Its been a week an a half since my return from co-leading a wonderful yoga retreat with my friend, Cindy Olah, in the land of ‘Pura Vida’, Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica. I love going on retreats, whether leading or taking them. Its an opportunity to get away and hit the ‘reset’ button: recharge, reboot, be inspired, and return home with a new appreciation for new experiences and deeper appreciation for what you have.
We spent the week eating amazing local cuisine, indulging in fresh, tropical fruits, exploring the rainforest, discovering precious wildlife, playing in the surf, and of course, practicing yoga on and off the mat. The tepid ocean was amazing; strong currents and huge waves reminded me how small we are. Standing in one place, even knee deep, was a work out to not be pulled back into the ocean.
The highlight for me was participating in a sweat lodge at the home of Eduardo, friend of Alejandro, resident yogi and owner of Vida Asana Eco Lodge- where we called home for the week. Only a handful of us decided to participate in the sweat lodge, while the rest of the yoga bunch chillaxed back at Playa Hermosa. The ceremonial sauna originates from the native american tradition as a means for purification. There are typically fours sessions where participants go inside an extremely hot and steamy, stick-made dome hut, centered around a fire pit of super hot rocks, and led by a seasoned leader who is well schooled in this tradition. I was down.
We traveled down a long, sandy road paralleling the Pacific Ocean, at the end of Playa Hermosa. We were greeted with welcome barks from dogs who lived at the surrounding neighbors, wanting to say hello and give us some love. Eduardo’s home is my dream home… cozy- maybe 1000 square feet, divided between between 2 modest stories, off the grid, on the beach, surrounded by a nature conservatory and farmland to its rear. He built his home using materials from the land, such as palm: bark for siding and fronds for the palapa roof of his home and outdoor yoga shala. A path to the left side of Eduardo’s home led us to where the sweat lodge was. Behind his home was a small pool, deep enough to sit in so your head could be above water, and large enough to accommodate the nine of us. This is where we would go between our sessions in the sweat lodge.
Neighboring the pool is the yoga shala, adorned with bean bags and hammocks. Continuing ahead, was the back yard area, complete with a large fire pit, outdoor pizza oven and argentinian grill, last but not least, what we called, ‘a human pizza oven’, the sweat lodge. Connected to this was a beautiful, organic, greenhouse where Eduardo tends to food he eats by hand. Divine.
Back to the human pizza oven… I’ve participated in other sweat lodges, but this one raises the bar for me at least. The types that I’ve been in are made out of large sticks that are structured in a way to create a dome. Not this one. This one actually looked like a pizza oven: huge large dome- concrete foundation, circular rock foundation walls, domed concrete roof, with the bonus of an in ground fire pit in the center of it. The only sticks involved was the driftwood we collected from the beach to build the fire outside the lodge. We could’ve easily had double the number of participants inside. Lastly, the ceremony was conducted in spanish- appropriate considering the locale.
Alejandro took the lead with the fire building. We gathered firewood from the shore and he prepared the fire. Thoughtfully placed in the center of the fire pit, were the ‘abuelita’s’, or ‘grandmothers’- 40 large volcanic rocks that our experience would truly be facilitated.
While the fire was building and the abuelitas were heating, we played at the beach, swam, and befriended our costa rican, ‘tico’, canine buddies. The sun began its descent and we went back to check on the fire and watch it die down in sync with the sunset. When the sticks had burned and the abuelitas were glowing, it was time to begin. Showtime.
Puerta 1: Alejandro began the escort of the abuelitas, considerably shoveling out the first 10 abuelitas, one by one. For each abuelita, we reciting aloud, ‘Axolotyl’, (Aztec god, invoking a return to our origin and eluding sacrifice), and, ‘piedra caliente’, (hot rock- basically a warning to move out of the way as the abuelitas were carried to the fire pit inside the sweat lodge). Ten times, Alejandro escorted an abuelita in, and ten times we acknowledged them.
We rinsed off in the outdoor shower before entering into the lodge, bowed to our heads to mother earth, then crawled in on hands and knees, in the same direction. We found our ‘seats’ marked by large banana leaves, alternating, female-male. It felt like we were in a steamy oven; it was thick and wet and infused with the frankincense-like resin, copal. I was instantly soaked by my own sweat to the point my swimsuit was just hanging on.
Eduardo sat inside by the entrance, with a large bucket of water that he would periodically scoop from and add to the pit to make the space hotter and steamier and also ensure that the entrance door stay sealed. There are four rounds, called ‘doors’, or ‘puertas’, (we were in Costa Rica after all). Each puerta took about 20- 30 minutes, length of time determined by the leader as well vibing off the energy of our group.
