Gorging on bacon-wrapped dates, sipping Jamaican rum, and puffing on a Cuban cigar: now, this is what I call a yoga retreat. Not sitting on the floor in an ashram eating brown rice alongside saffron-robed swamis. Instead, I'm by a pool under a tropical moon, with handsome waiters catering to my whims, piano music in the background. . . .
It's the first night of Mikelle Terson's semiannual Yoga Wave getaway on St. Bart's. The Caribbean capital of self-indulgence may seem a weird place to get spiritually centered, but the new generation of forward-thinking yogis have no problem mixing discipline with decadence. That's why Terson, the resident guru at my New York gym, and others like her have started leading yoga excursions to such locales as St. Bart's, Tuscany, and Tahiti.
A dozen New Yorkers have signed up for her intensive six-day program at the Christopher Hotel for one simple reason: to de-stress. "Work's been a nightmare," says a buyer for a leather manufacturer. A literary agent is fried. A ponytailed patent attorney is making the difficult transition to actor. I say I want to be more flexible. Plus I've never been to St. Bart's.
What I don't mention is my conflicted history with yoga. When I was 13, my mother joined an ashram, and since then I've been leery of touchy-feely spiritualism. I like Mikelle because she's a former gymnast who leads a workout worthy of Kerri Strug. An eloquent coach, she can make me imagine the "golden cord" running through my spine without any worries that yoga will lure me into Saturday night chants and celibacy vows. My real mission is to stretch my body to the limit, to perfect balancing on one leg, and to get fully grounded before Rick, my boyfriend, arrives in two days. A skeptic but a good sport, he'll attend the classes but he'll also want to squeeze in a lot of island activities— and I need to be in shape for that.
At seven the next morning, we launch bleary-eyed into the first of our two daily sessions, despite the gym's boiler-room steaminess and the fact that Mikelle is making us assume every posture twice. "The heat lets you go deeper into the stretches," she assures us. It's true. My feet are sweating so much I keep sliding dangerously close to a split— not a maneuver I'm ready for.
The early workout gives us dietetic license to hoover all the ham, eggs, cheese, and toasted brioche they can throw at us. By 10, we're racing our jeeps to Grande Saline Beach. Far from doing sun salutations, my towel-mate keeps chattering and chain-smoking. I flee into the deep blue, my mental clock set for lunch. We settle in at a table— but not into island time. "How long can it take to cook salmon carpaccio?" I wonder aloud. The waiter is French and therefore indifferent to our New York urgency. Three hours later the bill arrives, leaving barely enough time for my rubdown with Barry Pluke, a man you don't want to keep waiting.
Mikelle has flown Barry here from London. Nicknamed "Austin Powers" (by us) for his rakish charm and accent, this ex-boxer and international man of massage treats aromatherapy like a contact sport. He lubes you up with exotic oils of cinnamon and grapefruit, then bruises your tension into submission with his signature judo chops. After Barry, I hit the yoga mat with Jell-O knees that make it easier to fold into the lotus position but harder to reach the final om. Then Mikelle invites us into a cross-legged circle to tell a dream, a feeling, or the quote we've been asked to bring on the trip. The actor-lawyer reads aloud a two-page poem by a Native American elder. I have to admit I'm more focused on how to get through nine more classes without letting on that I didn't bring anything to share.
The next morning, we're divided. Some of us want to do it on the roof and others prefer the steam cellar. Roof wins. But the unexpected gift of twin rainbows is marred by huffing from the indoor faction: they don't want to be in the sun.
The deeper you get into the moves, tightening thigh muscles until you can feel them rotating around the bone, twisting the spine to give your organs a squeeze, all kinds of emotional stuff can get pushed to the surface. The process isn't always pretty. Lying prostrate on the floor with someone's bare foot inches from your face breeds a certain sweaty intimacy.
Rick's introduction to his new yoga family takes place at an out-of-the-way seafood joint. We mild-mannered Zen seekers surround the lobster tank, select the plumpest crustaceans for execution, and devour them with an intensity matched only by our squabble over the bill. Sure, everybody makes up by going to a disco, where we invent a hip-hop version of our yoga routine, but the paradox remains: in the process of gaining greater control of your body, you can temporarily lose control of your mind.
A person can only take so much peace, love, and understanding. I head for Gustavia, the island's capital. First stop: Hermès. I'm delighted to discover that there are things I can afford, including a tie for Dad, scarf ring for Mom. When they pull out the linen place mats, I'm aware that afternoon class is about to start, but I decide, Enough with the hamstrings! I'd rather stretch my credit limit.
Duty-free Hermès aside, two daily doses of yoga can have therapeutic benefits you didn't bargain for. Not only can I eventually reach my head to the floor while standing, but I also get a taste of the guru-disciple relationship. When I arrive at a restaurant called Maya's for the group dinner, Mikelle scolds me for skipping class. After the next morning's session, I confront Mikelle and tell her that I don't want to be made to feel guilty for following my bliss, even if it means loading up on overpriced horse-themed tchotchkes. We hug.
It's natural to bring the stresses of real life to a vacation, but after so much stretching, you inevitably loosen up. Our final event is a catamaran cruise, followed by a trek to some mud baths at the far end of a deserted island. At first glance the baths look like a bust: a few lumps of clay on a rock cliff. And yet, even the most tightly wound start to let go, painting their bodies and frolicking in the surf like members of some primitive tribe.
At the closing ceremony by the pool, Mikelle asks the rest of us to share our quotes. Rick passes. My number comes up. "'The path of excess leads to the temple of knowledge,' by Robert Blake." Okay, so I get the words a little wrong and it's William Blake, not the guy from Baretta. But hey, it's yoga. You gotta be flexible.
Mikelle Terson's six-day Yoga Wave on St. Bart's starts at $2,350 per person, including airfare from New York, hotel, daily breakfast, rental car, and yoga twice a day. She runs similar programs in other locations, including Tahiti. To reserve: 212/362-4288.