At the very end of July 2013 I spent another week in paradise at La Montaña Azul (The Blue Mountain) learning Qigong from my Sifu, Anthony Korahais. The experience was just as incredible as my first trip earlier this year, and I am looking forward to returning again for the 10-year anniversary of The Blue Mountain in March 2014. This place really does feel like a second home to me now.
The Blue Mountain
I've already written a lot about The Blue Mountain in my post from February. I don't want to post too much duplicate content, so I encourage you to also read that post, especially if you are considering signing up for one of the retreats at the center.
This time, the drive from the airport to the center was not nearly as bad as I remembered. I think the reason it seemed so bad to me before is because 1.) my husband and I were tired and somewhat stressed when we landed in Costa Rica, since we were about 3 hours behind schedule due to airplane delays and were therefore making that drive after dark 2.) It was my first time flying internationally, and I found the process to be a bit overwhelming, which added to my stress 3.) it was raining most of the way and 4.) I was honestly expecting it to be a 1.5 hr drive, but it's actually more like 4.5 hours. There's a big difference between gearing yourself up for a 2 hour drive and a half day drive. Now that I know what to expect, it's much better :)
So, don't let my description of the drive from February scare you away. It ain't so bad. There's a lot of interesting and pretty scenery along the way (windmills!), and it's actually a great chance to start to get to know some of your soon-to-be Qigong family.
They call The Blue Mountain "Jardin Sin Tiempo", the Garden Without Time. This is such a perfect name. Right away, you feel like you've already been there longer than you really have, the days seem to last forever, and the week passes slowly. Usually, time seems to "fly when you're having fun" but that just doesn't happen here. I can't explain why not! But I'm so glad that it doesn't.
The grounds were still just as breathtakingly beautiful in July as they were in February. There are so many gorgeous, vibrantly colored flowers everywhere. I enjoyed taking walks each day just to admire and photograph the flowers. There's no point in me trying to describe their beauty in words, so here are some of my favorite pictures (you can click on one to enlarge, then browse through them):
I know I said I don't want to post a lot of duplicate content, but the food is so good I gotta give you all the details here, too. You guys know I LOVE good food and that the sourcing and preparation are very important to me, too. Whenever I am not at The Blue Mountain, I am looking forward to my next trip just so I can eat the food :-). I've even had dreams about the food; it's THAT good. Everything is just SO incredibly delicious and amazing.
The price of the retreat includes all of your meals and beverages. Trust me, it's not possible to be hungry while you are at The Blue Mountain because you get 5 meals a day! There is always enough food for you to have seconds, too. The best part about the food is that it is all fresh, ultra local from the mountain and surrounding community, unprocessed, made from scratch (with love), gluten-free, and beyond organic. While some of it is technically not Paleo/Primal, it is all most definitely Real Food and gluten-free. Here's what is included:
- Unlimited tea and the best coffee I've ever drank in my whole life with fresh, raw milk.
- Choice of a full hot breakfast and/or fresh-cut fruit, fresh-pressed juices, and yogurt
- Mid-morning baked snack with fresh fruit plus coffee or herb & fruit chilled infusion
- 2-3 course hot lunch (always an entree + dessert, and usually a soup to start with, too) with choice of fresh chilled juice or a warm herbal/fruit infusion to aid digestion
- Mid-afternoon baked snack, usually with fresh fruit, but always with coffee or the most amazing hot ginger tea you've ever tasted
- 2-3 course hot supper (always an entree + dessert, and usually a soup to start with, too) with choice of fresh chilled juice or a warm herbal/fruit infusion to aid digestion
- Unlimited uncaffeinated tea until the Maloka closes at 10pm (coffee is cut off before supper)
Here's a sampling of the amazing food served there. They take such care with the presentation, making sure your plate is always beautiful! You have my apologies for the dimly lit photos of supper, but one of the perks of The Blue Mountain is that there is intentionally minimal artificial lighting since it can be very disrupting to your sleep cycle and sleep quality. It's terrible for food photography, though ;-) Like the flowers, you can click on one to enlarge, then browse through them if you like.
The Three Golden Rules
There are a ton of reasons why The Blue Mountain is the perfect place to learn and practice Qigong, but I think one of the top reasons is the food. Let me explain. The key to getting results from Qigong is to always follow the 3 Golden Rules:
- Let go of your worries
- Let go of your thoughts
- Enjoy the exercise
Ever since switching to paleo/primal eating 3 years ago, I spend a lot of time thinking about food: researching recipes, shopping, prepping ingredients, cooking, and planning ahead if I'm going to be away from home or eating out. Not to mention I feed my pets a totally homemade, from scratch, raw diet that requires its own planning and preparation. It takes a fair amount of mental energy to stay on top of everything!
