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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Freedom and Joy in Costa Rica

Pura Vida.  This is what Costa Ricans say on a daily basis.  It means 'pure life.'  And until this past week, it had very little meaning for me besides thinking it was a cool phrase.  I found it interesting that a whole country could sum up the embodiment of their experience of life in these two little words.  Can you imagine Americans or any other country for that matter responding to each other after a greeting with 'pure life'?  I certainly couldn't, and without a context and experience of what the Costa Ricans are talking about, they were just words.  Well, they are no longer just words for me.

My yoga teacher and friend, Andrea Marcum Pietrangelo, conducts these retreats to Nosara, Costa Rica once a year, and she pushed me to make this happen, especially in light of the PTSD I suffered from last year.  She and I both felt it would be the perfect gift to myself for overcoming and pulling through my challenges, and she assured me it would be something that would change my life forever.  She was right.
She's the best yoga instructor in the world.  Ok, I'm being biased, but she is wonderful, and I think all of us who practice with her at her studio in LA would agree.  And her retreat is worth every cent spent.

There were 11 of us on the retreat.  Most came from LA, with the exception of two; Sonja came from Boston, and Matt traveled down from Canada.  Most of us barely knew each other, aside from the occasional 'hi' we'd say before or after class at the studio.  Our connection to each other was the love we have for the practice of yoga, and the desire to live out extraordinary lives.  We all, I think, want to breathe in the fullness of life, and go after the experiences that make our lives fulfilling and full of joy.  Adventure traveling to exotic places has the potential to be life changing experiences, especially when you're with a group of like-minded people.  We came together not knowing what to expect, with people we hardly knew, and in an environment quite foreign to us.  And yet, there is an energy in Nosara so special, so uplifting, so life-affirming, it could not help but create the conditions for beautiful friendships to form between people experiencing something unique together unlike anything they could possibly have imagined.

We stayed in the beautiful resort of Tierra Magnifica, situated on the top of a mountainside overlooking the sloping jungle canopy below which was intercepted by the breathtaking bay and rocky isthmus jutting out into the pacific ocean.  Words fail to accurately describe the ineffable beauty of this landscape.  It is so immensely beautiful, calming, soothing, and expansive, one could stare at it for hours, days, weeks, and never get tired of it.  This place is a taste of paradise.  The trees around the resort are magnificent, and howler monkeys constantly move from tree to tree all around it. It was like watching a National Geographic show except it wasn't on television, this was all happening right before us, in the moment, all the time.  I couldn't help but feel connected to an ancient nature long forgotten in our civilized worlds.  

The moment I arrived there and saw the panorama before me, I had an immediate explosion of consciousness.  It was like the world that I had created, this tiny box that I had relegated myself to all these many years, suddenly had the roof blown off of it, the walls crumbled into dust, and this whole new world appeared before me, huge, limitless, ever expanding.  My soul stretched out to the edges of the sky, and the air I breathed in was fresh air, invigorating every part of my being, and I wondered what have I been doing all this time to keep me from experiencing this sense of freedom and aliveness?  As I stood and faced this awe-inspiring glory, I noticed how all my problems simply vanished, disappeared, they did not exist.  What did exist was this exquisite taste of simply being alive and the joy that comes with it.  I couldn't help but smile and my smile did not fade the entire trip.

Our day consisted of waking up early, having some fruit and yogurt to start the day, yoga at 8:30 am for two hours, followed by brunch, then lounging by the pool, afternoon activities, dinner, and stargazing.  My whole relationship to time dissolved when I was out there as the days seemed so long and our days were so filled up.  Our first day we went zip lining through the jungle.  13 lines we zipped on!  As we zipped along the lines, the jungle stretched out below, in some places 200 feet or more below us.  This one time, I rode tandem with one of the operators who suggested I ride upside-down without my hands holding on to anything.  I followed his advice, and watched as the blue sky above me whisked by.  It was so exhilarating!   I felt so alive!  All the problems of my past sloughed off my back and into the trees as I flew down the line leaving everything behind.  Suddenly, I began to understand what 'pura vida' meant.