Eduardo commenced the ceremony by setting a group intention, calling out to the abuelitas. Beginning with him, we all took turns declaring our intentions aloud, and then acknowledged that by saying native american acknowledgment, ‘A Ho’- the equilvalent of saying, ‘I agree’. Once our intentions were set, we chanted in sanskirt, the Peace and Gayatri mantras, and many rounds of powerful gutteral, ‘om-ing’, rattling the cement oven walls until the invocations organically concluded. We crawled out in the same order and direction we entered, rinsed off in the outdoor showers, walked slowly and carefully to the cool pool where we assimilated the experience of the first puerta.
Puerta 2: The sun was quickly setting. We acknowledged our abuelitas, ‘Axolotyl, piedra caliente’, rinsed off, bowed, crawled in, found a new seat in alternating order, and began. This puerta was dedicated to letting go of the deep seeded anger inside of us. We did so by screaming at the top of our lungs and for as long as we could. When Eduardo described the puerta, I had a hunch it would be intense. I was right. I was sitting cross-legged about a foot from the wall behind me. I gave it all I had. After the very first ‘grita’, scream, I remember the deep- rooted, trembling that shook my body from my bum up my spine to my head. My eyeballs felt like they were spinning in their sockets. I couldn’t differentiate if I was sitting upright or folded forward into the fire pit. Once I gathered my bearings, I slid back against the wall to reacquaint myself with gravity and my surroundings. I joined back with the group, trying to scream, but I had nothing left. I felt cool inside accompanied by an indescribable pulsing sensation. Once we completed puerta dos, we repeated our exit: crawl out, bow, rinse off, pool acclimation, repeat… This was an epic, kundalini rising for sure. One that I still feel right now. (Sidenote- if you have ever taken a Bryan Kest workshop, you know the quote that comes to mind; if not, take one! Anyway, It kept popping into my head randomly after this throughout the week. Thank you BK for your exclusive quotes!) I felt like any hardness that had taken root inside me, was either loosened or freed.
Round 3: It’s dusk and the stars were in position… This time we acknowledged all those we have both given and received ill will and made peace with past relationships that continue to take up real estate in our daily conscience: “Perdoname, Lo Siento, Te amo, Gracias”, (Forgive me, I’m sorry, I love you, Thank you). It was liberating to say the least and left me with the deepest sense of gratitude for anyone who has created an experience of any kind with me. I dedicate this puerta to you.
“Perdoname, Lo Siento, Te Amo, Gracias”
“Forgive Me, I’m Sorry, I Love You, Thank You”
Puerta 4: We entered the final puerta the same way, assumed our final seats. This time, I ended up sitting next to a female, Melanie. Though we were instructed to alternate the female-male seating, we couldn’t see inside the sweat lodge at this point because it was pitch black with exception of the faint amber glow of the abuelitas. We didn’t relocate. This round was the hottest. We were guided to lay down as the ground and the walls are cooler. It felt like by only a couple degrees, but that made a huge difference. The heat didn’t bother me, but I did find comfort in being in this pizza oven; hugging on mother earth. We laid overlapping, sweaty skin on skin, side by side, each other’s limbs as pillows. If you were someone who had personal space issues, you would’ve either freaked or my guess is quickly gotten over it. At that point, nothing mattered because we were all energetically spent, meaning all of our hang ups, holding patterns, and perspectives had been broken down and melted away.
The purpose of a sweat lodge is to rid the physical body of impurities. Um, check. This was the stoniest, stoned I’ve ever felt in my life. No drugs needed or involved- just pure, straight up literal burning tapas. My body felt and still feels physically free. Many things I’ve been working to gain clarity on, clarified. I’ve struggled with mental retention resulting from a head injury I endured over a decade ago. My awareness of retaining information short term is so much better. I would do this again in a heartbeat and plan to… with new intentions, of course. Each sweat lodge experience will never be like the last one. Where you are in your life and what your intention is sets the tone. Cheers to the intention of living the pura vida everyday! Salud!
P.S. For more pictures from the journey, check out my Facebook page, and, ‘like’ it while you’re at it.
I’m honored to continue to carry the torch for the community yoga website, the Atlanta Yoga Scene. I share yoga in weekly yoga classes, workshops, trainings, and retreats. If I’m not teaching, I’m either at home practicing yoga, cooking, gardening, or hanging in my hammock, trail-running with my hubby, and fur-children, Ceasar & the newest addition to the Casa Casey, Vida Paloma. I love creating community and knowing my work lends to positive personal growth and spreading of the yoga tradition. Join me why don’t ya? isabellecasey.com