A Journey to Peace in Playa Negra, Costa Rica

My day-to-day life in Austin was becoming unbearable. I am a full-time writer with a day job, freelance writing gigs, and a travel blog. I’ve been plagued with insomnia and stomach problems.

I was told countless times that I would benefit from yoga and meditation, but every time I tried meditation at home, I was easily distracted by the dog barking, the neighbors yelling, and other noises. Yoga also didn’t appeal—it seemed so slow and boring.

But I was reaching burnout, and I knew I had to change my high-stress lifestyle. Through Twitter I found out about Peace Retreat, a yoga retreat in the tiny beach town of Playa Negra, Costa Rica. The tropical setting and laid-back vibe of Costa Rica had always attracted me.

Leaving my busy city life behind and traveling to a quiet, tropical place seemed like the ideal way to decompress and learn yoga and meditation. They were holding a four-day “Authentic Life Retreat” in October, and I signed up.

Peace Retreat is owned by Kevin and Hali McQuillan, a fun and inspirational couple from British Columbia, Canada. They are both recognized yoga teachers and teacher trainers who recently pursued their dream of opening a yoga retreat in Costa Rica. They host groups of all sizes, though there were only two of us since it was rainy season. The retreat is in a jungle setting surrounded by tropical trees and colorful flowers, and it’s a short walk from a great surfing beach.

Each day began with two to three hours of yoga and some meditation. The McQuillans are trained in Baptiste, which is an invigorating Vinyasa flow style. The yoga studio is open-air and screened, so as we practiced, I could feel the breeze and hear the rain, howler monkeys, and birds. I realized how out of touch with nature I had become, and I loved feeling connected again.

Unlike traditional yoga classes, we received lots of teacher assistance. Kevin and Hali helped me move and twist into some of the harder poses. I got to hold a handstand with Kevin’s help, and it gave me a funny sense of happiness, like I was a kid again. It allowed me to see that yoga doesn’t have to be gentle and boring—this type of power yoga is physically demanding and sweat-inducing.

At the same time, it quieted my brain. When I was holding poses, especially challenging ones like the eagle or dancer, I was so focused on staying balanced that I didn’t have time to be bored or let my mind wander. I had massively underestimated yoga’s calming mental component.

Most of my prior yoga experience was with Bikram, which is extremely strict and turned me off. Hali and Kevin’s philosophy is the opposite. “An important piece of yoga is inquiry and curiosity,” Kevin said. They told us to try new things and be creative. Don’t get stagnant. Move your body in different ways than you did the last time. Experiment with different modifications.

I also learned that there isn’t a right or wrong way to meditate. I always thought that meditation required ceasing thoughts to “do it right,” but Kevin said it’s impossible since we’re human. “The thoughts are still happening, but you’re not listening,” he explained. “The practice is recognizing you’re doing that and coming back and landing in your body. What brings you back is presence into something real, like feeling your palms, feet, or breath.” I could totally do that.

Catherine Paulson is a yoga teacher and body worker who lives at the retreat. We were very sore from our first day of yoga. Catherine led an evening session of restorative yoga, which was slow-paced and full of stretching. I could see how that type of yoga had its place, too. The sun had set, and the crickets and frogs came out to sing. I was almost convinced that someone had turned on a sound machine for the jungle setting. The next day, Catherine gave me a soothing hour-long massage and Reiki session to the sound of rain.

Another component of the retreat was self-inquiry discussions, which we did with Kevin for several hours each afternoon. We began by discussing the authenticity. He pointed out how easy it is to just fall into automatic listening rather intentional listening. For example, checking email while on the phone. Can you really be fully present and authentic with that person when you’re barely listening to them?

We explored our “limiting perceptions,” or the negative messages we repeatedly tell ourselves, often without being aware of it. It took a lot of time to peel back the layers, and Kevin asked questions until we were able to find and label them. Once I figured out what mine were, I realized that deep down, I have been sabotaging myself. It was tough to realize that and own that.

A complementary theme Kevin discussed was being present. The past no longer exists and won’t change. The future doesn’t exist yet. It is all about the present moment, but I realized I had been living primarily in the past and future. Now I know that meditation and yoga are two ways to bring me into the now. Being amongst nature helped me, too.

Many other topics were covered, and in a caring yet persistent way, Kevin really had me to dig deep into what’s been eating away at me. It led me to realize it was time to take ownership in situations where I previously thought I was the victim, especially with people in my life who I had issues with. “Drop the blame,” he said. “Own your past and reality.” I felt like I had just received years of therapy in four days.

I learned much more at the retreat; for example, Hali specializes in Ayurveda, and she helped us figure out what our constitution was and gave us information on how best to eat for our type. They both filled me knowledge and inspiration every day.

As the retreat ended, Kevin told me this: “Commitment is great, but without action, there is a breakdown. Set your intentions, and you’ll be amazed to see the results.” I left feeling empowered to be more present and authentic in my life. Several weeks after returning home, I have followed through and am attending classes at local yoga studios, in addition to working on meditation at home.

Looking back, traveling to the Costa Rican jungle and immersing myself in yoga, meditation, and the “pura vida” lifestyle was exactly what I needed. The change of scenery allowed me to disconnect from my busy, technology-laden world and connect with myself and nature. I honestly don’t know that I could have started that journey at home in Austin—it was too easy to make excuses there and get distracted.

I keep making more self-discoveries based on my experiences there, and Kevin has stayed in touch with me as a mentor. I’ve learned how important it is to take care of myself, and I know that my journey to peace has begun. It’s amazing what travel can do.

Disclaimer: Peace Retreat hosted me so I could write about it, but these opinions are fully my own.

Emily Starbuck Crone is a professional writer based in Austin, Texas. Travel is one of her greatest passions, and she runs the travel blog Maiden Voyage. She has been to nearly 100 cities throughout 13 countries and plans to spend the rest of her life seeing as much more as she can.