The setting sun perches over the surf of Playa Hermosa, a tangerine jewel that dapples the waves and the Costa Rican sky in a soft palate of reds, pinks, and gold. A dozen of us stand in a circle in the sand, moving our bodies to music. The movement of our limbs is hypnotic, and beautiful. The reflection of light on the sand, on skin, is beautiful. Human songs intermingle with the timeless surfbeat of the waves; the harmony is beautiful. We share an awareness of where we are, why we are here, and our connection to this time and place. And suddenly I see–I feel—the fusion of pakriti, primal nature, with purusha, an inner awareness of how beauty, truth, and seeking can effect self-realization. The epiphany is joyful, knowing how this moment, ephemeral as it is, was made and what it means to me.
In October 2015 a flyer appeared in Yoga Union’s Breathe Building, announcing a retreat to Costa Rica promising daily yoga classes and cross-training, organic whole food meals, evening cocktails and wine, and ‘one damn good time after another.’ Since most of my 2015 had imploded–dissolution of a 16-year marriage, leaving my home of 10 years and rebuilding from ground zero, a career that was seeming to resemble a stalled engine – I wanted, no I NEEDED, ‘one damn good time after another.’ I was tired of suffering, or feeling like I was suffering.
But steeped in an avidya, or spiritual ignorance, of my own making, I also badly needed to refocus, re-center, and reset my intentions. This is often referred to in the Western world as ‘getting one’s shit together.’ I needed to figure out not only who I was, but who I wanted to become in the next chapter of life. The fact that the retreat coincided with my 46th birthday sealed the deal. I was going to go to Costa Rica.
In my experience — including an admittedly nascent yogic practice — there are few better ways to take and integrate key precepts embedded in the Yoga Sutras–purusha, pakriti, and avidya — than to travel. Want to address suffering (or perception of suffering) head on? Travel. Looking for peace, even transient peace? Travel, ideally somewhere beautiful. Take a shot at attaining some level of self-realization and mind mastery, even for a few moments? Then definitely travel, and make a point of traveling with and meeting people who will expand –maybe even blow–your mind through new doors of perception. Passport-necessary travel to a country with a different language, currency, customs and climate will thrust this upon you on a level that rivals even the most intense asana sequences.
Yoga Union members know and appreciate what owners Annie Adamson and Todd Vogt bring to the community through their classes, guidance, forming and nurturing a cadre of excellent instructors, and creating a studio experience and wellness center that is both welcoming and refreshingly chill. It’s why many of us choose to practice there in a city seemingly chock-a-block with yoga studios. What I hadn’t fully anticipated is how well they could bring the concept of ‘shala,’ or home/place of yoga, to a Central America surf town. Todd’s excellent blog on the trip covers the details in a manner that makes me retelling them unnecessary. But here are three additional chapters of my experience that I hope supplement his story and give future retreat-goers the same inspiration I got:
It’s the journey AND the destination. One of the things I (re)learned – though this may be obvious to others–is that the ‘simple’ act of getting to and then back from the retreat in the southern corner of the Nicoya Peninsula was actually part of the transcendent spiritual journey. The experience didn’t start when we checked in to the resort Matt Damon stayed in a week earlier, it really began when we got on planes in the States. Realistically, it even earlier than that when we set intentions—and made a payment—to go.
That could have been Todd and Annie’s intentional, semi-intentional, or completely unintentional lesson for how the dozen of us actually got to the Batik Resort. It could have been a teacher-to-student test and/or expectation coupled with the gut check that as adults and seekers, it was on us to figure out those details out without help from a Julie the Cruise Director. Hell, it could have something to do with my own innate ability to over-complicate my own life and manufacturing an epic adventure to bookend a seemingly posh Santa Theresa yoga retreat. I’ve come to learn that I can create my own chaos or complications, and in doing so it’s my responsibility to get unstuck.
