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.
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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.
DAY FOUR Though the Mexican port town of Cozumel was just outside the Mariner's hull, it seemed worlds away during meditation class, which drew much smaller groups. We sat against mirrored walls as Michael or Robin started us off with a pranayama, such as alternate-nostril breathing, to help get us centered. Then we moved deeper, always focusing on the breath, counting our inhalations and exhalations or just observing them. Occasionally our teachers experimented with a two-syllable mantra, which we'd silently repeat to ourselves. I tried to exclude all other thoughts and sensations and stay composed.
Sitting solo at home, I'm easily distracted, but on the gently swaying ship I dropped effortlessly into a deep trance. I'd open my eyes after 15 or 20 minutes, amazed that so much time had elapsed; I felt as if we'd just begun. After class, Lynda Fishbourne, a tanned and lithe 56-year-old creative director from Tampa, put what I was thinking into words. "I love the dynamic of meditating with other people," she said. "It's not so much that you're overtly connecting with them. It's more that when people around you are going inward, it helps you to go there, too." That's not just the company, I told her. In posture work, our mobile yoga unit's rolling motion was an occasional hindrance, but in meditation, it enhanced the experience. Lynda agreed: the slow, rhythmic writhing of the ocean was relaxing, putting us into a meditative state and holding us there, rocking us in an aquatic cradle.
DAY FIVE After almost a week at sea, I was making real progress in my morning yoga as well. (The first day's crowding had been solved by a sign-up sheet limiting the class to 25 people.) Now, when we bent over in a Forward Fold, I could touch the floor again. Thanks to regular applications of Jitesh's ice deliveries, which were waiting for me in a silver champagne bucket after each day's class, my Achilles was holding up. Though I already knew the poses, Robin and Michael's explanation of each movement's biomechanics—"tucking the tailbone under opens up the pelvic floor"—gave me new insight into my anatomy and alignment. When they combined the asanas we'd learned into faster-paced sequences—moving us from the Mountain stance to a Forward Fold or from a Plank to a Cobra and on to a Downward -Facing Dog—the veterans eagerly helped out the rookies. The beginners especially impressed me. At 44, Janice O'Connor, a Missouri horse-trainer and riding teacher, was one of the youngest yoga cruisers. Without previous experience, she threw herself into her practice with athletic abandon. "That's typical," her partner, Eric Olson, told me after class at the poolside bar. On the stool next to him, Janice was banging down an 11 a.m. rum punch. "She'll try anything," he said, "and when she does, she takes it to the max."
DAY SIX Most days I'd been having lunch alone at one of the shaded outdoor tables of La Veranda. From its vantage point in the stern of the ship, the restaurant's wooden patio presented sweeping views of the sea and the ports. In keeping with the cruise's wellness theme, I'd fill up on fresh salads and seafood from the buffet (with extra helpings of salmon carpaccio), plus an occasional chocolate truffle or cheese course. Waiters and wine stewards seemed to outnumber passengers two to one—rarely would I have to wait a beat after asking for something before it would appear.
I was cautious during the day, but as a luxury yogi, I would never neglect dinner. I tried each of the ship's four restaurants, indulging in everything from the chicken-and-coconut soup at Latitudes, which offered a set Asian tasting menu, to the rack of lamb at La Veranda. On my fifth night, I joined Lynda Fishbourne and her husband, Bill ("just call him Fish," she told me), at the Compass Rose, over complimentary bottles of Pouilly Fumé—from the Loire Valley—and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The next evening, while eating with Robin at the more upscale Signatures (the restaurant run by Le Cordon Bleutrained chefs), I sampled roasted sea bass. Robin and I concurred that, ayurvedically speaking, it went well with a crisp Sancerre. The camaraderie of the yoga group made traveling on my own less of a challenge, though I was still able to enjoy some moments alone. After dinner, I picked up a novel at the library and headed to an oversized leather armchair in the Connoisseur Lounge.
Usually the interval between lunch and meditation was the best time to advance my pampering agenda. The efficient white-clad staff at the Carita spa came to recognize me, as I trooped in repeatedly, treating myself to a massage or facial every other day. (After all, I was recovering from a serious injury.) I would waste an hour in the men's steam room and sauna. A talented masseur named Virgilio Gumia was recommended by the yogis; his mixture of Swedish, pressure-point, and Thai massage—several times he lifted me by my midsection almost completely off the table—left me so relaxed, I was practically unconscious.
DAY SEVEN The night before, I'd stayed late on my balcony, leaning on the railing and looking out at the Key West park below. Fire-jugglers threw flaming props into the dark as street musicians blared and bass boomed from the portside bars. The next day, our second in Key West, we'd have our last morning yoga class. As I thought back over my week-long reentry into yoga and my maiden cruise, I realized just how well those two elements—which had once seemed so disparate—had come together. At sea, I had little to distract me, and joining a group who shared a common interest gave me an unconscious sense that, as one of my classmates put it, "we were all in this together."
Back on our mats that sunny morning, we flowed through an hour of standing, sitting, and prone postures, moving to the rhythms of our breath. When the group chanted our final Om, I honestly felt fantastic. My chest was broader and more open, my legs tingling and alive. As I stood up I could feel a vast unclenching, a huge "Ahhhhhhhhhhh" of relief and letting go. My joints and muscles had been oiled and lubricated. Instead of a corroded Tin Man, I felt—and moved—like a flesh-and-blood yogi again. Repaired and restored, I would clank no more.
JOHN CAPOUYA is the author of Real Men Do Yoga (Health Communications, Inc.).
Radisson Seven Seas Cruises
The next yoga-centric sailings are the Well-Being Cruise to Alaska aboard the Mariner (Sept. 714) and an Eastern Caribbean wellness cruise on the Navigator (Jan. 1727). 800/285-1835; www.rssc.com; seven-day cruises from $2,987 per person, double.
The Health & Fitness cruises include twice-daily instruction. There are six remaining for 2005. 866/466-6625; www.crystalcruises.com; seven-day cruises from $1,295 per person, double.
All four ships offer a yoga program with three levels of hatha instruction, so guests progress at their own speed. 877/215-9986; www.silversea.com; seven-day cruises from $4,076 per person, double.
Norwegian Coastal Voyage
If you are willing to wait a year, NCV is planning a seven-day yoga cruise run by Marilyn Barnett, founder of the Yoga Connection in New York City, in July of 2006, featuring midnight-sun yoga on the deck of the Trollfjord. The cruise will sail from Bergen to Kirkenes, Norway. 800/334-6544; www.cruisenorway.com; seven-day cruises from $1,340 per person, double.