A short time after my mother died suddenly last August, I looked across the family horizon and saw what looked like a Mount St. Helens of tribulation roiling my way: Thanksgiving, followed by Christmas, followed by New Year's, followed by what would have been my parents' 60th anniversary. I quickly figured that if I did not have some small reward waiting for me come springtime, I might be a candidate for the loony bin, or, at least, heavy meds. Coincidentally, my former yoga teacher, now relocated to the Pacific Northwest, sent me an e-mail that she would be leading a small workshop at a spa just outside San Miguel de Allende, a small town four hours from Mexico City. I went to the Web site and stared at the boundless desert landscape, the gourmet food ("Mexican and world recipes"), and the adobe casita with its "oversized spa shower with therapeutic river stones." The spa offered something called acu-facial rejuvenation, as well as massages that promised to leave me "feeling clear-minded and physically balanced." I must have gone to that site half a dozen times before I put the deposit on my supremely overtaxed American Express card; that the charge went through I took as a sign.
Let me say here that it did not occur to me to invite my husband along, first because I didn't think it was the kind of place he would enjoy. John likes cities, particularly tromping around them for hours on end. He doesn't like going to the beach because he doesn't like sitting around in the sun doing nothing. He doesn't like bed and breakfasts because he doesn't like to make conversation with strangers before he's had coffee. And the idea of going to a spa, even one that offers yoga, which he has been practicing for years, seemed pretty girly. Second, I thought it might benefit me to be alone for a bit, since in 20 years I hadn't had much of that so-called "me time." (I am a failure at it, enjoying a solitary hotel room on a business trip for one night, anxious to get home the next.) But when I mentioned idly that I was thinking of going to a yoga retreat on the Mexican high desert, he jumped at the chance. What I had failed to realize was that, in our new roles as empty nesters, there was no reason for John to sit at home over a long weekend while I cleared my mind. After all, there was only an aging golden retriever at home to take care of.
I can't remember the last spur-of-the moment trip John and I took together; all I know is that it had to have taken place before 1991, the year our son Sam was born. Anyone who has actually raised children knows that spontaneity and childrearing are contradictory. First, the accoutrements of babyhood work against it—the stroller, the car seat, the portable crib, etc.—and then come all the soccer games and school plays inevitably scheduled on Friday nights or Saturday mornings, and then, finally, the teenaged friends who maniacally consume all the food, pills, and alcohol in your house if you aren't around to supervise. The idea that my husband and I could now just pick up and go and only make one phone call to a dog sitter seemed miraculous.
Five hours after leaving home, we found ourselves taking a rutted road up a dusty mountainside to the aforementioned "wellness spa." Like so many women who have spent nearly two decades multitasking, I found my ability to clear my mind and open my senses was limited. My anxieties swirled in two general directions, both common to parents who suddenly find themselves traveling alone together. The first involved Sam: If John and I died, I figured, Sam would have not one but two life insurance policies to live on and so could continue college and never have to live with the relatives we had ambivalently designated as guardians. (The only time you are a perfect parent is when you try to replace yourself with someone else.) My second worry was about my marriage: After 20 years of childrearing, most conversation had tended to center around Sam, and/or Sam logistics. ("I can't pick him up—I'm in a meeting," etc.) But now our one and only child has gone off to college and is no longer interested in sharing his every single triumph and crisis. That leaves precious little Sam fodder, and a lot of couple-conversation time to fill.
Or, maybe, some meditative silence? Sagrada was a small spa—only five casitas, one of which was located hiking distance away atop a nearby mountain. The only other guests, a Canadian couple named Julie and Jane, were slightly older than we and polite but somewhat diffident. We all took a late-afternoon hike up a steep mountainside, Jane with her aluminum walking sticks and proper hiking shoes, Julie with her camera. John trotted ahead with them, while I brought up the rear with one of the spa's aging, arthritic dogs who seemed to be having second thoughts about joining us. Every once in a while, John would circle back toward me solicitously, but I am a slower walker at best, and my reverie at that time made me even slower. The sun was going down, and I wasn't in charge of meal preparation—the maternal equivalent of a high-school sophomore's hall pass.
At dinner, our tiny group exchanged a few pleasantries—Julie and Jane were from the Vancouver area; we were from Texas; our host had once been a search-and-rescue pilot for the Canadian military; his wife, Veda (yes, Veda), was a yoga teacher and masseuse. The food was as advertised, but no one lingered after dinner. Back in our casita, John and I did not seem destined for a particularly romantic night—the water heater hadn't been adjusted for our arrival, so cold showers were our only option—and we couldn't figure out how to make the room's gas heater work as the mountain air cooled to a crisp 50 degrees. But the blankets were plentiful, the moon was full and round, and the view from our window looked like an Ansel Adams photograph. Who needed conversation? Who could complain?
