Ask any resident of your local ashram, and he or she will be happy to explain: There's Yoga, and then there's yoga. Capital-Y Yoga means vegetarianism, pilgrimages to India, and extreme self-discipline. Lowercase-y yoga allows participants to wear $200 pants to class and dine on beef carpaccio (protein-rich, no carbs) without remorse. Old-school Yogis (big Y) have chosen their spiritual path in order to live harmoniously and peacefully. Young-blood yogis (little y) are proud of the stress in their lives but devote their free time—including hard-earned vacations—to eradicating it.
Luckily, yoga is a pack-your-mat-and-go pursuit. It requires minimal equipment—the mat, a foam block for support, a couple of blankets—and has few special needs other than a space large enough to accommodate its participants with arms outstretched. These bare necessities are all that's offered on traditional yoga retreats, such as those led by Boston-based power yogi Baron Baptiste in Costa Rica, Maui, and Mexico.
But it takes a dedicated person to travel to yoga camp for days of intense, backbreaking poses rewarded by sleep in spare, dormitory-style quarters. (Sometimes disciples are asked to bring their own linens!) Though the monastic life may offer spiritual rewards, it's far from fun. Last year, I practiced yoga at Rancho La Puerta, the rustic spa in Tecate, Mexico. Even with daily massages, it felt too much like camping to me. The instructors were skillful, inspiring, and patient, but the mostly vegetarian meals, the ban on carbonated drinks, and the howling coyotes that kept me gripping the sheets half the night were about as much "roughing it" as I could take.
The luxury yoga retreat—with room service and a delicious, never-ending supply of fluffy towels—is more enticing, at least for this lowercase yogini. In recent years, this alternative has sprung from the desire of uncompromising urbanites to balance living well and being well. That's where Yoga and yoga collide.
Consider the pursuits of yoga's most public advocates: Madonna, Gwyneth, Sting, Christy. All have lifestyles that appear to be more aesthetic than ascetic. Yoga's newest practitioners have taken a cue from those celebrities and perform Ashtanga, Bikram, or Iyengar to become spiritually grounded and self-aware—and get abs of steel. A recent four-day Inward Bound Adventures yoga trip to Round Hill, the Montego Bay, Jamaica, resort where Ralph Lauren spends family vacations, was far better suited to my tastes. Each day was pretty much the same: two hours of yoga and meditation, beginning at 7:30; breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs, or banana pancakes; reading on the beach; snorkeling; a light lunch with a Red Stripe; a Swedish or Thai massage at Bunty's Cottage spa; an hour of Pilates, restorative yoga, and meditation at sunset; grilled snapper at the seaside restaurant; a final swim; and blissful sleep in a four-poster bed in an air-conditioned villa.
Known for old-fashioned formality and cocktails on the terrace, Round Hill seems an unlikely spiritual destination. But the trip my friend Whitney and I took is a prototype for the new kind of yoga retreat, one that mixes self-discipline and self-indulgence. For the groups of 8 to 10 yoga travelers who head here twice a year, it is far more gratifying than baking on a beach.
On a shady terrace overlooking the lush Round Hill grounds and the Caribbean Sea, Jane Fryer, the owner and founder of Inward Bound, led a group of 10 students in a series of poses. At first it was a struggle to keep my focus inward—on whether my pelvic floor was engaged, for example—when my surroundings were infinitely more interesting. But as the pace quickened and the poses became more challenging, my attention snapped back to my contorted, twisted center.
Fryer, a fiftyish woman with Barbie-like proportions who is partial to jaunty sarongs and piles of gold jewelry, has been practicing yoga since the seventies, first at Kripalu in Lenox, Massachusetts, and then in Washington, D.C. Every yoga teacher has an individual style, usually an amalgam of various schools—in Fryer's case, a version of Anusara that is informed by a traditional mix of Ashtanga, Kripalu, and Iyengar. But given that gurus are prone to dropping nuggets of insight and inspiration along with posture suggestions, your teacher's personality is as essential to your experience as his or her brand of yoga. Throughout her class, Fryer spoke with straight-faced conviction about "harvesting the fire energy" of Jamaica (a volcanic island) and "juicing the kidneys." "We are cosmic earthlings," she said as my eyes wandered to a tiny green gecko scurrying along the deck.
About half the participants were members of the "Jane Gang"—a pack of well-off, older women and men who hung on her every word. They'd traveled with Fryer before, to Locanda del Gallo in Umbria (included: an excursion to the Prada outlet) and to Domaines des Courmettes in Provence (with a day trip to the pool at the Grand Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat). They sang her praises.
I, however, was a bit more skeptical. The reason I took up yoga in the first place was to confront my distrust of "woo-woo" spirituality and the type of people who encourage you to picture a snake coiled around your tailbone. That, and a burning desire to possess a perfect yoga butt (not there yet). I bristled when a former instructor told me that the reason I couldn't do the wheel, better known in playground circles as a backbend, was that my "heart wasn't open," and not simply that my spine didn't go that way. During the second class at Round Hill, as I breathed in the scent of hibiscus and felt the warm, humid air on my skin, Fryer's comment about the female energy that should be resonating in my hips made me revert to eye-rolling mode. But by the end of my third class, with a little help from Barbara Sampson, the perky-but-never-irritating Pilates instructor, my spine did comply, and I dared to call my single, wobbly wheel progress.
Of course, the members of the Jane Gang were having a blast, pushing themselves to master new poses and laughing if they couldn't quite get them. Why shouldn't it be fun?The pineapple body scrubs, the calypso music, Fryer's invigorating sun salutations, and Sampson's great mat classes were worth the trip. There was sufficient "bonding time" with others in the group, though it's not a requirement, and private time between classes is encouraged. It was a perfect getaway for sisters who wanted to catch up, reconnecting mothers and daughters, or friends who'd left their spouses at home—like Whitney and me. The two of us managed a little harmless mischief: skipping a group dinner for a hilariously raucous evening with candlelit room service and a bottle of rum, then missing Pilates class to extend a nap the next afternoon.
Several days later, in the taxi on the way home from the airport, we felt relaxed and restored. Should the credit go to the yoga, that morning's ocean swim, or the hours spent getting massages at Bunty's Cottage?Whitney promised to share the pancake recipe the chef had given her; I could still feel the grains of sand in my shoes. The next time I start to grumble during a chakra chat or complain about the well-used mat at my sweaty Bikram studio, I'll think of Round Hill, channel my inner cosmic earthling, and remember how those asanas smelled a little bit sweeter in Jamaica.
More: A yoga glossary, celebrity gurus, the best yoga hotels and resorts, authentic ashrams, and the most yoga-friendly cities in the U.S.A.