Yoga in the Rainforest

By Savitha Nanjangud

"It felt like Mother Nature was telling me 'You came to Costa Rica to receive my blessing but you also left a seed.' We don't have to move to Costa Rica to experience Pura Vida.  Pura Vida is a way of life, a way of thinking, a way of being. A commitment to authenticity, connection, simplicity and contentment.  It's truly the beginning of a yogic way of life.  I immediately felt healed and uplifted. " Read the entire article below:

‘Let’s go somewhere new and exciting for the holidays’, said my adventurous daughter. But where? My husband and I pondered this for a bit. Hawaii? Florida? Since its December it had to be somewhere warm, maybe tropical and where there is also active outdoor stuff for the kids and relaxation for the adults. While all these discussions were going on I remembered an article I had read about eco-tourism and destinations that supported vegetarianism and ecological conservation. Ever since I read that article I have always wanted to choose such destinations to make the vacation more meaningful than just a pleasure seeking trip.  As I searched for more information on the internet I came across an advertisement for a Vegan eco-resort in Costa Rica called Waterfall Villas or Cascadas Farallas in Dominical, Costa Rica. Their website had everything - Yoga, Ayurvedic/Vegan food, exciting adventurous activities and a genuine waterfall on their property along with a commitment to environmental preservation! Sounded like the perfect combination for our active kids, yoga mom and stressed hi-tech dad.  So we made all the arrangements well in advance to beat the holiday rush.  But before the anticipation could excite us and before we could prepare adequately for the trip we were plunged into grief by the sudden passing of a young relative. When the departure day approached none of us was in the mood for a vacation, we were all still grieving the loss and not sure if we would even enjoy Costa Rica.  We worried about not being prepared for the trip and getting bit by mosquitos and catching Zica virus or malaria. 

The plane landed in San Jose, the capital and biggest city of Costa Rica, and generated some amusement since we live in San Jose too, except in California.  After the painfully long wait at immigration and the car rental agency we got a midnight dinner at Denny’s and headed to the hotel. So far we felt like we were still in USA, it could have been Florida, SoCal or even Texas. At breakfast the next morning when people started greeting us with a cheerful ‘Ola!’ or “Buenos Dias!’ it dawned on us that we were in a different country.  Since Spanish was such a common language in that part of the world it was hard to know if someone was a native Costa Rican or a tourist from another country.  I spotted a family with two little boys at the next table and I waved to one of the boys.  He waved back and walked towards our table.  I asked him some questions in English and he replied in rapid Spanish which we didn’t understand.  Then he started walking back towards his table. His mom stopped him halfway and whispered something in his ear.  Oh right, she must be warning him not to speak with strangers I thought.   But to my surprise she led him back to our table, sat him down next to me, was apologetic and helped us have a nice conversation by translating for us. What a kind respectful gesture and such a nice way to model courteous behavior to her children. And it was a gentle reminder to me not to carry preconceived notions or make any assumptions. 

After breakfast we started our drive to the resort which was in Dominical province in the South Western part of the country.  The drive was pleasant and scenic. Lots of greenery which was initially relatively dry inland and became more lush as we headed west toward the coast. The main highway was narrow and mostly single lane but in very good condition with hardly any pot holes.  Beautiful greenery on all sides dotted with banana and papaya trees, coconut and palm tree groves, small houses and farms.  We didn’t encounter any large towns with big buildings and only a few small churches and cemeteries along the way.  Hardly any large ugly bill boards to mar the scenery along the drive. Even though it was Christmas day we didn’t see the locals making a big fuss about it. No large decorations or displays of nativity scenes etc.  There were lots of little ‘sodas’ along the roadside serving typical Costa Rican meals of rice and beans with meat or vegetables. In Costa Rican a ‘soda’ is very similar to a ‘dhaba’ in India. Simple structures with a sloping thatched or tin roof, open on all sides with rows of tables and serving local food. We stopped at a soda next to a pretty little beach (more like a calm lagoon) on the way. Since it was a holiday there were lots of people on the beach but again just bathing, picnicking, and spending family time. No large barbecues or loud music.  The beach wasn’t lined with umbrellas or chairs.  Some little children played by themselves in the calm waters with hardly any supervision.  We saw some fishing boats and small houses along the beach so we figured they must be the locals who lived around there.  