In the middle of the week, four of us decided to try our luck at deep sea fishing.  Tina Kalayjian, Dominic Pietrangelo, Matt Piatek, and I boarded a small fishing boat called "Cowboy".  The two young men who operated the vessel guided us out into the vast, endless blue with 5 different lines trolling in the water behind us.  Our excursion was a huge success, reeling in three large Dorado fish (also known as Mahi-Mahi) which came out to over 100 lbs of fish!  (We had enough fish to feed all of us and the staff who worked at the resort for 3 days!)  Dominic caught the largest of the three, a beautiful 40 pounder, while Matt and I had the pleasure of fighting our two fish at the same time.  At least twice Matt and I had to switch sides in the boat as our fish were crossing over each other, and so one of us would have to duck under the other's pole in order to keep our lines from crossing.  Pulling in a large sport-fish from the ocean is a pretty exhilarating experience!  Afterwards, basking in our success, all four of us jumped into the ocean, and swam in the deep blue.  The water was so warm, like entering a warm bathtub, and for a moment, I floated up on top of the water, letting myself be lifted up by the might of that powerful ocean, and gazed at the sky above me.  I felt so alive, connected, and happy.  The freedom and joy I felt in that moment is indescribable.  This, I thought to myself, is 'pura vida.'

On another day, we went paddle boarding through a mangrove forest.  Once we had learned to balance ourselves on the board and paddle ourselves around on them, we slowly, gently, languidly moved through the rivers encompassed on both sides by these magnificent trees.  Since it is the dry season now in Costa Rica, their characteristic aerial roots were evident everywhere we looked.  Mangrove trees look as if they grow on stilts, which hold the trunk and leaves above the waterline.  Mangroves live on the edge, where rain forests meet oceans, and they help protect the coastline and prevent erosion by collecting sediment from the rivers and streams and slowing down the flow of water.  There is an abundance of wildlife in these forests, all of which support and maintain the delicate ecosystem so vital to the area.  This area of Costa Rica is a designated conservation area, it is the habitat of so many different species of animals and the nesting grounds for many shore birds and sea turtles.  So, here we were, cruising along these rivers, paddling around branches, through the aerial roots of the trees, and navigating our way to the far end of the river.  We stopped there, got off of our paddle boards, walked over a small patch of land, and found ourselves on this secluded black sandy beach right before sunset.  This is where the turtles nest during the rainy season, and since it is a designated conservation area, no development is permitted.  It was beautiful.  Most of us ran out into the ocean and swam for a while, some rested, and all of us ate some watermelon brought with us by our inestimable guides.  Tina labeled this day as 'the best day ever,' and it's hard to argue with her on that one.  Again, I came to understand a little deeper the meaning of 'pura vida.'

The second to last day of the trip, we had a beach barbecue and bonfire party.  The incredible staff at the Tierra Magnifica prepared and organized this activity for all of us.  Besides setting everything up including a volleyball net before we arrived, they cooked shish-kebabs on the grill, set up a huge bonfire for the evening, and even had marshmallows ready to roast in the hot coals of the pit fire when it was dark.  Again we swam in the ocean, took incredible pictures of everyone with the sun slowly setting down in the horizon, and drank in with all of our senses the immense beauty that surrounded us.  As night fell, the bonfire was lit, and this towering pyramid of flame torched the dense black night with its glowing red and orange light, our eyes were transfixed on this wonder of life, fire, and many of us sat or stood nearby and quietly watched it burn.  There is something very powerful about watching fire, I think it connects us unconsciously to the fire that burns within each of us, it's a physical reminder of that which is within, the flame in our hearts that gives us our lives.

