Until a year ago, the words yoga retreat elicited from me a disdainful cause-and-effect reaction—you say hatha, I say, "See ya!"—rather than any feeling of anticipation or interest. It took an unbearably round-numbered birthday to make me embrace the notion that a week of manipulating myself into and out of contortions taught by instructors from New York's OM Yoga might be a memorable way to celebrate a half-century of life. I certainly needed the exercise, and the opportunity to reflect—or, at least, have a midlife crisis—in another country was appealing. At the Pura Vida Wellness Retreat and Spa, in the Central Valley of Costa Rica, at least no one would know how old I was about to become.
Apart from my dear friend, writer and onetime yoga teacher Suzan Colón, that is. The trip was her idea, so suspecting we'd at least have a laugh and I'd maybe lose a few pounds, I packed sunscreen, Deep Woods Off, and a copy of Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity.
I needn't have bothered. By the time I'd liberated my mind and my body after a few classes and a penetrating Thai massage in a tent, I had no interest in reading up on why my muse might have gone AWOL. The yoga was a demanding, flowing form of hatha, strenuous beyond anything I had ever attempted. Thankfully, OM's excellent teachers, Brian Liem and Sarah Trelease, were more playful than platitudinous in the two sessions—a morning meditative walk followed by hours of instruction, and an early-evening class that was called "restorative" but was equally exhausting.
Located on a steep incline above the city of Alajuela, Pura Vida is cool and cloudy. The mosquitos were nothing, really, compared with the ants that shared our decidedly modest split-level A-frame. Having slid into a middle-aged state where the most Buddha-like thing about me was my belly, the whole experience was a challenge that offered unexpected rewards. Beyond the exhilaration of successfully holding a pose, the exertion forced me to focus. I learned that through the simple exercise of concentrating on my breathing, I could take my body and mind to heretofore unexplored sweet spots I began to call New Outlook on Life and Serenityville. Fear and self-loathing actually began to melt away; so did a surprising number of my expectations and judgments.
This was not an instant transcendence. Over the course of the week, however, Suzan and I ended up doing what people who can finish each other's sentences rarely do: we made new friends together. Stripped of our urban-sophisticate identities, we began to drift into easy exchanges and genuine camaraderie with our teachers and fellow students, savoring simple food—freshly picked tropical fruit, decadent organic chocolate, and café con leche dulce—at communal dining tables. Between classes and coffee body-scrubs, we trekked to the nearby butterfly and hummingbird habitats at La Paz Waterfall Gardens, and to the Poás volcano.
On my birthday, I was serenaded and fed a Costa Rican version of a German chocolate cake, a surprise Suzan conjured up with the front desk and kitchen. (My present to her?Pointing out the good vibes flowing in her direction from a handsome fellow practitioner; they're now engaged.)
The real gift to myself was not just the vacation; it was learning that my sense of adventure extends beyond places one can locate in an atlas into the daunting territory of self-examination. As cynically as I may have embarked on this exotic birthday getaway, I was, by its end, on a bona fide spiritual journey; my karma had trumped my dogma. The jaded 49-year-old version of me would have snorted at the idea of chanting. But the night I turned 50, I attended a musical performance by a raga singer named Gina Salá. "I love you, I love you, just the way you are," I actually sang over and over again, with the blithe self-confidence and detachment born of a brief shining moment of elevated consciousness (and perhaps a little birthday-cake buzz).
It was a mantra that would serve me well in the face of real-world challenges that awaited me on my return home, such as the membership application for AARP in my mailbox, and the bathroom scale that registered my weight loss faithfully—at exactly zero pounds.