When I took a Bahamas vacation in January, I didn't stay at a fancy resort, eat conch chowder, gamble, shop 'til I dropped, or spend much time on the beach. Instead, I paid $89 a night for a room without air conditioning, dined on rice, greens, and pureed vegetable soup, and meditated for hours at a stretch. The perfect holiday? It was for me.
Ready to leave the stresses of Washington behind and restore some inner calm, I decided to spend four days at the Sivananda Yoga Retreat on Paradise Island (242 363-2902; www.sivananda.org). One of a few dozen yoga retreats worldwide that have experienced a boom in recent years, Sivananda sits on a tiny strip of the island between Club Med and the lighthouse at the mouth of the bay. The 33-year-old ashram (Sanskrit for monastery), founded by Indian yogi Swami Vishnu Devananda, offers yoga vacations for a day or a year.
No pampering spa, Sivananda emphasizes the yogic life--meditation, asanas (postures), eating right, and becoming calm. The ashram caters to yoga neophytes as well as experienced teachers. The goal is for visitors to depart feeling better than they've felt in months, if not years. "The most nurturing place on earth," says fellow guest Andy Doubleday of Derby Line, Vt.
The surroundings are reminiscent of the lush jungle scenes from an Henri Rousseau painting, but the accommodations are spartan. Many guests pay just $50 a night to pitch a tent. My private, 8-foot-by-5-foot room had a bed and a ceiling fan, and that was all. But the room charge includes meals and classes, and within 24 hours of my arrival, I began to think I could stay here forever.
SERENE NIGHT LIFE. The daily routine starts at 6 a.m. with nearly two hours of silent meditation and Sanskrit chanting (cheat sheets are provided for the uninitiated) in the open-air temple at the center of the four-acre retreat. Everyone is expected to attend two yoga classes daily. The first classes are at 8 a.m., held on one of three large wooden platforms: One juts out onto the white-sand beach, one is under a thatched roof in the garden, and the other is on the bay side, across from Nassau and the gigantic cruise ships that bring vacationers to this former British colony. During the final silent meditation and chanting of the day that often goes until 10:30 p.m., you can hear raucous bands playing at shipside parties. The ashram's peaceful ambiance easily overcomes the distraction.
The first meal is at 10 a.m. "Based on a diet that is conducive to meditation," according to a brochure, the food is vegetarian, but contains no garlic, onion, or sugar. Meals are served buffet-style out of huge vats, and beverages are limited to spring water or weak tea. That's a welcome change from the usual caffeinated fast-food diet of most guests. But it can get monotonous. By the second day, I bought some Oreos at the retreat boutique.
The schedule allows for free time between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the second yoga class begins. You can loll on the beach, snorkel in the clear blue-green waters, or take a boat ride to join the shoppers along Nassau's Bay Street. If you want to become more yogi-like, you can do "karma" yoga by volunteering for selfless service, such as sweeping the temple or cleaning up the kitchen.
The second two-hour class begins with pranayama (breathing exercises), a cornerstone of yoga practice. After a few minutes of this, I feel as giddy as if I had consumed two or three martinis. Dinner is served at 6 p.m., and everyone eats out on a huge covered porch. Guests come from every continent and include artists, CEOs, farmers, scientists, and high school dropouts. The place is said to be a favorite haven of ex-Beatle George Harrison, and it's not uncommon to see a familiar face from Hollywood or TV. But mostly, the 50 to 100 guests are stressed-out urban dwellers seeking inspiration and escape.
Indeed, Sivananda did feel like heaven on earth, and for days after leaving, I could still hear the joyous voices of the chanting yogis in my mind. When life starts bearing down on me again, I know I'll be back. By Beth Belton