Healing Retreats & Spas, Sept/Oct 1999
Prana in Paradise, Costa Rica
Text by: Deborah Davis

The last time I was in Costa Rica was twenty-five years ago. I had been living there for nearly a year, doing yoga, playing flute in a Salsa band, and studying Spanish – an adventurous time that came to a rather abrupt halt one day when my Land Rover slid off a muddy mountain road, catapulting into the jungle below. I survived, unlike the Land Rover, but felt that perhaps this was a message to consider a future outside of Central America. Now I was returning to Costa Rica for the first time since then to attend a ten-day yoga retreat with Inward Bound Adventures. I was looking forward to a more rejuvenating visit this time around.

The adventure began when our group of twenty-one was waiting on the runway in San Jose to board a small prop lane for the Osa Peninsula, near Panama, a forty-five minute flight south. I knew we would bond quickly when no one got upset that our luggage had to go by taxi twelve hours overland since it was too heavy for the plane. Would we ever see our yoga mats or bikinis again? Ah yes, Central America – this was the first yogic lesson in flexibility. It became immediately evident that this was not a luxury spa package when we were met at the Osa airstrip (which had just been paved for the first time) by open-bed trucks with benches in the back and windblown tarps for roofs. They drove us through Puerto Jiménez (all two blocks of it), past cow fields with views of the gulf, and finally into the lush rain forest. Osa is situated at the very tip of Costa Rica, surrounded by Golfo Dulce and the Pacific, eight degrees north of the equator.

The wilderness lodge, Bosque del Cabo, is nestled on cliffs high above the Pacific Ocean. Owned by Americans, Phil Spier runs the lodge jointly with his girlfriend Kim, and they have created a paradise, beautifully landscaped, with cabins tucked discreetly among fruit and palm trees. My cabin was complete with a hammock overlooking the Pacific, mosquito netting canopying the beds, and indoor plumbing. There was no electricity but we had sun-warmed outside showers. Some of the pricier cabins were resplendent with tiled baths, sitting rooms, and porches that were quite romantic.

The intention of the Inward Bound’s director, Jane Fryer, is to provide “an immersion in nature and yoga in an optimum blooming environment” and to let us experience the natural rhythms of our circadian cycles: early to bed and up with the sun. We really had no choice because the howler monkeys began screaming and hollering reveille at dawn – unnerving at first, since they sounded like someone being torture. I race out every morning to try to photograph the macaws as they flew over the cabin, but I never captured their brilliant red-orange plumage alight in the morning sun.

Trading bird watching for exercise, we gathered for yoga and meditation from 7:00-9:00 a.m. Jane and her partner Jennifer, a psychologist/fitness instructor from Boston, usually started us in savasana (the corpse pose). This was a wonderful way to settle into my body and attune to nature with the birds and monkeys. Through visualization we were guided into heightened awareness of out bodies, including breathing into our organs and cells and opening the third eye. It was, I felt, an honoring of our body that most of us don’t take time to do.

The dull resonance of the jungle insect drone against the crushing waves of the Pacific created a powerful atmosphere in which to meditate. The sounds drew my attention so it was easy to let go of any incessant thoughts. No cell phones, computers, or traffic in the background.

As we sat in silence Jane helped direct our attention: “We can never stop thinking, but we can detach ourselves from thoughts and our analysis of them. See them as separate strings and let go of the analysis. Detach from your emotions, planning, and worries and be present now. You’ll never stop the thoughts so meditation is a way of learning to deal with them.” Jane’s trick is to pretend her thoughts are in a foreign language she can’t understand or to read them like subtitles of a movie. The important lesson is learning one’s own way to detach and access the inner stillness – the key to peace.

After this refreshing morning ritual, we strolled to breakfast, which began with succulent fresh papaya and pineapple along with eggs, rice and beans (always!), and banana pancakes or French toast. Each day’s activities were different; it was like being at camp for adults. There were jungle walks, an excursion across the bay to an orchid farm, sunset kayking, tarot readings and massage in the forest, and our own exploration of the gulf and Pacific ocean.

“Are you a certified guide?” In the beginning I was restless and wanted to explore. I’m usually in Central America to study local medicinal plants or follow shamans through the jungle, so when Olivier, the local naturalist-waiter-bartender-guide (with a doctore in ornithology) suggested a jungle walk one day, I was raring to go. Olivier had done extensive field research in French Guyana so he knew the intricate details of the rain forest and could spot birds camouflaged in the rich foliage and expound on the mating habits of the plethora of creatures.

The trail was magical. Huge fig trees laden with bromeliads and other epiphytes had roots dangling down thirty feet to the forest floor like Tarzan’s vines. Passion flowers, which I use in my herbal sleeping teas, bloommed brilliant red against the deep jungle greens. Monkeys leaped from branch to branch, often with babies clinging to their backs. Some of them looked like old men just hanging around shooting the breeze on a hot summer’s day.

