At the end of February/beginning of March, I attended a week-long Qigong retreat in a magical place in Costa Rica called La Montaña Azul (The Blue Mountain). I learned from Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit. I was initially kicking myself for not writing this review sooner, but I'm glad I waited because it has given me time to fully realize all of the benefits I gained from the experience. Words (even pretty photos) don't do the experience justice, but I'll give it my best shot.
The Blue Mountain
The Blue Mountain is just breathtakingly gorgeous. It's quite a journey to get there, but it is well worth it. It's about a 4 hour drive southeast from the San Jose airport. I think it's fair to describe the journey to get there as harrowing. Think: narrow winding mountain roads, intermittent thick fog (more like clouds, really), only a handful of guard rails here and there, and vehicles passing each other using a system of honks and flashing headlights that is impossible to decipher if you aren't a local. The last hour or so is on bumpy unpaved roads, so when you finally arrive and get out of the bus it feels like you're still moving, kinda like when you first set foot on land after being on a boat.
But, the great thing about this epic trek is that it means the Blue Mountain is secluded and not very developed. The population there is very sparse, and from what I could gather, a close-knit community. Most houses had their own garden, and I saw advertisements for organic produce for sale. The community around the retreat center seems to be pretty keen on local and sustainable practices. Part of that comes from necessity, due to being fairly remote. But, it was still awesome to see.
At the retreat center, you feel fully immersed in nature. It is so serene and peaceful. I was lulled to sleep each night by the sounds of the river and awoke each morning to songs of exotic birds. Having that connection with nature while being in a safe establishment with modern conveniences is wonderful. And necessary. Humans need to spend time in nature.
The retreat center itself is fantastic. There is incredible attention to detail given to everything (including fresh cut flowers in your room and in the common areas every day!), and the staff always greet you with a smile. The weather is so mild that there is no heating or air conditioning (or even walls, in some structures!) You get a nice down blanket to sleep under, which is perfect if it gets a little chilly at night.
The best part about the center is the Maloka, which is the common area where the meals are prepared and served. In the Maloka there is also a small library area with rocking chairs, a table for coloring mandalas, and a fire pit in the center.
The grounds are breathtakingly gorgeous. They are teeming with lush, healthy, beautiful plants and FLOWERS! I couldn't believe how many flowers there were. I repeatedly caught myself walking around with a big fat smile on my face, just because it was so amazing to be among the native flora!
When I wasn't hanging out in the Maloka, I was hiking along the trails on the property. I spent a lot of time near the river, and even went swimming twice. The water is COLD, but cold swimming (or, as scientists call it "whole body cryostimulation") has been shown to have numerous health benefits.
Then there's the Temple of Learning/Practice Temple. It's a few minutes' walk up the mountain from the Maloka. Imagine practicing Qigong with this view!
The food is to die for, and it's all inclusive. Here's what you get:
- Unlimited tea and coffee (the best I've ever drank. Period.)
- Choice of full hot breakfast and/or fresh fruit and yogurt with fresh juice
- Mid-morning baked snack plus fresh fruit and coffee or fruit & herb infusion
- Hot lunch (usually soup + entree) plus dessert with fresh juice
- Mid-afternoon baked snack plus coffee and tea
- Hot dinner (usually soup + entree) plus dessert
- Unlimited tea until bed time (they cut off the coffee supply before dinner)
All of the food is local, fresh, and organic (even if not certified as such). The milk is raw (not pasteurized or homogenized -- just as nature intended) from a cow on the mountain. The honey is from local bees. Everything is made from scratch from fresh ingredients. I intended to take photos of all the meals, but I ended up being so excited to eat the meals that I forgot to document all of them.
Having all of your food needs taken care of REALLY helps you to follow the Three Golden Rules of Qigong practice:
- Relax, don't worry
- Don't overthink
When I am home, a very large percentage of my day is devoted to thinking about meals, with planning, researching recipes, shopping, prepping, and cooking. Even when I travel, I'm still usually somewhat preoccupied with thinking about meals and planning ahead to make sure I'm eating real food made with quality ingredients. To have all of that taken away from me for an entire week, freeing up that much space in my consciousness.....just, wow. I was acutely aware of how much easier it made it for me to adhere to the 3 Golden Rules both during practice and also outside of practice while on the Mountain.
The food isn't Paleo/Primal, but it is certainly Real Food. I never felt deprived or wishing for more food, even though the only meats served were fresh fish and chicken.
Breakfast each day was a hearty mix of scrambled eggs, rice, black beans, plátanos maduros, and freshly made corn tortillas with homemade hot sauce and a type of soured cream on the side. I ate it all, and was fine. There was a point in the past where I was avoiding corn and beans at all costs, but now my gut is healed and I can tolerate these foods.
