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Isla Mujeres, a yoga vacationer's paradise

Yoga Retreats: A Stress-Free Vacation That Lasts

Sherry Roberts

I arrived on Isla Mujeres clutching a suitcase, my yoga mat, and a Spanish phrasebook. It was my first time in Mexico and my first yoga retreat. I tried to appear calm and sophisticated, a world-traveling yogi, if you — will nothing at all like the two college boys who sat beside me on the airplane. It was spring break, and they acted like two uncontainable puppies eager to sniff out every adventure, bikini, and beer in Cancun.

I asked what they planned to do. "Were going to stay awake for seven days," they exclaimed.

They asked about my plans. "I'm practicing yoga for seven days," I told them.

That's cool, they nodded.

They didn't know the half of it.

Retreat vs. Vacation

Jillian Pransky (shown posing at right), who teaches yoga at Yoga Zone in Manhattan and New School University, and is also the director of the yoga program at the North Hudson YMCA in Hoboken, New Jersey, says one of the most important things you should ask yourself before signing up for a yoga retreat is: what do you hope to get out it? "Are you looking for a reclusive, intensive experience that will pull you away from outer stimulus or a place to unwind, have fun, and be as much a vacation as a chance to deepen your yoga practice?"

I attended Jillian's week-long "Yoga in Paradise retreat" at the Na Balam Hotel on Isla Mujeres and found it aptly named. It combined intense practice with playful vacation in a beautiful locale for an experience that, for me, redefined relaxation and renewal.

Every morning I got up eager to hit the yoga mat for two hours of twisting, bending, breathing, and flowing. "Yoga should not be about strain," Jillian told us. "It should be reenergizing."

And to my surprise, it was. I never left the yoga room tired.

After morning yoga, our group of twenty-five yogis and yoginis reconvened in Zazil Ha, Na Balam's excellent restaurant, for a hearty brunch of fresh fruit, granola and yogurt, and a warm dish (eggs prepared in various delicious ways or French toast). We had free time until the 6:15 evening yoga session. Everyone had different plans: Some never made it any farther than the hammock swaying outside their suite or a lounger on the beach. The more adventurous or energetic explored this tiny Caribbean island, which is only five miles long but offers great shopping a five-minute walk away in the nearby village (el pueblo) or the chance to swim with dolphins or discover what's like to be nose to snout with a 400-pound sea turtle at the Tortuga Marina Turtle Farm. Some spent the afternoon at El Garrafon National Park snorkeling in clear blue-green waters, up to their blow tubes in parrot fish and angelfish which make the coral reef around Isla their home.

One afternoon on the way back from the market, I stumbled upon Isla's unnamed cemetery. The white walls of the cemetery were high; it was quiet there, full of sun and island heritage. The tombs, some more than 100 years old, were brightly painted, built hardly more than a foot apart, and beautifully decorated with crosses, angels, and flowers (real, plastic, and fabric) in every conceivable kind of container. Electrical cords ran to some, which had Christmas bulbs as well as candles in the sanctuaries that seemed an integral part of every gravestone.

Evening yoga was dedicated to exploring the playful and meditative side of yoga. We did restorative yoga, gentle yoga, partner yoga, and walking meditations to the beach where we spread our yoga blankets on the sand, relaxed into savasana, and stared up at the stars while they looked down on us.

The yoga became a frame for the vacation, making us healthier, stronger, and calmer. It was the most stress-free vacation I'd ever been on — not to mention the only one on which I've ever lost weight.

Teachers and Levels

What else should you look for in a yoga retreat or vacation? You should know the teacher and the style of yoga you will be practicing and make sure the level of yoga (beginner, intermediate, advanced, multilevels) meets your needs. Jillian offered many variations to the vinyasa asanas we were learning and assured us that even doing the simplest variation was a valid choice. She encouraged us to explore without pressing to the point of frustration. This became a valuable lesson for me: to be forgiving of myself during practice, to be patient and not expect immediate results, to release the expectations with the tensions and realize that being in the moment is a rather spectacular place to be. Ironically, when we stopped striving, we took great steps forward. Many of us saw progress in daily practice and discovered things about ourselves.

"I learned that I can share yoga with my 60-year-old mother, who has never practiced yoga before (but joined her daughter on the retreat)," said yogini Nicole Alley. "And I learned that it's not about getting into a pose and holding it like a statue, but finding myself through the subtleties and nuances of my breath, muscles, and energy."