There was a small cool stream flowing into the lagoon where another group of very small children played freely and cheerfully.  No plastic toys, rafts, life vests, buckets or shovels. Just a bunch of happy little kids enjoying pristine nature under the casual supervision of their mom.  It made our hearts feel light and buoyant to see them. This must be what the local Ticos (as Costa Ricans call themselves) called Pura Vida, the Pure Life. It’s difficult to translate Pura Vida into an English equivalent and even more difficult to explain the meaning. It’s the most popular expression in Costa Rica that sums up the whole philosophy of their life with meaning ranging from ‘full of life’, ‘this is real living’, ‘awesome living’, to even ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’.  This simple phrase is used multiple times a day by everyone in the country and quickly adopted by the tourists also. It’s a catch-all phrase with an unclear origin but has been the unofficial motto of the country for the past 50+ years.  It denotes the laid-back, accepting, stress free and contentedly happy life that the typical Costa Rican strives to live.

We reached our resort on Christmas evening with enough daylight left to explore our surroundings.  The resort entrance was a little hard to find among all the greenery and we would have easily missed it of not for the detailed directions from the manager. A lot of things still depend on the human element in Costa Rica. The resort was all that it promised to be and more. It was small and exclusive. It could only accommodate a maximum of 12-14 guests at a time. There was no reception desk, receptionist and what looked like a foyer actually turned out to be dining room leading to a small open kitchen.  Beyond the kitchen was another dining/reading area which also doubled as the reception desk.  There was a beautiful stream next to the kitchen and dining areas that led to a stepped waterfall further down. The sounds of the stream, the waterfall, birds and insects pervaded the whole atmosphere.  On the other side of the stream was the rainforest. One of the managers, Franco, introduced himself as we came up the driveway and led us to our rooms that were above the kitchen/dining area.   

Our room balcony overlooked the stream and had a direct view of the dense rainforest with variety of trees and creepers growing on them and vines hanging from them.  We could barely hear the insects and birds above the din of the waterfalls.  Our rooms had high ceilings, skylights and fans.  Bed frames and posts were made of wooden logs and draped with fancy mosquito nets.  Décor in the room was partly modern, partly Balinese and partly Japanese with a bamboo room divider that served as a door to the bathroom.  Most of the items in the room were made of natural materials like wood, cloth or bamboo. Franco explained that for environmental reasons we had to put used toilet paper in a basket that would be emptied out every day. The sewage system was not designed for a lot of paper waste.  Why even use toilet paper, I wondered… Why not wash? Wouldn’t that be the most eco-friendly choice?  And that's exactly what I chose to do the rest of the week.  

At dinner, another of the managers, Fateh, introduced herself and explained that the resort was built only in 2006 with the idea of making it eco-conscious and preserving the natural resources (plants, animals, water etc.) of the land it is built on. That entails a responsible management of resources used for the resort and by the guests and a careful disposal of waste products including sewage. The architecture, based on Balinese style, is tropical-friendly and allows a maximum exposure to nature while also making the living spaces comfortable.  The belief is that deep healing can come from being close to nature.  Through eco-conscious management the pristine quality of the rainforest is preserved for future generations. Fateh had been an executive in a software company in the US and traveled all over the world, especially Asia. After learning yoga and becoming a teacher she decided to quit her job in the US and as she said ‘the universe led her to Costa Rica’.  With the help of a few partners (Franco being one of them) she bought the land and developed the resort with an emphasis on creating a healing retreat-like atmosphere, promote veganism and eco-consciousness.  The vegan dinner they served for Christmas (Sunday, Dec 25th) was outstanding in nutritional balance, quality, taste and elegance. 

