The Best Gift I Gave Myself: Brazilian Boot Camp
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The Best Gift I Gave Myself: Brazilian Boot Camp

Daily yoga. No coffee. Five-hour hikes. After one week at a Brazilian boot camp, our city girl discovered a strong, calm side of herself that she's tapped into back home.

Island of Intensity

This trip is definitely not my style: Rain pours down in driving sheets, and mud squishes under my feet. The narrow path I'm on is lined with branches that constantly poke at me; I grasp them for leverage while I battle to make it up the steep, slippery slope. When that doesn't work, I grab for the nearest body, which happens to be Julyana, our yoga instructor-slash-trainer who's a dead ringer for Gisele (yes, supermodel Gisele; this is, after all, Brazil). "We don't have to go back this way to get to camp, do we?" I gasp. "Of course," she says, as she guides me to flat ground -- flat for about five feet, until we reach the next hill on the way to our destination -- a waterfall. More water? Not exactly what I need right now. What was I thinking when I signed up for this?

My beauty secret on the trip? Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen -- at least 50 SPF.

I chose to go to The Island Experience (I.E.), an adventure spa on Ilha Grande, an island about two hours south of Rio de Janeiro, for a couple of reasons. The program, consisting of a low-calorie diet (with no sugar, coffee, or alcohol) plus two hours of yoga and roughly five hours of hiking and kayaking a day, could kick-start anyone's healthy lifestyle. I live pretty healthfully as is, watching what I eat and working out four or five days a week, but I was itching to get out of the gym and challenge my body in new ways. I think it was the tagline on the Web site -- "You can change your outlook in one week" -- that sold me on the trip. I'll admit that I'm a pretty wound-up type-A New Yorker. Could one week of boot camp give me the perspective I needed? Could I even handle a day without coffee? I wanted to know. That's how I found myself in a minivan last April with 10 others (including Sharon, a casting agent; Vicki, a lingerie designer; and Mark, a marketing exec), all ready to give up their daily Starbucks for an attitude adjustment.

After a two-hour drive we boarded a boat and sailed for 30 minutes to a cove that can only be described as magical. Impossibly tall palms swayed in the breeze along mountains. An adorable, rustic lodge was built into the side of a steep jungle hillside. It looked like the set of Lost. As we got off the boat we were greeted by the team behind I.E. -- Martin, program director; Adriana, nutritionist; and Daniel, Bob, Fernando, and Gabi, all trainers along with Julyana.

Day 1: Insects, Small Portions

My room is minimalist-chic. I immediately gravitate to the deck and sink into the denim hammock to marvel at the peaceful quiet, which lasts for about a minute. All of a sudden there is a clamoring on my roof and eerie screeches that sound like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park. Fruit bats, I'm later told, but apparently they're herbivores, so no need to freak out. At dinner, I hear tales of flying beetles (Sharon made Martin clobber the one in her room) and massive ants. Fortunately, the bug convo stops when we're served an amazingly tasty -- though amazingly tiny -- meal of vegetable miso soup and tofu black-bean stew.

Day 2: Breaking Boundaries -- and Hopefully Not My Foot
tree-covered mountains
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The highest peak.

A loud knock on my door wakes me at 6 a.m., and I head to the 6:30 yoga class. Afterward, we move on to breakfast, a thankfully abundant supply of yummy oatmeal and fresh fruit -- as much as I want! -- plus green tea. After a kayaking lesson we set out on that first hike to the falls. My doctor had given me the go-ahead to come on the trip with a healing stress fracture in my left foot, but now I wasn't sure I'd make it back in one piece. I did, but that night in the lodge, I tell Martin I must be more realistic and skip the more strenuous stuff. "But you did it, and your foot feels fine. If I had told you not to go, you'd never have known how strong you are," he says. He has a point.