After all, nobody made me rent a four-wheel drive SUV with a (belatedly discovered) malfunctioning GPS unit. Or connect with two travelling companions that had their own ideas of adventure and even their own schedule, and were probably equally unprepared for the entertainment and occasional terror that is driving in choking San Jose traffic or bone-rattling Costa Rican dirt roads where Ticos and tourists in cars, on motorcycles, ATV, or on foot compete for limited road space. You learn a lot about yourself and your travelling companions when you miss a ferry and drive seven hours – mostly in darkness—on roads you’ve never been on in a country whose language you barely speak and no AAA coverage.
But then, isn’t that, I realized en route, a larger metaphor for how often we’re either prepared, partially prepared, or completely unprepared during segments of the journey of life? And how we approach pakriti (primordial nature), either by seeing the pothole-filled, dusty road or non-functioning technology as obstructing progress towards self-realization, satisfaction, gratification (‘starting’ the retreat, a warm bed, good company, a mango cocktail), or as part of attaining those same things. Either way the journey’s the journey. How we react to it to find peace, how we apply yoga—the act of yoking our seeking selves to reduce or remove avidya, face pakriti as it is with minimal judgement, and ideally attain purusha even for a few moments.
Once found, it was easy to find peace and detach from the outside world at the Batik Resort and Playa Hermosa. ‘Beautiful beach’ is an apt name for Hermosa, and the Resort was built with the intention of slowing down, reflecting, and being embraced by nature. Alarm clocks are unnecessary; a local troupe of howler monkeys typically greeted the dawn. It became easy to mostly avoid clocks except as a reminder for 9am yoga, and even the free WiFi paled in fun compared with enormous, floating bean bags for the house pools and outdoor showers. And then of course, there was the yoga, and the afternoon conditioning on the beach/playa. Which was part of the second ephiphany:
Playa Hermosa, its surf, and surfing are three of the best manifestations of pakriti I have ever experienced. Nothing embodies the concept of raw, primal energy and nature than the ocean, and it’s immediate and resplendent at Hermosa. We spent a week listening to its timeless cadence in it on its shore, while practicing yoga, as a backdrop to conversation, music, or the silence at the resort. We recharged on its surf in the midday sun, replenishing Vitamin D and reflecting, surfing in it, wave dancing, and cross training during some of the most amazing sunsets I have ever seen. At night we touch bioluminescent micro-organisms in the water, gazed at a starshow and a Milky Way unobscured by light pollution, saw shooting stars, said goodbye to David Bowie.
My relationship with the ocean, the beach, and the surf has always been a complicated one. I was born a redhead in a Mediterranean’s body; that’s code for needing to vigorously and frequently apply sunscreen whenever I’m outside and especially while at the coast/beach/ocean. Which I did. I’d like to think that only burning on our first day was the result of self-realization about my true nature — and lack of melanin content. Accepting my own skin—literally–contributed to moments of purusha once I was able to abandon the ideal of a Coppertone tan and focus on a quality experience outside. Even if that meant healthy and frequent retreats to shady spots, which actually provided fine vantage points for reading, Sudoku, and navel-gazing.
But I wasn’t expecting my surfing adventures to have such a profound impact on my experience and head-on face avidya so physically, so consistently. I know that sounds naïve, but I set a trip goal to ‘really learn how to surf’ in Costa Rica. My first-ever surfing experience five years ago Mexico ended with barely getting upright on my long,board, a wicked chest rash and 15-20 sea urchin spines in my right foot. This time it was going to be—it had to be– better.
It was, to a point. Thanks to pointers from fellow retreat-goers and more experienced surfers Lisa Skaff, Russell Marz, Lani Adamson, and Johanna Lelke, I rode waves and for a few moments understood what the Beach Boys really meant with ‘sitting on top of the world.’ I learned how to dive into a wave, or barrel-roll under one with my board rather than be hit head-on with one of nature’s most remarkable and powerful forces. I learned essentials of reading waves to anticipate which one(s) were worth trying to catch, which ones would break too late, or too early. I was struck as my new friends and teachers guided me by the power of human instruction, a connection that no on-line or distance learning course will ever fully replicate. I learned to appreciate rather than envy the skill and practice investment others had made to achieve varying levels of mastery.