Breakfast the next morning (Monday) was served by Franco and equally inspired. He started with a fruit smoothie followed by hot vegan tamales (a local dish of corn meal and vegetables steamed in a banana leaf). It reminded me of the Indian dishes like idli or kadabu cooked and served in banana or turmeric leaves. Everything seemed to taste better in Costa Rica though.  Were vegetables really more flavorful there? Was it the climate? Or was it because we were relaxed and on vacation? Did it really matter why? Later that morning, we headed out to experience the rain forest canopy by zip lining over it.  It began with us getting fitted for our gear and then being led on a hike through the forest and up into higher elevations. The guides explained the various species of trees and animals that inhabit the rainforest.  He showed us, through a telescope, a sloth resting in the branch of a tree.  Easily spotted by a trained guide but almost invisible to city slickers like us. One of the guides, Christian, explained how the forest had originally been cleared for farms and cattle pastures.  In the 1980s the government had decided to reverse the trend of deforestation by allowing the forests to regrow.  In less than 30 years the forest had completely reclaimed all its former land. And Christian sounded quite proud of his country for this remarkable achievement.     

On Tuesday morning I took my yoga mat and walked down the garden path to the platform located near the lower level of the water falls to practice.  The morning air was cool and moist thanks to the waterfalls nearby and the sun played hide and seek between the trees. I laid out my mat to face the sun and set it parallel to the flow of water so I could feel the energy flowing through me as I practiced.  It felt a little strange at first since I was unaccustomed to practicing in the open air.  And it was new unfamiliar surroundings.  But the absolute solitude and beauty of the place overcame my anxiety and soon I became immersed in the practice.  The sound of my breath mingled with the sounds of the flowing water, the birds and the rustling leaves all becoming one.   With great inspiration I moved through breath-body practices, Suryanamaskars, twists, back bends and inversions.  Shavasana was deeply relaxing.   


Later at breakfast we talked about the beauty of the forest, the meaning of Pura Vida and how different life in Costa Rica was from our lives back in the US. Didn’t we make life more complicated than it needed to be? But how do we stop destroying the planet and come closer to nature as the Costa Ricans have done? We also talked about how simple and lovely life was in India back in the 60s and 70s.  But then we came to the US looking for material comforts and success without realizing there was a price to pay. Was it worth it we wondered?  What do we actually need to keep us healthy, happy, connected to each other and to Mother Nature? Not much, it turns out.   I sensed our collective angst and regret that we took so much from the earth that we didn't need. 

Tuesday's activity was kayaking. Franco gave us the name of a tourist agency in Dominical and we went there at the given time. Dominical is a small beach town with only 2 or 3 main streets lined with cafes, shops, restaurants, tourist hostels and homes around the Dominical beach.  The roads are narrow, rugged and only paved with jelly stones. We were told the locals prefer to keep it that way.  The town had a lot of tourists from all over the world but it felt very laid-back and easy going. People were very friendly and polite. Everybody was free to do their own thing and nobody really felt out of place there including us even though we were probably the only Indian family there.  We found the tourist agency and checked in and waited for our guide Daniel, who eventually turned up and asked us to follow his van. He led us back to the highway, took an exit few miles down and then led us into a bushy forested area with a single lane bumpy dirt road.  We followed him for what seemed like a half hour, only stopping a few times to spot animals and birds. We eventually ended up near another beach and parked under a grove of trees. There was an old dilapidated building there that looked like a haunted house. Just past the trees was a swampy area where the kayaks were parked. No platforms, no structures, just a few kayaks in the muddy swamp. Daniel gave us detailed instructions on what we would be doing, he went over the safety tips and explained the basic rules of kayaking. And then he safely got us situated into our kayaks before launching us into the water.  The mangrove swamp was like a back waters that was fed by fresh water from one side and rose and fell with the tide from the ocean.  The water is always calm and easy for beginners to kayak in. We kayaked for more than 2 hours, stopping at a gorgeous beach half way.  By the time we returned to the starting place I really had to go to the bathroom but besides the dilapidated building I couldn't see any structures around me that indicated the presence of a toilet. So I asked Daniel if there was a toilet nearby and without batting an eye he said, 'Well if you just have to pee you can go behind a tree or just go in the ocean. That's how we do it in Costa Rica.'  For a moment I couldn't believe what he said. And then I started laughing. 'That's how we do it in India too!' I said but I'm not sure if he understood.  'It doesn't get closer to nature than this' I thought as I joined my family at the beach to share this delightful conversation with them. A tour guide in the US might get fired for encouraging such indecent exposure but not here in Costa Rica. 