Typically, throughout the day, thoughts of what I need to do for our next meal(s) creep into my head, sometimes even during Qigong practice. "How many days will the roast feed us? Do I need to pick up onions on the way home? Did I remember to thaw the animals' food? Will there be a gluten-free option at the work-sponsored lunch or do I need to pack something?" And so forth. If you follow a Paleo, Primal, or Real Food lifestyle -- especially if you are the one in charge of meals -- you can relate to this to some extent.
While at The Blue Mountain, I know that I have to give absolutely zero thought to my food. Everything is taken care of. And everything is healthy, Real Food. I don't have to worry or wonder if they are using weird additives or pesticide-laden produce. I don't have to fret over whether or not I'll feel terrible a few hours after eating. I can just totally relax and simply enjoy the wonderful food.
I noticed in February and I noticed again in July: having all of that responsibility freed up made a HUGE difference in my ability to follow the first two rules, which, therefore, made it easy to follow the third rule.
Of course, not having to worry about driving to and from a venue, dealing with a hotel, or having to find decent restaurant food also help with #1 and #2 (and therefore #3).
And it's not just the food; it's everything about The Blue Mountain. I mean, you did see the photos of the view, right? Having that view and feeling so immersed in nature REALLY helps with the 3 Golden Rules, too.
I am so grateful that Anthony is my Sifu. He is incredibly well-suited to share these ancient Eastern healing arts to a modern Western audience. He makes Qigong and Tai Chi so accessible, understandable, and, importantly, applicable to modern Western life. He has a very no-nonsense, straightforward teaching style that anyone can follow and enjoy. He also makes himself incredibly available to his students if they have questions, both in person and online. The title "Sifu" means "Teacher and Father" and he takes it very seriously and would never leave a student with a lingering question or concern about their practice.
His personal story is very interesting, and knowing his background makes me appreciate the arts and respect him as a teacher that much more. His background and training make him very well-qualified to teach these arts. He went through many different martial arts and teachers before finding Grandmaster Wong. He's already written a great post on his site describing his experiences with martial arts over the past 20 years, so I won't rehash it here. I encourage you to read it. The bottom line is this: he's already been through a trial-and-error process with Qigong and Tai Chi and figured out a method that is not only enjoyable and relaxing, but also gets real results. I've already written in detail about the health improvements I've seen as a direct result of being one of his students. He has an impressive list of testimonials from others, too.
Whether it's a short weekend workshop or a retreat in Costa Rica, Sifu Anthony always puts a lot of thought into what he's going to teach in order to make it interesting and fresh. Except for his 101 class (that everyone MUST take before taking additional classes with him), he doesn't just teach the same old stuff in the same order every time. He's great at grouping together exercises on a theme, and, with his experience, he knows how to combine them so that they can work synergistically to help his students achieve specific results.
For this retreat, each day of class wad dedicated to one of the 5 categories of Qigong: Medical, Vitality, Intellectual, Warrior, and Spiritual. I really enjoyed getting to focus on each type for a full day, so I could learn the differences between them and gain a full appreciation for each distinct type. Before this retreat, I had not had much exposure to anything other than Medical, with some Vitality, and maybe only one or two Warrior exercises. Now, I've learned that Warrior is one of my favorite styles!
Why Learn Qigong in Costa Rica?
There are so many reasons to spend your time and money on a Qigong retreat at The Blue Mountain in Costa Rica. I listed some in my older post, but here are some more:
- As I already mentioned in detail, the setting (and the food!) helps you follow the Three Golden Rules so you get the most out of your practice.
- You will make leaps and bounds in advancing the quality of your practice with a trip to The Blue Mountain. Weekend workshops just aren't on the same level. But if that's all you can do, it's better than never getting any face-to-face instruction. I've been to Costa Rica twice, attended a weekend intensive workshop in Miami, and also been to individual classes at Sifu Anthony's studio in Gainesville, FL, and, not surprisingly, I have felt like I made the hugest advances with my practice while in Costa Rica.
- The Blue Mountain is so remote, clean, and unpolluted, it gives your body a break from dealing with the constant day-to-day environmental stressors we are normally subjected to living in cities, like constantly being in a WiFi field, constant exposure to EMF radiation from computers, TVs, and appliances, indoor pollutants in the home, excessive artificial light exposure after sundown, outdoor air pollution, noise pollution, job stress, etc. Also, there are no pesticides whatsoever in the produce and the meats are as clean and natural as you can get. And the water is probably the purest and cleanest you've ever drank in your life.