You can learn about yoga retreats from your teacher, friends, magazines, or online. The important thing is to do your homework — ask questions about the teacher, the style, and the schedule. Talk to past participants. See if you resonate with the previous experiences of those who have attended the retreat or practiced with the teacher who is offering the retreat.

Location, Location, Location

Besides expectations, teaching style, and practice level, the other important component of a yoga retreat is the locale. Yoga retreats are offered all over the world. Choose a place you're interested in exploring. If you don't like the sun, dont go to Mexico. If you don't like bugs or humidity, don't go to the rainforests of Costa Rica. If you don't like the cold, don't go to a mountain retreat in Montana.

The environment or setting contributes to your overall experience. The Na Balam Hotel (see sidebar) entertains more than twenty yoga teachers and their groups each year. It has built a spacious treehouse yoga room and outfitted it with plenty of blankets, mats, and props. The hotel tropical gardens and trails are lushly landscaped. The ambiance is secluded, laid-back, and friendly.

Michele Toth, another Yoga in Paradise participant, described her experiences: "The yoga practice weaves itself seamlessly into the very essence of a tropical vacation. Two classes available each day in an outdoor studio, set amid lush tropical gardens, sea breezes, and the wonderful sounds of the ocean, tropical birds, Krishna Das, and others. If you are a yoga enthusiast, I don't think you can ask for more."

Another yogi agreed, "I can't think of a better place to experience the idea of 'becoming one with nature and the universe' than while practicing yoga on a tropical island under a straw hut with palm trees swaying in a warm breeze."

Why a Yoga Retreat?

Jillian Pransky has been teaching yoga since 1997 and went on her first retreat as a student in 1998. She still goes on yoga retreats to learn from other teachers, such as John Friend and Erich Shiffmann. She has seen a growth in the popularity of yoga retreats and vacations. What's their appeal?

"It's an opportunity to develop or deepen practice," Jillian said. "Many of my students are city dwellers. Their yoga is fit in between running in and out of busy streets and wedged into their busy workloads. They get little respite and often don't get the dramatic effect they experience on retreat. Your body has more time to open, change, purify, and cleanse in a retreat environment than in a daily practice."

Many people are drawn to yoga retreats because they offer the chance to combine a vacation with an activity they love, yoga. "The yoga enhances the pleasure of going on vacation, and the vacation enhances the yoga," Jillian said. "Eighty-five percent of the people who go on a yoga treat are interested in pursuing another one. They are hooked right off the bat."

Several yogis compared the Yoga in Paradise retreat to a spa vacation. "The treatment is from the inside out, longer lasting, and feeds the soul," said Michele Toth.

"It is the ultimate treat to oneself," said Cindy Milazzo. "Tending to your body, mind, and spirit; how could you go wrong? It's like a week-long, full-body massage."

Back to Reality

The week is over, and it's time to go home. It is difficult getting the adrenaline motor revved up for travel mode. Everything seems to be moving entirely too quickly: the little red taxi roaring down the streets of Isla and almost taking out a tourist on a golf cart, the crowded ferry ride from Isla Mujeres to Puerto Juarez, negotiating the best deal on another break-neck taxi ride to the airport in Cancun, checking luggage.

After buying a bottle of water and chocolate-frosted doughnut, I sit in the airport lounge and wait for my flight back to the real world. A spring breaker is sprawled on the floor nearby; boarding passengers step over the snoring college student.

I munch on the doughnut, enjoy the sweetness, and think about the retreat. Jillian said it was always interesting to talk to yogis after retreat and find out what they took away with them. So I did. Here's what they said: relaxation, focus, new friendships, memories of euphoric mornings in the yoga treehouse and soothing candlelit night yoga, learning a slow and steady pace, a deeper connection to yoga and self, a cleansing experience, love, peace, tranquility, a sense of clarity, the ability to be in the moment (no sense of striving, just being).

"It's a terrific way to spend a week," according to Nedra Hoffman. "And you take something back from a simple week vacation that enriches your ongoing life. So in that way, your dollar is spread far."

When I get on the plane, I look for my two travel companions, the eager guys I met on the flight to Mexico. They're already asleep. I guess their week was everything they had hoped it would be. Mine certainly was.

Na Balam Hotel Welcomes Yogis: Find out why the Na Balam Hotel on Isla Mujeres is gaining a reputation as a great site for yoga retreats. 

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