A Brazilian vacation combines yoga and surfing

By William Powers
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 6, 2009

Like many people, I'm sometimes torn between dharma and maya, the pleasures of the spirit and those of the flesh. So after finishing a large, stressful work project, I dreamed up a restorative vacation to blend the two.

The idea: For 10 days I'd practice yoga and learn to surf in the far south of Brazil. First yoga for a little nirvana, then surfing lessons for earthly thrills.

But I was in for a surprise when I arrived at the Enchanted Mountain yoga center near Garopaba, Brazil. I'd expected something like the Retreat and Renewal weekend I'd done at the Kripalu yoga institute in western Massachusetts, with its "easy yoga" classes and bubbling hot tubs. What I found instead was an exacting, ashram-style daily routine.

Each morning at 5:30 sharp, the swamis rang bells and a hundred of us filed into a circular candlelit room for silent meditation and sunrise chanting. Then came two 90-minute Sivananda yoga classes, a philosophy class and another two-hour meditation and chanting session after sun set. And all this, naturally, without even daring to think about alcohol, caffeine, meat or sex.

I loved it. My cappuccino-withdrawal headaches quickly vanished, and my body became elastic from countless sun-salutations and downward dogs. The meditation and chanting seemed to improve the texture of my days; awash in carefree joy, I whistled my way from yoga to philosophy class.

In that class, a tall Argentine clad in bright orange robes -- people called him simply Swami -- told us to detach from maya, or earthly passions, and focus on the bliss of spiritual life.

Some of the students balked at that message. Disenchantment bubbled up at Enchanted Mountain. Whereas a dozen of us were just drop-ins, the other 90 folks were finishing a grueling month of teacher training with the stringent Swami. Pre-dawn meditation had gotten old for the teacher-trainees; additionally, they had to memorize a thick manual of mantras and Hindu doctrine for their upcoming final exam.

"I didn't realize this would be so . . . spiritual," one teacher-training student from London said with a groan.

"It's yoga," a Chilean student replied. "The word means unity with the One Life."

"Funny, I thought it meant 'get into killer shape' in Sanskrit."

A revolt was now fully underway, as some students began feigning illness to skip sessions. Others, like Jesica, an attractive graduate student from Buenos Aires, found another form of protest.

When I saw her, I was innocently walking down a jungle path on a break, reflecting on the Swami's sublime utterances. The Swami had a point, after all. Passions such as love, lust, food and work tug us in every direction. Can't we simplify our material and emotional lives, finding swami-style happiness in pure being?

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