Nervous laughter mixed with the rhythmic slapping of the waves on the white sand shore as I and 10 other women, many of them strangers, gathered for dinner around a long wooden table. Our Pilates instructor handed us our schedule for the next three days, handwritten in pencil. No computer printout for this low-tech crew.
After dinner we climbed the dark stairs to the palapa, lit by tea candles and moonlight reflecting off the Caribbean. The yoga instructor struck a reflective mood by reading a passage and suggesting that we think of what we would like to accomplish during the retreat. A slim notebook and pencil had been placed at the foot of each yoga mat. We were invited to write our goals and then share them with the group. Everything at the retreat was by invitation, never a requirement.
As we sat in a circle and our instructors sprinkled us with rose petals, I thought, “This is going to be amazing.”
Pilates and yoga retreats have exploded on the travel scene; the website of Yoga Journal magazine, for instance, lists offerings from Hawaii and Tennessee to Peru and Bali. Across the globe, travelers are finding fitness vacations that expand the capabilities of their bodies and their minds. For my first foray into the growing trend, the location was Isla Mujeres, a tiny island off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, and the organizers were three instructors from the Twin Cities.
Warm up: Day One
Boot camp started at 7:15 a.m. I didn’t do anything but sleep, but my roommate — my daughter, Jen Borger, who came back sweaty — told me that the group ran and did interval training, squats, biceps curls and more on the beach outside our hotel. It made me happy I’d stayed in bed.
Yoga, I could handle, and it began at 8:30ish. Instructor Kathy Flaminio is perhaps the best I’ve ever had. She encouraged our movements to be fluid, not fast and strenuous. Her emphasis was on stretching and moving in comfort. She offered alternatives to the usual poses for the octogenarian and the one among us who recently had knee replacement surgery. After an hour, some of the stiffness in my shoulders from too much computer time was gone. I felt a tad more limber all over.
Breakfast was at 10 a.m. There were half a dozen egg-based choices, with fresh fruit or juice, bread, butter and avocado. We had guacamole at every meal — reason enough to make the trip.
By 11:30 a.m. the wind had picked up and the sky had turned gray — just as Dori Johnson’s paddleboarding class got started. I had paddleboarded only twice before — in Lake Nokomis on a still day. But the breeze was blowing toward shore, so Johnson decided we’d give it a try.
We held long paddles and stood beside our surfboards, rented from a concession near our hotel, as Johnson provided brief instruction. As the clouds got darker, she told us to kneel on the center “sweet spot” of our boards and try our best to paddle out to a line of buoys, but not beyond. Then we hit the water — literally, for some of us who couldn’t stay atop our boards. An athletic biology professor took to it like a California surfer. The rest of us muddled our way through, but the warm water felt great.
With free time until dinner, my daughter and I had arranged to get massages that afternoon. The masseuse arrived on time to our room, with massage table and lavender-scented lotion at the ready. My hour massage lasted about 90 minutes and cost $70. The others in our group used the time to walk into downtown Isla Mujeres, a charming town of several blocks along the beach, lined with shops and eateries.
Some of us gathered at about 5 p.m. for margaritas, guacamole and hot chips before dinner. We talked about our day, our families, real lives. In addition to our three instructors, there were two mother/daughter combinations, one sister duo and two singles. Ages ranged from early 30s to early 80s.
Dinner was at 6:30, always served at the same long table in a dining area attached to our hotel, Na Balam, on the island’s northern tip. Shrimp, scallops, octopus, calamari, chicken, hamburger and steak were prepared in various delicious ways. I didn’t hear one food complaint for the entire retreat.
Pilates was slated for 8 p.m. I had taken one class before and I hated it, but went with the group in hopes this would be easier. It wasn’t. It had been an active day, especially for someone who had been sitting at a computer most of the winter, so although the class was well taught by Suzy Levi, I chose the “rest” mode during some of the exercises.
Dig in: Days Two and Three
The next two days were much the same as the first: exercise sprinkled with soothing yoga. It was a bit rainy and cool (and paddleboarding on day two was canceled because the winds had shifted), but nothing like the 12 below back in the Twin Cities.
By day three, the wind was gone and the sun had returned, so our yoga session was on an uncovered deck overlooking the ocean. I bent back, lifting my heart and fingertips to the sun, grateful for every nanosecond of this trip. Flaminio had ratcheted up the intricacies of yoga and demonstrated pretzel-like moves that should be impossible for the human body. We ended the session accompanied by the Beatles’ “Let It Be.”
Finally, we got to try paddleboarding on calmer water. It was fun and a lot easier than it looks. We paddled around, then did a few yoga moves as we bobbed in the water — 11 women doing downward dog on surfboards.
After our last supper together, we returned to the palapa for a closing ceremony. No rose petals this time, but the tea candles were lit and our yoga mats were arranged in a circle, spread out from the center like the rays of the sun. Our yoga instructor invited us to share our thoughts about the three days. It had been fun, eye-opening and muscle-challenging — and we all declared we want to go again next year.
Judith Yates Borger is author of the Skeeter Hughes mystery series set in the Twin Cities. Her third book, “Who Bombed the Train?,” is due out this fall. Her website is www.JudithYates Borger.com.