Day 3: So Sore I Can Barely Walk

For someone who spends seven or so hours in the gym a week, my muscles are so wound up I can barely sit, forget squatting to use the restroom! Turns out my cardio kickboxing and sculpting classes have done little to prepare some of my muscles for climbing mountains. So I'm overjoyed when I return from activities to find a masseuse waiting to whisk me into a treatment room (okay, so this is tough, but not without its perks). Sandra, my masseuse, rubs a special herbal potion onto my foot and chants in Portuguese. Uh-oh. I tell her to be careful because of my injury, but she doesn't understand me and keeps chanting. I relax, and soon I feel more at ease than I have in months, maybe years. An indulgence after some honest hard work is definitely a habit I'm going to take home.

Day 4: Om, My!

After a long day of hiking with Fernando, a Sao Paolo native who claims he has a sixth sense and "lived on light" for three months, even the serious cynics amongst us are psyched to hear that he'll be leading our evening relaxation class. We lie on our mats, eyes closed, listening to him as he takes us on a "visual journey." My fingertips get numb, and my toes too. I feel like I'm dreaming, but I haven't fallen asleep. I literally fall into a trance! I realize later that I experienced true meditation. For once I actually let myself get into the experience (I usually roll my eyes when it's time to chant om during yoga class), and I'm amazed by how rewarding it was.

Day 5: Bridging the Gap

The next morning marks another first. I've been practicing yoga for four years now, but there are some poses -- inversions, full backbends -- that make me feel way too out of control. After Sun Salutations and Warrior Poses, we ended with Back Bends. Instead of staying in Bridge Pose (where you keep your shoulders and feet planted on the floor as you lift your butt), I place my hands palm down on the floor by each shoulder and lift up into Wheel Pose. In my usual New York City yoga class, I would have stayed safely in Bridge Pose; I'm too much of a perfectionist to face the possibility of failure. Right then I vow to do something every day that scares me. If I can push myself into a Wheel Pose, who knows what else I can do?

Day 6: The Princess of Tides
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Who knew kayaking works
not only your arms but also
your abs, chest, and back?

On my last day, we jump into our kayaks and set out around the island, paddling for an hour and a half, stopping for a snack of trail mix, then head back in the water for another hour. After swimming in a deserted cove and eating lunch (about a pint of grain salad with two tiny hard-boiled quail eggs and a cracker), we head home. Julyana and I paddle side by side, engaging in the girl talk I rarely have time to share with my best friends. She tells me about the new guy in her life, and I relay my latest adventure in dating -- a romance with a man five years younger and how I don't think it could ever work because of the age difference. "Why not? You're capable of anything," she says. Just then we round a corner and find ourselves in open water, paddling against a super-strong current. As we drift apart, I realize I have to get across this passage on my own. For a second, I'm sure I'll drown. But then I dig the paddle into the choppy whitecaps and repeat on the other side. It requires all my strength, but I just keep on, slowly and steadily. It takes almost an hour to get across the three-mile divide, but I do it, arms aching, exhausted, yet thoroughly elated. I can't help but apply the experience to any rough patch in life -- I made it because I handled a difficult situation with patience and grace.

Back in NYC: All-New Outlook

After a week at The Island Experience, complaining day in and day out that there was too much physical activity and too little time for me to focus on "changing my outlook," I leave Ilha Grande with an attitude shift I didn't see coming. When I get back to New York, I've lost seven pounds and my foot is, miraculously, fine. Better still, I feel like I can tackle anything and set new personal standards, including refusing lousy dates and raising the bar on my workouts. I've even taken up Bikram yoga, a 90-minute class in a 105-degree-or-more room (my strenuous urban version of climbing a mountain). So maybe it wasn't exactly as tough as army boot camp, but a week without coffee, sugar, or alcohol -- and stepping outside my comfort zone -- was basic training for me, and these days I'm stronger, calmer, and more confident than I've ever been.

A week at The Island Experience costs $1,900 for food, lodging, and activities. For more information, go to

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, December 2006.