That was the word my yoga classmates and I kept repeating to one another as we entered the aptly named Sky-Mind Hall, ready to awaken our hip flexors. As amazing as our psoas muscles might be, we were more awed by the view through the walls of windows. As I looked at my extended arm in warrior II and let my gaze drift from my fingertips out to the sapphire-blue Pacific Ocean, all I could think was, “This should be illegal.”
Luckily, it wasn’t. The 30 or so of us who had gathered for a week of anatomy training at the Blue Spirit retreat center in Nosara, Costa Rica, were practically giddy, but not from endorphins, dehydration or jet lag. Even as he led us through sweaty standing poses, our instructor would turn around every now and then for a glance at the sea, looking back at us as if to say, “Can you believe this?!”
Along with surfing, yoga is a popular tourist draw in the “Rich Coast” nation, especially in the Nosara area of the Nicoya Peninsula. It’s little wonder that a practice rooted in spirituality and nonviolence has found a home in a country with a long-standing reputation for tranquillity in historically volatile Central America. Costa Rica, famous for “green” ecotourism, has no standing army and recently banned hunting as a sport, and one of its former presidents, Oscar Arias Sanchez, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987.
I’d meditated on whether to make the trip. It seemed like such an unyogic extravagance. I had a hard time envisioning rubber mats and spandex tights in this fairly developed developing country, which I’d visited as an exchange student in 1984. For two life-changing months before my senior year in high school, I’d lived with a family in Puntarenas, a city also on the Pacific coast. I’d kept in touch with my host family and a few neighborhood friends for a few years, but those contacts had fizzled out.
Then, through the power of the Google machine, I reconnected with a few of those acquaintances in early 2011. Apparently, Big Sister was watching, and she started to taunt me with ads on my Facebook and Gmail pages: “Study yoga in Costa Rica.” I tried to ignore the invitations to go do pretzel-pose yoga in paradise and focus on my work as a novice teacher, a path I’d chosen after leaving full-time journalism. I’d already spent so much more on my quasi-doctorate in yoga than I’ll probably ever make teaching it — I could hardly justify a jungle jaunt. But when I saw that the anatomy teacher whose books we’d studied during my 200-hour training in Washington would be leading a workshop at Blue Spirit, I was hooked.
Along with T-shirts and sunscreen, I packed nostalgia and curiosity. I tried to plan my free time while remaining open to whatever would unfold. As I recalled, the friendly Ticos — whose national slogan and all-purpose greeting is “pura vida,” or pure life — didn’t need people like me to show them how to chill out. It was the other way around. I was reminded of that lesson and learned others during a week that felt like a month, in a good way.
Most of the nearly 30 hours of yoga instruction took place in a room, just down the hill from the main Blue Spirit facility, nestled in the jungle along the path to the beach. In the El Silencio room, with howler monkeys serenading us from the tops of the spiny cedar trees, Ray Long, a Florida-based orthopedic surgeon, taught us how muscles, joints and bones work in various poses.
When not in class, the participants — from several states and countries including Mexico, Canada and Israel — could explore the lush surroundings, swim in the Pacific and walk along Playa Guiones (which is part of a turtle refuge), lounge in the saltwater infinity pool and look for iguanas in the overhanging trees, indulge in spa services or take off-campus excursions.
The genial and bilingual Costa Rican staff was accessible and made us feel at home on the gated grounds. My non-air-conditioned room was pleasant, with a ceiling fan and screened windows, which made it easier to hear the charming 4:30 a.m. monkey wake-up roars (“They sound like tigers with laryngitis,” said a woman from California). Our group was there during the first week in December, the beginning of Costa Rica’s dry season. With low humidity and daytime temperatures in the 80s, it wasn’t hard to unspool.
It was also possible to enjoy wine, fancy coffee, cookies, smoothies and juices at the Blue Spirit cafe, where a blackboard suggested letting go of “material and mental clutter.” The $7 “green detox” juice (a liquefied salad of celery, cucumber, parsley, ginger, spinach and apple) was fantastic, as were the vegetarian meals. They included various proteins, fruits, vegetables and Costa Rican staples such as corn tortillas and gallo pinto (rice and black beans with bell pepper, onion and cilantro). Balsamic watermelon salad was a highlight, along with copious amounts of juices such as blackberry and tamarind.
