NOSARA, Guanacaste — I’ve never given much thought to breathing, but that’s all Yali talked about as she started her 8:30 a.m. class at the Bodhi Tree Yoga Resort, where I had permission to take photographs.
“Fill yourself from bottom to top, exhale from top to bottom,” she said in a mild New Zealand accent. “Notice how as you exhale and empty, you create more space for the inhale. So we start the dance of the ebb and flow of breath here, simply observing and watching the breath as it enters you and as it leaves you.…
“The subtle shifts in your body as you inhale create space, you feel maybe your spine lengthens and the crown of your head reaches further away from your toes. And as you exhale, you feel a sinking in and coming back to your center, the establishment of groundness and steadiness.”
Wow, I thought, all of that instruction and so far all they’re doing is breathing!
I came to Nosara knowing as much about yoga as I do about popular exercises on other planets. I come from Arkansas, where coon hunting is probably more popular than yoga.
What I found in Nosara was a community extraordinarily dedicated to yoga, to meditation, to wholesomeness, to vegetarianism, to peace and love. Nosara has long been recognized as the yoga capital of Costa Rica, if not Central America, and yoga is a central part of the lives of a great many people here.
So what’s up with yoga, and why in Nosara? I hit the road to find out.
Costa Rica’s Greatest Places
In this series, Tico Times Travel takes an in-depth look at some of Costa Rica’s greatest destinations, with multiple articles exploring their appeal. In February and March, we’ll be looking at all the attractions of Nosara — yoga, surfing, hotels, restaurants, real estate and more.
Qué es yoga?
To try to answer this question I visited the Bodhi Tree, the Blue Spirit and the Harmony, the three largest yoga resorts here, all of which offer multiple classes per day in lovely, high-end settings. I also visited a handful of smaller studios, interviewing instructors and photographing classes. (And yes, I finally took a class myself.)
I started at the Bodhi Tree, which I would call the epicenter of the yoga scene in Nosara. It’s a visually stunning, temple-like hotel full of Buddhas, and it offers six or seven yoga classes a day, seven days a week.
The Bodhi Tree recently acquired the famous Nosara Yoga Institute, which gave birth to the yoga boom in this town. (The complicated reasons for this acquisition are briefly explored here.)
“This is really the pulsing heart of yoga here,” said Yali McGregor, who took her first training here in 2005.
The influence of the Nosara Yoga Institute spawned many imitators. Today it would be unthinkable to open a new hotel in Nosara without offering yoga classes, and preferably lots of them, ideally in gleaming golden brown shalas.
I sat in the breezy dining room of the Bodhi Tree with Melanie Martínez, 25, who teaches yoga and coordinates retreats there, and I asked her a very Arkansas question:
“What is yoga?”
“One of the best definitions I’ve found is that yoga is the elimination of mental fluctuations,” she said in carefully enunciated Spanish. She said “yoga” came from the word for “yoke.”
Yoga is a Sanskrit word from the root yuj, which means to yoke, join or bind, so it essentially means “union.”
“Yoga is control,” Melanie said. “Yoga is a union of breathing, the mind and the physical body. … Yoga is presence. It’s a lifestyle, a way of living, that allows you to get close to your true nature.”
Melanie said this true nature would be full of joy and understanding. It sounded good to me.
“So all the different techniques we have in yoga, like breathing techniques, posture techniques, meditation techniques, have as an objective to get close to that being that is totally balanced, in equilibrium, present, happy,” she said.
Melanie said yoga has “five principal paths, which they call five rivers, that spill into one ocean.” Some of these paths are about karma, meditation, introspection and knowledge, but one is about movement. It’s by far the most popular in the Western world, and Nosara is no exception.
“The last path is Hatha yoga, the poses,” she said. “Hatha yoga arose because the wise men said sometimes it’s hard to reach that mental control that all yoga seeks only with the mind. They say no, it starts with the physical body, it calms your body, and later you have access to your mind.”
The Blue Spirit
I paid a visit to Blue Spirit, a fabulous retreat center that regularly fills its 60-plus rooms with groups learning about yoga, meditation, wellness and more.
Located south of Guiones and north of Garza, the Blue Spirit has a huge building in the middle where meals are served, guests are checked in and yoga takes place on the top floor, the Sky Mind Room, which has an incomparable view of a stunning beach.
New Yorker Stephan Rechtschaffen, 68, opened the Blue Spirit in 2009, 32 years after he opened the world-famous Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y.
“The countries that are always voted as the happiest country in the world are either Bhutan or Costa Rica,” he said. “It’s not perfect, we know there are issues, but I really think the quality of life here is just much better.”
Stephan talked about the tension that you feel as you fly to New York and go through customs, as you re-enter a more highly regulated world. “In Costa Rica you don’t feel that. You feel more pura vida, more at ease with people. I find working here with people, they’re usually in a good mood.”
Blue Spirit looks like a high-end hotel with Buddhas, but Stephan said it doesn’t function like a hotel, where you can call up and reserve two nights. You have to be part of a group, and most of the groups stay a week, Saturday to Saturday.
All of the Blue Spirit’s bookings are handled by groups that organize retreats, primarily in the U.S., primarily yoga retreats, but there are also groups dedicated to learning how to write or how to dance; there are talks by best-selling authors, and by people who may be considered gurus in their fields.
