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The Best Gift I Gave Myself: Brazilian Boot Camp

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little boy behind a tree
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Beautiful place, beautiful people!

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.


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