This kind of diet, albeit a bit spa-ified, is a trait of the Nicoya Peninsula, as described by National Geographic researcher and fellow Dan Buettner in “The Blue Zones,” in which he identifies regions known for happy and long-lived people. According to the book, a 60-year-old Costa Rican man is about twice as likely as an American man to reach 90. Nicoyans also share such lifestyle traits as a focus on family life and social networks, and having a plan de vida: a purpose in life based on meaningful work and serving others.
Blue Spirit’s founder, Stephan Rechtschaffen, who also co-founded the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y., said that he’d fallen in love with Costa Rica two decades ago. The radiant happiness is “one of those things you feel in the people,” he said on our first morning at Blue Spirit, during the orientation session in the Sky-Mind Hall, the treehouse-style room where we had our afternoon classes. At Blue Spirit, he aims to reflect some of the country’s hallmarks — a thriving democracy, a dedication to ecological sustainability and a commitment to minimizing the “footprints” of tourism and development.
Although it was tempting not to leave Blue Spirit, it was impossible to resist the treasures within reach. Our group had arrived on Saturday and had Sunday free, so that afternoon I took a nearly three-hour horseback ride along the beach, checking off a bucket-list item. The owner of the nearby farm and stables who guided us, Jaero Mora, kindly indulged my kindergarten-level Spanish. He asked about the retreat and my previous experience in Costa Rica, and he shared details about his life and the area while waving to neighbors lounging in hammocks and pointing out his parents’ house.
Another group staying at Blue Spirit, a fun-loving bunch of Texans, raved about the canopy tours — which, I found out, meant “ziplining,” which, I found out, meant traveling in a harness along cables strung hundreds of feet off the ground at Beltway velocity. I went kayaking instead.
A shuttle took the seven of us along the dusty roads outside Blue Spirit to the offices of Experience Nosara, an adventure company that offers stand-up paddling and hiking tours in addition to kayaking. Our guide, Felipe Lopez, practically made this excursion worth the entire trip to Costa Rica. As we rode in the van to the boathouse, he chatted amiably with us (in fluent English) about his family and his work.
After Felipe gave us a quick overview of the local geography and the rivers that we were going to cruise, the Nosara and the Montana, we spent more than two hours wafting along the calm waters, which are generally impassable during the rainy months of September and October. An expert birder, Felipe pointed out various kinds of herons and egrets. During a shore break for water and watermelon, he pulled out a book to show us drawings of some of the species we’d seen in the area, which is famous for its biodiversity. We finished up just in time to watch a spectacular sunset over the ocean, where the rivers converge.
Despite the laid-back vibe of Nosara, the area is not immune to the downsides of tourism. Nosara’s increasing popularity is bringing more traffic along the dirt roads and, by extension, health problems for residents. During an afternoon trip into nearby Guiones, home to surfing schools, cafes, shops and public yoga studios, I couldn’t help choking on the dust kicked up by passing cars and scooters — many of whose drivers wore bandanas over their noses and mouths — as I walked along the gravel road to the beach. The local debate about whether to pave the roads has been brewing for some time, but paving is probably inevitable, Rechtschaffen and others said.
Sarah Lynn, a retreat attendee and owner of Journey Yoga in Arlington, also worries about the effects of tourism. Lynn, who was on her seventh yoga trip to the country since 2004, has studied extensively at the Nosara Yoga Institute. Yoga is a natural fit for the country, she said, but upon each return, “my heart sinks a little. I feel like the pura vida lifestyle is beginning to fade. With more and more eating and shopping and WiFi at every locale, Nosara is quickly becoming about the travelers, not yoga or Costa Rica.”
But, Rechtschaffen said, mindful care of Costa Rica’s resources and people is key to preserving the country’s natural beauty and enabling visitors to continue to enjoy it without spoiling it.
Mindful? Maybe this traveler got too much of the blue zone’s good things. After juggling English, Spanish, Sanskrit and Latin for a week, I could barely fill out a customs form at the Miami airport. But I’d made several new BFFs and learned more about yoga and Costa Rica. The retreat wasn’t cheap, but it was priceless. As I learned at 16, the best souvenirs can’t be packed in a suitcase or preserved in a scrapbook.
It isn’t necessary to go to a place as phenomenal as Costa Rica to learn that — twice in one lifetime, if you’re lucky — but it doesn’t hurt.
Waugh is a yoga teacher and freelance writer and editor living in Apex, N.C.