They are much more creative with their baked goods and flours in Costa Rica than we are here in the US. Growing up, the only kinds of flour I ever encountered were all-purpose and self-rising. At the Blue Mountain, I had delicious baked treats made from the following kinds of flour: tapioca/cassava/manioc/yuca (it's all the same thing; the name varies depending on which country you are in), rice, several types of corn, and my absolute favorite, pejibaye flour.
Pejibaye flour is made from the fruit of the Bactris gasipaes, also known as the peach palm tree. The fruits (which, whaddaya know, look kinda like peaches) are collected, boiled, dried, then ground into flour that is rich in beta carotene, potassium, and vitamin C (and did I mention DELICIOUSNESS?) The fatty acid profile of the fruit varies by region, but they're mostly MUFA, some SFA, and a little PUFA (which is strikingly similar to the fatty acid profile of lard). Point is, it's not a high PUFA food; it's got the right kinds of fats that promote health. According to this paper the ratios are 49% MUFA, 36% SFA, 15% PUFA.
I don't know what they call these delicious morsels of crunchy-yet-crumbly, savory, buttery, earthy goodness, but I could've eaten my weight in them. I can't wait to get back just so I can eat these wonderful treats again!
It was an honor and a treat to get to learn from Grandmaster Wong. He is going to be winding down his travel and start teaching less in the coming years, so that he may spend more time at home in Malaysia. And, before too much longer, he is going to stop teaching new students. If you haven't learned from him before, you won't be able to. So, I am very happy to have had the chance now! And I do plan to return to Costa Rica the next time he is teaching at the Blue Mountain, which hopefully will be next year.
One thing that my husband and I commented to each other about the experience of learning from him is that it is amazing how little he has to actually say in words in order to teach. They say that Qigong is transmitted heart to heart, and that is why it is so critically important to learn in person. The effect was strong on The Blue Mountain. What made the difference? Was it the location? Being in a larger class full of many more advanced students (plus a few Sifus)? Was it because my heart was more open? Was it because he's a Grandmaster? Probably some of all of the above. At any rate, it was incredible, and it was such a joy to be around Grandmaster Wong. He just never stops smiling!
So, Why Go to Costa Rica?
Let's take a look at the benefits that I gained from my week on The Blue Mountain.
- I learned 18 new exercises! Apparently, some of them can't be found in any modern reference books. Having so many new exercises to do has really enriched my practice at home, and will keep me from feeling like I'm practicing the same exercises over and over.
- It is now incredibly easy for me to enter a Qigong/Zen state of mind as I begin to practice. This helps me to get more out of my practices, and also serves as a useful tool during the day if I get stressed. Quickly going into a Zen state of mind is perfect if I need a gentle reset to clear my mind and open my heart.
- I can now experience Chi Flow / Flowing Breeze, Swaying Willow without actually practicing a form! Each class began with Sifu Wong inviting us to enter a Qigong/Zen state of mind and then to experience a gentle Chi Flow. Like I mentioned above, on a stressful day, this could be an even more powerful and quick way to get back on track.
- In my first post about Qigong, I described my incredible improvement in digestive health after I began practicing Qigong. I saw, oh I don't know, maybe 1000% improvement in digestive function after starting Qigong. As amazing as that felt, I knew I still had some ground to cover to get to a fully healthy, normally functioning digestive system. I'm getting much, much closer, and feel like I made leaps and bounds to get there while in Costa Rica.
- An incredible sense of well-being, and calmness. Also, now I finally get what it means to have an open heart, and to truly smile from it. Not to say I didn't before, but my understanding is so much deeper now. I think it helped to be around so many people who have had open hearts for many years.
- A continuation of the above point: I have an even more positive outlook on life, am less cynical, more forgiving, and find it much easier to feel gratitude.
- Mental clarity. Sifu Wong talked a lot about this as a benefit of Qigong during the retreat.
- I now experience Five Animal Play much more frequently at home, and feel like my practices are more productive.
- During the retreat, I was able to cleanse a lot of the remaining negative emotions I had related to the unexpected death of my mom in June 2012. While in Costa Rica, I observed the 1 year anniversary of hugging her goodbye for the last time, which was the night before we started our drive to move to Miami Beach. Pre-Costa Rica, it was still very difficult for me to talk about her and her death without crying. Now, I am able to experience genuine happiness and joy when I think about her. I can look at photos of her and smile, instead of have tears well up in my eyes. Of course, I can certainly still feel very sad at the loss, but compared to what I would typically experience pre-Costa Rica, I feel like now I have a much healthier balance of emotions that are now more predominantly positive rather than negative.
I think this is a pretty impressive list. And I think the biggest reason why I had such an incredible experience is due to the location. Yes, it was a week of Qigong with a Grandmaster, but had that week been in a city where I had to stay in a hotel and fend for myself for food every day, the effect would NOT have been as potent. Like I mentioned above, the setting --- the place, the staff, the all-inclusive nature of the retreat --- allows you to fully relax, stop worrying, stop thinking so much, and ENJOY!