I do not for one moment mean to imply here that Costa Rican's have poor personal hygiene or lack a sense of cleanliness. On the contrary, one of the first things we observed in Costa Rica was how clean the whole country was. Both the city and the country side. There was no trash laying around, nobody defecating in the streets, decent toilets at each restaurant or gas station. Even the unpaved muddy roads were free of litter.  And yet there was a balance. A charming easy going attitude towards life. They lived Pura Vida. Neither the zip lining guides nor the kayaking guides skimped on safety measures and precautions though.  The equipment was in good condition, well maintained and safety was always a priority while harnessing us to the zip line and yet we never felt like we were heavily regulated or constrained by it.  The guides were curious about us and asked questions but never for a moment did we feel like they wished to be somewhere else nor that they were grubbing for tips. None of the knickknack vendors in the little towns or at the beaches were aggressively pushing their wares. They all seemed to know that they had a beautiful country and were happy to share it with us. They were Pura Vida. We asked Daniel why the government wouldn't renovate the building and develop the beach front. He actually preferred that they didn't do any development and left it natural and pure. We were amazed that this young man was so in tune with nature and so content with his life that he could see through the shallowness of what we (city folk) immediately assumed to be desirable signs of 'progress'.  He believed in Pura Vida. 

Costa Rica has a population of only 5 million and about a third live in the capital city of San Jose. We saw a lot of rural areas on the drive from San Jose to Dominical but never saw signs of poverty or 'daridrata'.  It is a fairly equitable democratic society with 97% having access to electricity and clean water and free primary education for all children.  According to an orthodontist I met on the plane ride back home, they have a good primary health care system that is accessible even to remote rural areas.  There is a rather bitter origin to Costa Rica's social success. The occupying Spanish managed to wipe out the entire indigenous population with the country ending up with a uniform population of Spanish descendants. This has helped promote socialist policies since there is no 'us vs them' mindset. Thanks also to some of the financial aid from the US that created a safety net for the country, the people collectively decided to slow industrial growth, regrow and restore their rainforests, reduce their carbon footprint and develop sustainability practices like running on almost 100% renewable energy. Costa Rica has been voted one of the 'greenest' and 'happiest' countries in the world and hopes to be the first carbon neutral country in the world by 2021! Talking to the locals and observing their attitudes and lifestyles it's easy to believe that they will succeed. After all, a country is simply the collective culture, will and desires of its population. There is so much that the rest of the world can learn from Costa Rica. Especially the growing economies like India and China that have unfortunately adopted the same yardsticks for growth and success as the environmentally and socially destructive western economies. Costa Rica has clearly shown the world that there is no need to use poverty alleviation, progress or economic growth as excuses to trash the planet.  

The next morning I went back to the deck near the falls for my practice. I expected to have the same uplifting experience as the previous day if not better.  As my practice progressed however I began to feel very emotional and started to cry. But I didn't know why.  Was it the beauty of nature all around me? Did I mourn the passing of my nephew? Did I mourn the unsustainable, carbon-heavy lifestyles we lived? Or the plastic smiles and fake courtesies of our culture? Or did I mourn the future my children faced in a world that measured success in the most meaningless ways? None of the answers came to me, only tears. So I stopped asking the questions and just allowed the emotions to pass through me.  I allowed Mother Nature to work whatever healing magic she may have in store for me.  

