A few years ago, I spent a week at the Ashram spa in Calabasas, California. Hard-core hikes and 1,200-calorie days had my body toned and taut, and my mind as clear as I could remember. So when the cold-weather blues hit me last winter, I called up my favorite savior, Ashram co-owner Catharina Hedberg, to rescue me. She told me of her new Ashram Adventures retreat on Brazil's mystical island of Ilha Grande, and I booked myself in for the very next week.
With room for only 16 guests, Ashram Adventures focuses on nurturing the body and soul and invigorating the spirit. Participants gather in small groups amid a spectacular setting, and have the rare opportunity to surpass their physical boundaries while finding peace and achieving wellness. I was looking forward to all those benefits, as well as shedding some weight—10 pounds, to be exact. Having survived the Ashram program in California, I knew the week would be intense, but would reward me with confidence and discovery.
The Ashram guides who meet my flight at the Rio airport look so healthy and happy compared to my distracted New York self, my instinct is to run. I bolt to the post office and buy an international phone card to call my boyfriend for encouragement. I know my fears are irrational: that another spa-goer will throw me off a mountain or tip my kayak into the sea, that someone will sneak food onto my plate, preventing me from losing weight. Still, there are real concerns. Will 1,200 calories be enough to take me through eight hours of hiking and kayaking each day?True, the program in California serves just as few calories—though here we're treated to a breakfast of granola or an egg, rather than the notorious Ashram spa juice breakfast—and I'd managed okay.
After 13 hours of traveling (including a 90-minute bus ride and a 30-minute boat trip to take me 65 miles down the coast from Rio), we share our first snack on the flower-filled porch of Stio do Lobo, the lodge that the Ashram occupies from April through October (the rest of the year, it's a small resort). Samba music wafts through the air. I'm definitely far from home.
Galba, one of our trainers, gives us five minutes to change into our bathing suits for our first sea-kayaking lesson. Each day we'll be paddling along the sinewy Ilha Grande coast to reach a different hiking trail, so a rushed course is in order. One of my fears is quickly realized when Galba has us tip ourselves into the sea for an overboard rescue lesson. My Brazilian adventure has begun. Back at the lodge, we eat our biggest dinner of the week, rice and beans. Then it's lights out at 9 p.m., to rest up for the days to come.
At our 6 a.m. wake-up call, there's a thick smell of moist rain-forest dew. I pull on my yoga pants and head to the veranda for a class with Lygia, a New York— trained yogi. The hour of asanas (postures) passes quickly. So does our breakfast of watermelon and hard-boiled egg (we'll need the protein for our kayak trip, we're warned). My nerves are soothed by the methodic paddling, and we reach the trailhead of Dois Rios before my arms give out. Heading up the pass, Norm, one of the Ashram partners and an energetic guide, jokes that the locals are curious to know what transgressions we've made to deserve such punishment. They find it unimaginable that a group of Americans would pay for a holiday of starvation. After a meager lunch on the trail of broth with a few crackers, I'm beginning to understand their confusion. Or maybe I'm suffering from hypoglycemia.
Norm tells us that today's two-hour climb will be the "easiest" hike of the week. But the energy of the group, the comical sound of the howler monkeys in the surrounding trees, and the spectacular views of the 365 islands in the Baa de Ilha Grande compensate for my sore feet. And I keep my eye on the prize: a fat-free body, two sizes smaller. Kayaking back at sunset, I feel the thrill of having accomplished a goal—I've survived the first full day.
The day's hike is exhausting, but not as tough as resisting the urge to storm into a house in Freguesia de Santana, a hamlet we pass through, seeking relief for my growling stomach. I can smell fresh fish, and rice and beans cooking in the kitchens. We masochists have to make do with gazpacho and a celery stick presented with a smile by our watchful guides. I savor every spoonful and crunch.
Though my climbing partners are from varied backgrounds and places, the difficult treks and vibrant sunsets fuse us into a cohesive unit. The power of the group—not competition—is the defining characteristic of the Ashram experience. At our evening yoga session, as a team, we breathe through the challenges and successes of the day. Then we synchronistically pass out.
I awaken to the sound of kayaks splashing in the water as our guides prepare them for the day. It's 7:15 a.m., and I've overslept. "Bom Dia, Como Vai?" rocks me from my bed. Despite seven hours of sleep, my body can't shake yesterday's nine hours of activity. An unusually hearty breakfast of granola, lowfat yogurt, and melon means that a challenging day awaits. I spend a moment comparing the breakfast bowls, trying to determine the largest portion, before I choose my seat.
Despite a reluctant start, I feel confident on the trail. We reach an enchanting beach where huge rocks jut out from the water like whales, and crystal-white sands dampen and dry with the tide. As a reward for work well done, we spend the afternoon playing in the surf, crashing through the waves on Lopes Mendez, renowned as Brazil's most beautiful beach. It's a highlight of the week.
Our kayak trips are getting longer, up to two hours, but I've found my rhythm. Paddling back in the afternoon sunlight, I'm high on nature. The drugged sensation continues while Matusa, a specialist in Shiatsu massage, irons out my crinkled muscles. Capoeira dancers from Bahia entertain us over dinner, and their energy is mesmerizing. After a long day, sleep comes quickly.
My mind has been stirring since sunrise, anticipating our trip to the Blue Lagoon. Hiking I can do, but six hours of kayaking may well kill me.
Like a school of fish, we paddle together. Aidan, our compassionate guide, advises us to preserve our strength. By now, our goals go way beyond weight loss. We each struggle to push past our comfort zones. It's not just feeling the burn, it's forcing ourselves to be more than we think we are.
Back at the lodge, hugs and kisses await. "You did it!" the guides gush. It's as much their success as ours. At dinner we boast of our achievements. During the evening activity, a creative percussion session with spontaneous dancing, we each grab a drum and bang out our pride in synch, like gorillas beating their chests.
Today we're going to attempt the 3,400-foot Pico do Papagaio, the most vertical climb of the week. Though we've trained all week for this, I'm still sick with nervousness. I've hardly slept; I can barely eat breakfast. No sleep and no food. Fantastic.
Every tree and vine acts as support to my two-hour climb. By the time we've passed the treeline, I'm breathless—though it's from laughter rather than fatigue. It's so beautiful, it's mind-blowing. Others finish their ascent crying. One girl pulls off her T-shirt with a triumphant yelp. Emotions are flying. In another day we'll be back to our normal life, but nobody mentions it. Glowing in the midday sun, I realize I've probably lost those 10 pounds, but more than that, I've lost layers of excess baggage—inhibitions and deafening volumes of internal noise. My clarity and confidence are so intense I hardly recognize myself.
Ashram Adventures, Ilha Grande, Brazil; 866/292-6900 or 719/584-9791; http://www.theashramadventures.com; $2,700 for one-week program, including all meals.
Gabrielle Karan, a freelance writer and stylist, also works for her mother at the Donna Karan Co.