Winter was nasty—too cold for too long, with too much snow. Worse, I was slip-sliding down the icy mean streets of New York on crutches, recovering from surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon. Clenched and tense, I felt like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, before he hit the yellow brick road. It's not that I lacked a heart, but like the axe-wielding man-machine, I was rusty and taut, rigid and banged-up.
My exercise program, to which I had been dedicated, was extinct, and my yoga practice was likewise a relic. I missed them badly; without daily stretching I was becoming not just creaky but cranky. I needed to get back to yoga, and I needed some warmth. I'd never so much as set foot on a ship, but then I heard about a seven-night yoga cruise on the 700-passenger Radisson Seven Seas Mariner that promised—at no extra charge!—six one-hour classes in the mornings and a half-hour meditation session every afternoon. Sailing from Fort Lauderdale, with stops in Grand Cayman, Cozumel, and Key West, it also guaranteed some relief from the lingering winter weather.
To be honest, I wasn't sure I was a cruise person. I live in a crowded city; the last thing I usually want from a holiday is to be confined in a small space. A bigger concern was my repaired tendon, which would certainly be tested by six days of yoga camp. But by happy coincidence, I knew the husband-and-wife team, Michael Lechonczak and Robin Whitney Levine, in charge of the cruise's Spotlight on Yoga program, and had taken classes with them in New York. Both are trained instructors in the Anusara, Iyengar, and Ashtanga traditions who have devised their own method, which they call Intelligent Yoga. From the time I'd spent in their studio, I recalled their version to be clear, free of mysticism (which I always find a distraction), and somehow upbeat. They'd look out for me in my sorry shape.
The ship itself was a far cry from the austere sort of place where most yoga retreats are set. My suite came with a balcony and a butler; one of the four restaurants on board was run by Le Cordon Bleu chefs. Earlier in my life and in my practice, I'd have called yoga cruise an oxymoron. But as I've grown older, I've come to see that yoga is about balance, including—why not?—the balance between discipline and indulgence (or maybe I was simply justifying the constant presence of my butler). If there were such a thing as a luxury yogi, I would gladly become one; if not, well, call me a pioneer. And with temperatures just creeping into the forties as spring approached, this Caribbean incarnation of the yoga retreat sounded like very good karma indeed.
DAY ONE Herded into line as I boarded the ship, I worried that the next week would feel like a cattle call. But all that unpleasantness was dispelled when I entered my penthouse suite. Rather than the cramped quarters with a porthole I had envisioned, I had room to spread out: besides a bedroom, there were not one but two sitting areas. The suite was brightly outfitted in blue, orange, and gold, with an entire wall of glass to let in the sunlight. I planned to take my morning coffee on my private deck and spend afternoons reading books outside and late nights staring at the stars. My balcony door would always be open; I would drift to sleep lulled by the salty air, the subtle rocking of my bed, and the song of the ship pushing through the swells.
My butler, a slight, 25-year-old Indian gentleman named Jitesh who would always arrive dressed in tails, had my wrinkled clothes pressed perfectly in time for dinner that night. (Around 5 p.m. each day he'd bring a selection of hors d'oeuvres—prosciutto and melon one evening, spring rolls with a tangy dipping sauce another.) I made a few requests: dinner reservations in the two restaurants that required them, a constant supply of bottled water, and every morning after yoga, ice for my ankle. "I will do those things, sir," he replied, with a slight bow. The yoga had yet to begin, but the luxury yogi was already in full bloom.
DAY TWO When our first class convened, at 10 a.m., 35 eager souls—including, I was pleased to see, seven other men—laid out mats on the padded floor of the Mariner's fitness center. The 988-square-foot room, with four picture windows looking out to sea, was nearly packed. Being in my late forties put me on the younger side of the passenger list, but many of my elders were just as active as me, if not more so. On sunny mornings later in the week, I'd recognize those same classmates power-walking around the track, never holding back.
Once everyone was comfortably arranged, Michael and Robin introduced themselves and explained that each day we'd learn a different kind of asana, or pose—first, Forward Folds, then backbends—then we'd combine them in a vinyasa, or flow. Every afternoon they'd lead us in pranayama, breathing exercises, and then into meditation.
As we began our simple stretches, Michael and Robin offered optional movements for most poses to make them even more challenging, and eased beginners into proper form. Within that first one-hour session, I could feel my muscles lengthening, my shoulders and neck loosening. As I looked out the window at the sea -lane leading us to Grand Cayman, I wondered why I'd never thought to do this before—until a sharp roll portside toppled Robin's pristine forest of Tree posers as if it were harvest time at Christmas. Still, she adapted quickly, using Michael to demonstrate a two-person version of the asana that gave much greater stability. "We'll call this Tree at Sea," Michael quipped.
DAY THREE After lunch onboard, Michael, Robin, and a small group of newly bonding yogis went ashore in Grand Cayman to Seven Mile Beach, an uncrowded strand recommended by the ship's concierge. An impromptu yoga session broke out just after we put down our towels, but the midday heat, the blinding glare, and tractionless sand forced us to move our sun salutations and warrior poses into the calm blue Caribbean waters.
This exodus from the ship was one of the few I would experience. At most ports of call, we were forced to choose between classes and shore excursions, since nearly all the organized tours departed in the morning. That meant no submarine ride to an undersea wildlife preserve in Cozumel. No kayaking in Key West, either (though I did disembark for an evening stroll through town). I decided to channel my frustration into afternoon meditation.