu goddesses , sharing dreams we had had the night before, practicing conscious breathing exercises and cleansing our chakras (the energy channels in our bodies) are all familiar to me. But what brought us to our feet was dancing. No previous experience required. No aptitude for following choreography a prerequisite.
Dance to the music
Although Kern is certified in Nia (a barefoot cardio-dance workout that incorporates ballet, martial arts and interpretive dance), she recently created her own conscious dance practice that combines elements from many forms of dance, ayurveda, Kundalini yoga and Hatha yoga.
When the music started, I found myself turning and swaying and skipping and pirouetting and laughing and (almost) crying and most of all, breathing deeper than I had in a long time.
Almost daily, we stopped whatever we were doing to run to the bannister of the Jungle Studio to watch humpback whales play in the ocean. The sessions ended with all of us on our backs on our yoga mats looking up at the thatched roofs, drinking in new energy and thinking about our second breakfast down the mountain.
After the morning class, we headed down for a full breakfast of farm eggs, tortillas, avocado and everything fresh the local staff could bring in. After breakfast, we were free to take in all the area had to offer, whether it was a trek along dirt footpaths to the towns on either side of the mountain or a swim with dolphins or hike in the jungle with machete-wielding guides, or zip-lining, scuba-diving or snorkeling.
Since I had already gone swimming with dolphins and zip-lined through trees, I preferred hiking to the small towns on either side of the resort. Los Animas was a longer hike and a tourist attraction with markets and restaurants, but the other town, Quimixto,was just a sleepy fishing village of 400 residents. Windows to the houses stood open, there was laundry on outdoor clothes lines, children played in the dirt and cobblestone streets, and people worked on boats docked nearby.
Sunset and suksahana
Our evening sessions were in the second and smaller yoga studio and were more subdued. Sometimes we drew on long reams of white paper with colored markers, drawing symbols for our desires and wishes and needs, writing poetic phrases to go with them or putting questions marks where words or symbols did not fully capture a thought. How refreshing to bypass words and to draw thoughts instead.
On several evenings, we did our own body work with child-size basketballs that we could adjust the amount of air making them harder or softer. Kern led us in using the ball to massage every inch of our bodies.
Unlike an ashram where a friend once told me she and her roommate had a knock-down-drag-out fight over a peanut because they were so hungry, this retreat was all about comfort and self-discovery. Food was always available and could be tailored to the vegan, the vegetarian, the gluten-free or anyone with food allergies. For the not-so-purists, there was a bar perched just above the water. You could have the freshest juices or the strongest, dirtiest martini.
Magic of a full moon
Midweek signalled a new moon. Kern had arranged a fire ceremony on the beach. We each wrote on small pieces of paper what we wanted to send into the universe. I think we all wanted the glow of the moon to send down beams of peace into every heart on the planet. Whatever intentions we had written on paper and thrown into the fire, the ceremony surrounding us seemed to make it more magical as cinders rose into the air. The cool water brushing against the sand, their white caps turning silver under the moon, and the enchantment of a fire made secret desires something much bigger than mere wishes.
I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, but if I did, I would not share it. None of us did. Although a retreat itself is communal, there is also a sense that all of this is very personal. There is a sisterhood of safety in a place like this.
It was time for each of us to create a dinacharya (daily routine in ayurveda). Discipline has always escaped me; I always viewed routine as the enemy of spontaneity. Turns out that a dinacharya works magic.
Kern described hers: She wakes up at the same time every morning (her recommendation is no later than 6 a.m.), puts on a kettle of filtered water to boil and turns on music that inspires her. Then she sets an intention for her day . Kern also suggests bathing in sea salt water with 10 drops of lavender oil and tea tree oil at night and going to bed at the same time every night. Thinking of five things for which you are grateful before putting closing your eyes is a good note for better sleep.
I realized that paying attention to things such as these in the morning and at night could really change the direction of my days. I would seriously think of routine as a healthy ritual when I got home.
The next day here would be my last. No more vertical challenges. (Did I mention that my trip up the mountain each day to the Jungle Studio was 300 steps?) I would miss my inner burro. But I would pack my bliss when I headed home.