“It’s a retreat center where people come, I think, for doing an inner process — yoga, meditation, health, and we basically support groups that bring their clients,” he said. “We want to provide them with good food, a beautiful environment, everything really green. We’re not like a hotel in that way where people are coming in at night to party; it’s not like ‘I’m on vacation, I’m going to be drinking.’ We don’t let people smoke on the property.”
Nor is chicken or beef ever served here, though three times a week there is fish to complement the vegetarian buffet. There is beer and wine in the café, but you might want to wait until dinner. “When I’ve seen people who start in the morning,” Stephan said, “I tell them, ‘You’re in the wrong place.’”
I asked Stephan what yoga has to do with vegetarianism, and he said, “We worry about climate change, and 40 percent of climate change is related to killing animals. All the animals are releasing methane, trees are cut down so we can raise more cows, and we waste a lot of water to grow the food for the cows.” He said he thinks of this as an environmental but also a spiritual issue. “I think it’s a mistake.”
He added: “I haven’t eaten meat in 50 years.”
There’s a joke that the Dalai Lama walked into a pizzeria and said, “Make me one with everything.” When a reporter in real life told this joke to the Dalai Lama, he didn’t get it.
The best-known hotel in town is the Harmony, and its yoga program comes highly recommended by anyone you ask.
I was welcomed by Monica Ramos Tapia, creative director of the Harmony Healing Centre, which is both a yoga center and a spa, with massage therapists and aestheticians.
“We have a really sweet program that’s based in diversity, meaning we have all different styles of yoga,” she said. The Healing Centre has more than 20 instructors and offers up to seven classes a day.
“We’re a society that’s always sitting hunched over like this, looking at a computer or a phone,” she said. “It’s a C curve, we’re becoming like a C. But the idea with yoga is to return the body to its natural state. The spine has its natural curves, and in our yoga classes we’re trying to find that flexibility in our movement and our spine.”
Touring the facilities, my girlfriend and I raised our eyebrows to see a class full of people putting their hands on the mat and balancing their bodies in the air with their knees on their elbows.
Guiselle, who has taken one yoga class in her life, is convinced that it hurts.
“Eso duele,” she whispered to me once (“That hurts”) as we watched people on their backs at the Nalu Studio stretch their legs over their heads with their knees straight. I whispered back that it doesn’t hurt if you do it all the time.
All Harmony yoga classes are open to the public at costs from $15 to $20 ($8 for nationals and residents), and $30 to $50 for workshops, but its yoga calendar has multiple classes marked with an asterisk, meaning the class is by donation.
“It’s a $10 suggested donation, but nobody will be turned away for whatever feels right within their range,” Monica said. That said, everyone is encouraged to give something, even if it’s a dollar, because most of this money is donated to local causes.
“The Healing Centre offers the space, the teacher offers their passion, and then any donations that come in, the teacher keeps whatever they feel is fair for their teaching,” she said. “And then they donate a portion — but usually it ends up being all of it — to a local community project.”
The Harmony donates all of its portion to local causes including pet care, reforestation, turtles, monkeys and the recycling program. I looked at the many asterisks on the calendar and realized that this is a significant amount of revenue that the owners could be stuffing into their pockets instead. Also, the weekly “Yoga en Español” class is totally free.
Monica also mentioned the yoga Nidra class, where you lie flat on your back for an hour of guided meditation.
“I say that this is actually the advanced yoga. A lot of people would say being able to stand on your hands and crazy pretzel poses would be advanced. … What tends to happen in my experience is almost there’s no separation, there’s no separation of my physical body with what I’m feeling all around. … You start to feel like you’re connected with nature, the cosmos.”
A reporter does yoga
To complete my crash course in yoga I finally took a class myself — the hourlong “Gentle Flow” at the Bodhi Tree with Zac, who has a voice so soothing it could calm a charging elephant.
The class consisted of lying on the back breathing, lying on the side breathing, and variations on this theme, including lying even flatter and breathing even more consciously.
I have to admit that at times I was afraid I would start laughing. What if I fell asleep and started snoring? What if I suddenly, loudly, noxiously passed gas?
A smile broke onto my lips, but I quickly suppressed it. Zac was making the rounds, and we were supposed to be lying supine with our eyes closed in the so-called “corpse pose,” Savanasa.
Without a word Zac bent over, took both of my hands in his and turned the palms up. I had been lying with my arms at my side, palms down, and he turned them over. Damn, I thought, I can’t even lie on my back right.
I am prone to cramps, and this was my next fear, that my calves would massively cramp up and I would interrupt the stillness by shouting, “Ow, ow, ow, ow!” But the key was to relax, and muscles that are relaxed do not cramp. And though I felt the beginnings of some little toe cramps, fortunately they didn’t spread.
“Gentle” turned out to be the perfect description of this class. The only poses that were remotely challenging were lying on our stomachs and raising our arms and legs like Superman, or lying on our backs and then raising our bodies onto the feet and shoulders to form a bridge, stomach up.
But mostly this felt like lazing around, only with a guide.
The session ended with Zac sitting cross-legged in front of us. I didn’t get the exact quote, but he said something very similar to this:
“Put a prayer on the lotus of your heart. Now lift it to all dimensions. Namaste.”
Coming soon: The surfing scene in Nosara.
Contact Karl Kahler at firstname.lastname@example.org