- It is a chance to disconnect for a week. There is a computer in the office, yes, but you have to pay by the minute to use it and it is encouraged to only use it for emergencies. Also, your smartphone won't work on the Mountain. While I'm there, I keep a little dinky refillable phone with a local SIM card just so that my pet sitter has a way to reach me in an emergency. Otherwise, I am totally offline for the entire time and it feels GREAT.
- As an extension of #4, the lack of electronic entertainment/distraction means you have time to connect with the people you are there with. You will forge some amazing friendships with your new Qigong family, I promise! It's amazing to have the freedom to just sit around and talk to people while sipping some great coffee or tea without having to worry about work or any other responsibilities. Your only real responsibilities while there are to show up to meals and practice on time.
- You will get to learn a TON of exercises to add a lot of variety to your practice! If you do not have a local Qigong Sifu to teach you new exercises frequently and only know a few exercises, you may find yourself getting bored with doing the same things every day. I now know so many exercises that I never feel like my practice is repetitive (unless, of course, I want it to be. Sometimes Carrying the Moon just feels so wonderful that I do it in every practice for long stretches). This is also a huge plus for people learning Qigong for the first time -- learning so many exercises right off the bat will help you stick with your practice.
- I've already raved about the food, but, it's worth saying again: it's almost like a food vacation. With the absolute best-sourced, super high-quality, Real Food you can imagine, prepared with love.
Why Learn Qigong At All?
Why even do Qigong in the first place, much less in Costa Rica? Well, that's a subject for a blog post on its own, but in short: we need to relax. We all need something in our lives to elicit the relaxation response, which is the scientific term for the opposite of the stress response, or, as you may know it, the fight or flight reaction. Evidence is mounting in the scientific literature that the chronic stress most of us face in normal day-to-day life is absolutely devastating to our health and increases the risk of early death. I was first exposed to just how detrimental chronic stress is by neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky while I was still a wee undergraduate at Tulane (I got to meet him!). His book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers is a great read. Harvard Psychiatrist John Denninger has done some really incredible research on using the relaxation response (including Qigong and Tai Chi!) to treat obesity, cardiovascular disease, depression, suicidal tendencies, autism, and even to help women cope with the stress of having to undergo a breast biopsy after finding a lump.
Bottom line: doing something to elicit the relaxation response is incredibly important to maintain good health and longevity -- and Qigong is an excellent way to do that every day. So is yoga, meditation, tai chi, or other traditional mindfulness rituals.
Flowing Zen Online Academy
Ok, so you are convinced to try Qigong but don't live near the studio in Gainesville, FL, don't live in a city where Sifu Anthony does weekend workshops, and definitely can't make it to Costa Rica. You could try learning from Sifu Wong's books, but what if you have questions or need personalized guidance? Well, to be able to bring these amazing arts to a much wider audience, Sifu Antony is launching the Flowing Zen Online Academy in 2014.
Sifu Anthony used to say he didn't believe in teaching Qigong online, but he's evolved his opinion on the matter (you can read a lot more about that here). I agree with his thinking and believe that this new step is the best thing he can do to bring these arts to the people who need them and to help his existing long-distance students (like myself) maintain a healthy, robust, and regular solo practice. If you are totally new to Qigong, the Academy will give you everything you need to start practicing at home by yourself, so that you can start to reap the benefits of regular Qigong practice.
I strongly encourage you to sign up and preview all of the free content he's offering. You won't be disappointed, I promise! He's hard at work creating excellent content for the Academy, which includes high-quality instructional videos for how to perform the exercises, guided audio files to help you through practices, a community forum where you can interact with Sifu Anthony and fellow students, periodic live webinars with Anthony to answer your questions, and lots of supportive materials (charts, PDFs, etc.) to help you learn. And it will always be growing to include new content.
IMPORTANT NOTE: I have said this before, and I just want to reiterate it: I have absolutely no financial ties to Flowing Zen. In fact, I pay my Sifu money to teach me these arts. Some of my blog posts are reviews in exchange for free goods or services, but this is not one of those! This is my genuine opinion, shared with you just because I think Qigong and my Sifu are so amazing! :-) However, a couple of the links in this post to books on Amazon are affiliate links, and you can learn more about what that means here.