That night, when we returned to our resort, a few of us stayed outside and stargazed.  The night sky in Nosara is amazing, beyond belief, an ocean of stars so luminous one could stare at them for hours.  Grace had an application on her phone which showed where all the constellations were above us, and this application had this really cool music to go along with it.  She handed it to me while it was playing, and as I viewed it in relation to where the constellations were in the night sky, I lost myself completely in it, moving the phone all over the place, including the ground which showed where other constellations were on the other side of the globe, and those who saw me laughed because I was completely oblivious to the people around me.  I laughed with them when I suddenly recognized what I was doing, but the experience of getting lost like that is remarkable.  With or without that application, particularly without it, I had this sense of being connected to it all.  Most times, I think, people feel so small when they look up and see the stars, but not this time, nor anytime, when I stood out on the patio and looked at the heavens above.  This time, this trip, while gazing up, I felt such an expansion of my soul and mind that it felt like I could touch the stars with my hands, that I was stretched out to the very ends of the universe and everything was apart of me and I was apart of it.  I had this strange feeling that while I was looking up at the stars, the stars were looking down at me.  I closed my eyes and felt as if all of nature - the night sky, the trees around me, the sounds of the birds, insects, howler monkeys, everything around me had permeated my skin, it was me and I was it.  I felt such immense joy in those moments and wanted to hold onto that feeling forever.  I can still see it and feel it as I right these words to you now.  A sense of oneness to all that is and connected to it all is the best way I can describe it.  It was wonderful.

The final day of our trip, I stayed at the resort while most of the group headed to the beach.  I sat in one of the chairs soaking in every moment of the breathtaking, enchanting, healing beauty that enveloped me.  I read Rumi, did some writing, and contemplated about life, love, and what my life had been like up and until this monumental trip.  My musings led me to discover some new insights, one of which was that nothing I had done up and until this retreat had ever given me what this week gave me.  I'd been living a life of quiet desperation, struggling against the current of problems and issues we all face, and wondering if it was ever possible to break free from the weight of the world.  The flashes of joy I would feel and experience in the quiet desperation of my life were brief and fleeting, I'd live my life for those brief moments of joy, and the rest of the time, it was just a struggle, trying to make sense of it all.  Yet, a new experience unfolded before me at Tierra Magnifica, something I had not previously felt.  Almost every single moment I was there was filled with joy.  I couldn't stop smiling.  Moment by moment, I embodied joy.  My life was a living expression of the joy and freedom we all crave, the sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves, and the peace that comes along with it.  The world, miraculously, didn't seem so bad after all.

As nightfall came, the other members of the group returned from their day at the beach, and we celebrated our last evening with pina coladas made by our resident yogi mixologist Louis Anderman.  We sat at the long wooden table together for one last meal, a beautiful, balmy evening filled with laughter, music, and friendship.  The next morning, a whole family of howler monkeys came to say goodbye, and we watched them as they moved from tree branch to tree branch as they made their way through the jungle.  We said our goodbyes, returning to the world from which we came, but forever changed by the power, majesty and ineffable beauty of Nosara, Costa Rica.

A quick shout out to everyone who made this trip the gift that it was: Louis Anderman, Julie Lee, Kiki Elrod, Jason Richardson, Matt Piatek, Sonia Del Sonno, Grace Jehan, Tina Kalayjian, Dominic Pietrangelo, and of course Andrea Marcum Pietrangelo (without you, of course, none of us would have been there), thank you for making it such a memorable, unforgettable trip.  My life will never be the same as a result.  I'm so glad to include all of you in my inner circle of friends.  And to my friends in Costa Rica:  Erika Brandt, Paco Bertsch, Kattia, Louis, all the staff at Tierra Magnifica, and Erika Ayala, thank you for your hospitality, kindness, and the richness you added to my life.  I understand now what you mean when you say, 'Pura Vida.'

While I was soaking in the sun paddle boarding down the river, feeling the warm breeze on my skin, hearing the sounds of the birds in the Mangrove trees, watching my friends floating on the water in front of me, a thought occurred to me.  'If you're not doing what you love, than what are you doing?'  Perhaps when we start making choices based upon the things that truly bring us joy, our lives will feel more free and joyful, and eventually, over time, all that we do will be an expression and extension of those choices and experiences which brought us bliss.  Rumi says, "Let yourself be drawn by the stronger pull of that which you truly love."  I think he's right.  Each one of us must discover what it is we truly love, what it is we want to experience, and then, be drawn by it.  And once we finally get there, and we will get there, we can all say with truth and conviction in our hearts, 'Pura Vida.'