The next morning we greeted Alexis at the outdoor yoga pavilion, a concrete square atop a small, flower-dotted rise with a stunning view of the valley below. Alexis is a tall, sparkly-eyed knockout in her 60s, with shimmering white hair, generous curves, and an effervescent Texas accent that is especially winning when she gives commands in Sanskrit. Alexis sports flowing silk scarves and diamonds with her yogawear and never shows up in class without makeup. This is a Texas yoga teacher if ever there was one, and over the 10 years I've been going to her classes, she has turned out to be just perfect for me.
John and I took places at either end of the room, with Julie and Jane between us. I tried not to sneak too many looks at his form—though both of us have been practicing yoga for years, our schedules and psyches have long demanded separate teachers. John is calmer by nature and less critical of himself and, unlike me, is not the least bit enthralled with being able to execute a headstand in middle age. (He wasn't a klutzy kid.) I may also be more aware of yoga's ability to conjure up emotional reactions at peculiar times: When we did partner work I found myself staring at my husband's rear end with a strap stretched over his lower back and between his legs—he was in the pose commonly known as downward-facing dog—while Alexis instructed us to pull to give our partners a full stretch. As I tightened my grip on the strap, I thought not-so-yogic-ly of those times John had used the last of the milk or when he had asked one time too many whether the dishes in the dishwasher were clean or dirty. Gently, Alexis corrected my placement.
We spent the afternoon at some natural hot springs, taking turns with lush, bikini-topped Mexican girls and their lovers, standing under a dome with a steaming waterfall pouring just beneath the ceiling, a small skylight like a spotlight from heaven in the center. It is impossible not to think back to that time when John and I would have been entwined that way, oblivious to the rest of the world; instead we lolled with our books on plastic chairs in the soft grass, fighting off a chill each time the sun went behind a cloud. Waiters brought the Mexican tourists lavish meals on gigantic trays; the afternoon sun caught in my husband's white hair.
We rejoined the group for a dinner of Mexican lasagna. The previously dyspeptic Jane perked up, and Julie was less shy. Both of them had warmed to John by then, which people usually do. Sitting around an old wooden table with the light fading, I was reminded of a few of the reasons why I had married John: Yes, he is handsome, but more than that, he is secure without being remote and contained but warm. He lets people take their time finding their way to him. Jane began describing her ortho-bionomy practice, a laying-on of hands that is supposed to encourage the body's energies to heal itself. (Finding healers at a yoga workshop is about as unusual as finding Catholics at the Vatican or Jews at the Western Wall.) "Maybe you could help John's eye," I blurted. Many years ago, John had suffered a detached retina and remains nearly blind in one eye, despite half-a-dozen surgeries. He doesn't normally ascribe to what Alexis calls "woo-woo stuff," but with four women focusing their attention on him, John went for it.
I did not attend the session the next morning, not wanting to block any of Jane's healing energy. According to John, she spent a lot of time gently manipulating his head and teaching him eye exercises. He spent much of the next few hours walking around with his good eye covered with his hand, so that he looked like a South Sea pirate who had lost his patch. "Can you see any better?" I asked. "A little," he said hopefully. This is the strange thing about long marriages: You think you know a person, and you do, but only in that moment. Then, like toddlers, they switch personalities overnight, agreeing to go to a yoga workshop where they let a 70-year-old woman "shift the energy" while you sit on the sidelines wrapped in a protective skepticism you didn't know you had. "This place is really relaxing!" John exclaimed. And that was before we spent an evening nude in the eucalyptus sauna with Julie and Jane, with whom we had become friends for life.
Before we left, Veda gave us a session in ayurvedic medicine, that ancient Indian system that suggests you can balance your life by bringing three elements contained in the body—vata (air), pitta (water), and kapha (earth)—into balance by watching what you eat and how you sleep, and by practicing meditation. We took a quiz to determine our types, with questions that included "My least favorite type of weather is a) cold weather, b) hot weather, or c) damp weather," and "Under stress, I become angry or critical" versus "I'm pretty easygoing. It takes a lot to stress me out." It turned out I was a vata. With a tendency toward the ephemeral, I needed a lot of earth and water elements to keep me grounded and flowing. I was supposed to drink a lot of water, eat a lot of fresh vegetables, consider Beano, and "use a lot of moisturizer to keep from drying up." As for John, Veda was flummoxed. "I've never seen anyone so balanced in my life," she said.
I knew that already.