After breakfast we followed Franco's Jeep up and down the hills on narrow windy unpaved roads through rural areas.  We were headed to see the famed Nauyaca falls.  The hillside was very beautiful and dotted with pastures, farms but mostly just greenery. We parked the cars after a few miles and started walking towards the trail head which was actually a tall gate. Beyond the gate was a forested area where the hiking trail to the falls began.  The hiking trail was steep downhill and hard on my knees. Neither Franco nor the kids seemed to have any trouble with the trail though.  After what seemed an interminably long, completely downhill hike through patches of sunny grassy areas and dense forests with slippery muddy steps we heard the roar of the waterfalls. Soon we caught our first glimpse of the majestic two tiered waterfalls with three branches in the top tier and two in the bottom tier. The water poured down in huge forceful torrents kicking up a mist around it. All around the falls were huge rocks and boulders. We had to climb over them to reach a good flat surface where we could rest and put out stuff down. The sheer beauty and power of the falls was overwhelming. Not being a good swimmer and having poor eyesight without my glasses I wasn't brave enough to fight the strong waves and swim to the base of the falls.  There was no scaffolding or ropes around the canyon walls.  Everything was completely natural and wild. Only the strong and sure footed ones could swim to the falls or climb it's rocky steps.  My daughter being a very strong swimmer made it to the base first and later helped my son and husband to the falls. After enjoying our sandwiches and fruit we headed back up the trail. I was pleasantly surprised that the kids kept pace with Franco though me and my husband struggled with the steep uphill slopes and had to stop frequently to catch our breaths. By the time we trudged all the way back to our cars we were hot and exhausted. We stopped at one of the houses along the street where Franco had made arrangements to get us with packets of chilled coconut water with a small piece of tender coconut in each of them. 

Franco talked about how he grew up in Costa Rica but went to the US to study hotel management and worked for many years in Miami and NY. Not liking the stressful fast paced life there he chose to semi-retire back in Costa Rica where he helped Fateh run the resort. Being a Pescatarian (vegan but eats fish) he believed in the lifestyle promoted at the resort and enjoyed working there.  Both he and Fateh would serve dinner by 6:30pm and leave promptly by 8pm leaving the resort to the guests and one grounds keeper who stays back. It was a strange feeling on the first night but we got used to it after a few nights. All shops and restaurants close by 9pm in Dominical.  The beach vendors start packing up their stuff soon after sunset since there are no lights on the beach, all in keeping with the Pura Vida lifestyle.  He was curious about us and asked what we did in the US and what the kids studied. At dinner that night he heard us talking Kannada and was curious about the language. He was impressed that we spoke 3 Indian languages and the kids could understand two of them.  I told him about my parents living in a Yoga University (SVYASA) back in India where people could go as a retreat to learn, practice and heal. He asked if my daughter had done the retreat and was impressed that she had.  We gave him more information about VYASA teachers training program, about the daily regimen there and he was very interested. He had practiced some yoga but did not have a teacher's certificate and he also had never been to India and wanted to go backpacking through the country.  He was very interested in VYASA and wanted to go there and experience it in October when the resort was shut down due to the rains. Coincidentally, we told him, October was the best month to travel in India. 

This is very interesting.... I thought. Here I was lamenting the fact that I had gone so far away from nature, so caught up in a fake plastic world and taking so much and offering so little while someone like Franco who lived in this paradise on earth and who truly lived Pura Vida, was also still seeking something. And that something was Yoga! It felt like Mother Nature was telling me 'You came to Costa Rica to receive my blessing but you also left a seed.' We don't have to move to Costa Rica to experience Pura Vida.  Pura Vida is a way of life, a way of thinking, a way of being. A commitment to authenticity, connection, simplicity and contentment.  It's truly the beginning of a yogic way of life.  I immediately felt healed and uplifted. 

On our last day there I decided to take it easy and relax at the resort while the rest of the family went to Manuel San Antonio park to see wildlife and enjoy the beach one last  time. I felt like I had got what I had come to Costa Rica for and didn't feel the need to do any more sight seeing. So I spent the morning near the waterfalls reading Psychology of Yoga and listening to Swamiji's chanting of the Taittiriya Upanishad. I was indeed Pura Vida that day. Thank you Costa Rica. Pura Vida to you too until I see you again!