At dusk, Olivier’s usual languid attitude became serous. As the forest was suddenly darkening he turned in warning. “Keep in single file because the snakes become active at night,” he said. “I won’t be able to see them very well in this diminishing light.” We all got quiet. One woman timidly asked, “Are you a certified guide? Do you have any experience being along out in the jungle?” Not the time to ask him! The adrenaline we had quelled in the morning yoga was pumping through all of us, especially when he announced in his scientific manner that bushmaster snakes don’t strike once, but numerous times. Just what we needed to hear!

Crazy Gringos
Having saturated my craving for adventure on that jungle excursion, I was happy to stay at the lodge and partake, with more repose, in most of the sessions offered. Morning yoga began each day while the afternoon session consisted of Pilates and restorative yoga from 4:00-6:00 pm. N.I.A., a whole-body aerobic workout combining Eastern and Western traditions, was offered only a few times during the week, instead of daily, since the heat made it difficult to enjoy. Developed ten years ago by Debbie and Carlos Rosas, N.I.A. (neuromuscular integrative action technique) combines yoga and martial arts movements, like kicking and punching, with flowing, dance-like movements. Each session is choreographed to world beat and trance music which encourages uninhibited expression and free-form movements, often with group interaction. I found N.I.A. to be primal and deeply moving as well as incredible workout. At first I was thinking “only crazy gringos would be jumping around doing aerobics in this heat,” but in the end it was exhilarating and fun.

After the N.I.A. workout, I was glad to have the afternoon off to do my own restorative yoga in a hammock, gazing out over the sea. In the afternoons, most of us took box lunches (the main complaint I had about the trip – how many peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches can one eat in a week? – not exactly yogi spa diet) and dispersed.

I ventured down to the shore along a magical jungle trail, twenty minute walk to the ocean. While the surf and riptide made for treacherous swimming there were tide pools filled with warm sea water, forming private Jacuzzis. I enjoyed floating in the cooler lava rock pools bobbing up and down with the swell. Waterfalls and caves dotted the long expanse of beach, which was deserted expect for us yogis. This was my favorite place to do qi gong because the “qi” (or “prana” – life force energy) was so pure and powerful, saturating my whole being.

A Deep Inner Knowing
It was often difficult to get motivated for the Pilates in the afternoons, as many of us wanted time to explore, journal, or just enjoy the solitude, but I found Jennifer’s approach to this mat work series to be profound. Her emphasis on pulling the shoulders down and back while expanding the chest had the most noticeable effect on my posture, especially since I was nursing an injured shoulder. Although Pilates was the most grueling of the activities, I experience an elongation in the spine down through my sacrum, and others expressed feeling stronger and more agile as the week progressed.

After the intense focus of Pilates, restorative yoga was a welcome respite. With pillows, blankets, and eye pillows (a gift to all of us from Jane), we propped our bodies into back bends and forward bends, massaging our organs with deep breathing in nurturing, often womblike positions. “It’s not the asana but the prana” became our mantra as I drifted off into deep relaxation as the sun set through the trees.

Evening entertainment focuses around lantern-lit dinners in the open air “palapa” (thatched hut). A few nights we were serenaded by three aspiring guitarists singing Dylan and Joplin recreations. Mostly it was a time to share our day’s adventures, share tarot readings, or sway in the hammocks.

I enjoyed going to sleep earlier and awakening before dawn to honor the ritual of sunrise. The pristine yellow green cast of early sunlight that adorns the palms brings you back to the basics - to the pulse of the life aligned with nature’s rhythms. I awoke refreshed, each successive day unpeeling another layer of judgments, routines, plans and worries – unfurling from inside out. This seemed to be the message for me: remain centered within a deep inner knowing and, from this perspective, meet the world. Jennifer’s words still echo as I exercise: “Work in accordance with your own body. Open to breath. Open the third eye, the wisdom eye, and look from within out.”

As Bradley, the trip’s healer-chiropractor so eloquently remarked as he was adjusting my aching body, “I’m here to remove the husk. We are always so busy with our lives, responsibilities, and work that we lose ourselves. Our true essence becomes clouded. Here you remove a layer at a time like an onion to reveal your soul and true essence.”

This retreat had indeed unraveled some layers leaving me stronger in my body and spirit. Twenty-five years had passed since I had followed a daily routine of yoga, and I believe this is what kept me supple and alive, along with the blessings of a guardian angel, when I rolled over the jungle cliff. It was a powerful healing to return to Costa Rica, the most appropriate place to resurrect my yoga practice and reawaken my gratitude for life and well-being.

The parking thoughts written on the wall of the hacienda our lat night still remain etched in my memory. “The past is history. The future a mystery. The present is a gift. This is way it is called the Present. Enjoy the gift.” Immersing in this yoga retreat was certainly a gift.