The sun is only just appearing above endless Pacific on the other side of the reef; but here, on this warm and clear lagoon, I’m cocooned within my own tiny micro-world. On each side of where I’m paddling, uninhabited motu (tiny islets) lie in the still water, their tiny bays of white sandy beach fringed by row after row of coconut trees. It is about as idyllic a scene as you could imagine, and so when Charlotte Piho asks me to close my eyes, I refuse. Instead, with eyes wide open, I begin my quest for enlightenment, Cook Islands-style.
Once a business executive working in the fickle world of high fashion, Piho now deals exclusively in swimwear. A Cook Islander by birth, she gave her old life away to run stand-up paddleboard (SUP) yoga retreats in her childhood island home.
I too grew up in the Cook Islands, and in the decades since, I’ve done everything in the lagoons and sea here. I’ve surfed, sailed, kayaked and swam. I’ve fished, dived and snorkelled. But I never expected to float on a lagoon as I perform yoga across a surface that moves as I do, and topples when I overbalance.
Now I’ve got a week to do it on a SUP yoga retreat. We begin the retreat in the sheltered waters of Muri Lagoon, on Rarotonga’s east coast. Later in the week, we’ll fly 45 minutes across the Pacific to Aitutaki, whose gigantic lagoon is considered one of the world’s finest.
Piho’s retreats aren’t just about yoga. Along with her Polynesian father Tuhe, she introduces guests to every aspect of Polynesian life. Tuhe climbs trees to bring us nui (coconut water) after each yoga session. When he’s not picking nuts, he’s gathering red pawpaws and slicing them up for us to eat.
Charlotte’s father Tuhe
Even if you consider yourself a yogi already, you may be in for a shock trying it on a SUP. On our first morning we paddle to the shallow waters beside one of Muri Lagoon’s tiny islets and secure ourselves close together using bags weighed down by sand on the end of our leg ropes.
We shift into position. The slow warm-up stretches are relatively simple, but it’s at the first downward dog pose that I understand how precarious my position is here. And when Piho asks us to raise our right legs high in the air behind us, I tumble into the lagoon beside me.
“Don’t worry about it,” Piho says. “Last time we had a total beginner and he was doing headstands on the board by the end of the week.” But I’m not fazed. After all, from where I’m treading water, I can look back on Rarotonga’s beautiful green, mountainous hinterland. By the end of the first hour-long session I’m beginning to feel more stable, though I can already feel the extra strain on my core.
While the retreat begins and ends in Rarotonga, the highlight is the three days we’ll spend striking yoga poses on Aitutaki’s gigantic lagoon. Only Bora Bora’s world-famous triangular lagoon can possibly top it for sheer star power, but its lagoon is straddled by hundreds of overwater bungalows, whereas Aitutaki’s is almost entirely devoid of development.
We reach the outer reaches of the lagoon by boat, arriving to a motu called One Foot Island, then paddle five minutes to a sand spit dubbed Heavenly. Here we have the entire lagoon to ourselves, bar the occasional local fisherman who comes in for a closer look. If there’s a prettier yoga studio on Earth I’d sure like to see it. The sun shines off the white sand of the spit and the water runs without a single ripple to the horizon; above us tiny white tropicbirds circle in a sky matched for blue by the lagoon below.
Yoga is the focus of the retreat but there’s a lot more going on. One day we paddle the entire 18 kilometres from One Foot Island to Aitutaki, other days we hike across Rarotonga’s hinterland to a waterfall on the other side, or enjoy dinners and sunset drinks at bars right on the waterfront.
Piho offers accommodation with her retreats within her family home. Luxury travellers can opt to stay instead in Rarotonga’s best high-end hotels and resorts. I stay at Nautilus Resort. My villa is just five metres from Muri Lagoon, so I never have far to go to join the group (which is particularly handy at sunrise). I also stay in a luxury safari tent close to Piho’s family home at Ikurangi Eco Retreat, Rarotonga’s best new accommodation option. It faces the island’s inland mountains and has a private yoga tent for sessions overlooking a pawpaw patch if you want to try yoga back on land to feel more grounded.