And I fell. Or flipped. And failed. Oh, how I failed… so much more often than I succeeded. Sometimes in those moments I raged at the waves for their relentlessness, their indifference at the experience I was(n’t) having, or at myself for not ‘achieving’ progress at the rate I expected. And I often came out of the surf after 90 minutes or so with a headache and an exhaustion I knew was the result of inexperience and probably over-efforting.
By the fourth day the epiphany set in and my pity-party ended. The WHOLE experience I was having and my approach to it, including my resistance and my avidya, just was. Once I accepted the experience in its totality and embraced the true privilege of being able to, being fortunate enough to, try—and yes sometimes epically fail—to surf in Coast Rica, my experience completely changed. Even now in my mind’s eye I hear the surf, I see my friends and strangers bobbing on their boards or getting up on and riding a breaker, I feel the sun on my skin, the adrenaline rush of seeing my wave coming and preparing for the ride, and I feel alive. I feel joy. Because that was the moment in its completion, the everything of the experience and not just my blind ambition. The real. The now.
Which leads me to the last chapter: taking the practice off the mat in Costa Rica really means putting it to work back home. More than thirty days have gone by since we checked into the Batik. I am back in home. Spring flowers are poking out of the ground and days are getting longer. Spring is coming; its smell is in the air. And Portland, even as it stretches and grows and changes, is magic.
But the return to the Northwest has also meant a return to the hustle-bustle of 21st century U.S. living and the attendant challenges of sustaining inner peace while juggling work, reconnecting within local and online communities, co-parenting, winter darkness, and the odds and ends of everyday living. Somedays the pace of life I’ve set for myself seems overwhelming, an extension of a bone-rattling stretch of Nicoya Peninsula backroad, or a pummeling Pacific Ocean wave. I grit my teeth sometimes in Portland’s slow, serpentine traffic patterns, or while staring at a sullen gray February sky, a hit-and-run dent in my car, an in-box that relentlessly ebbs and flows, ebbs and flows with unread e-mail. I find myself wishing for Playa Hermosa and receding memories of days where the biggest challenges were remembering where I put my flip-flops, holding an advanced asana pose, politely waiting to go for seconds at dinner, or tracking constellations across the night sky.
Yet these admittedly first-World problems are the nature of my life, the life I have chosen in the place that is truly home. The value of the retreat wasn’t simply escaping them, it was building resilience to re-center and refocus through an understanding that the awareness I – that we—bring to our lives day-to-day can be as beautiful as a Costa Rican beach and bodies moving to the rhythm of the surf. If only we let it. If we see the truth that the bumpy and the beautiful aspects of the journey, the peaks and troughs of our life’s waves are what they are, not just how we define them with sometimes limited perception. That in order to be happy and fulfilled, we have to sometimes let go of our lives playing out as a real or perceived ideal. That we should not only accept, but embrace the dynamic nature over time in our cities, our communities, within ourselves, and the kaleidoscope of moments that make up our ever-changing experience. That creating ‘shala’ isn’t just something yoga instructors do for us in a remote resort, we need to create it ourselves with a design of our own making. And that that creating isn’t a one-and-done experience, it’s part of a timeless cycle we can move in rhythm with, or against. The former’s way easier than the latter.
One more thing: now in the moments I find myself resisting or even fighting the pakriti of life, in the middle of reacting and probably blinding myself to the challenges I face, I am able to come back to center with one simple action. Before the retreat I never fully understood, beyond the sound inflection, the connection of ujjayi breath (known as ‘the ocean breath’) with the ocean. While before it evoked a sound and a feeling, now it connects me to an experience, a transformative experience that has in its own way become timeless.
Thanks to a remarkable—a rejuvenating—week in Costa Rica, whenever I need even a momentary slice of purusha, invoking the ujjayi of Playa Hermosa takes me back to those transcendent moments at sunset. Where movement is always beautiful. Where light is always beautiful. Where sound is always beautiful. Where the knowledge that those moments, be they in a distant land or wherever we find peace and true connection, really do exist inside all of us and are worth yoking. And that unlocking that awareness, that time-honored practice of seeking purusha, is beautiful. No matter what beach it brings us to, or where we find it.