January 23, 2016. 6am. There was a full moon, and I tossed and turned all night, getting hardly any sleep. I arose to howler monkeys and screeching birds which substituted for my alarm clock, went to the bathroom, and attempted to take some snapshots of my loud neighbors. Unsuccessful, I laid back down in my bug net enclosed bed and attempted to fall back asleep. For a brief moment my mind and the jungle surrounding me went quiet. My breathing went heavy. I began, uncontrollably, to cry.
My journey to the Osa Peninsula, located in Southwestern Costa Rica, began a week ago. I flew into San Jose airport, caught a tiny plane and headed an hour south. A runway slowly appeared past a bay among thick jungle. A graveyard bordered it to the right. We landed, and the other passengers and myself awkwardly squeezed out of the plane and stepped into the wall of 90 degree weather and 90% humidity. Sweat poured out of me. A taxi driver was screaming my name at every male who passed him, so I introduced myself. He spoke no english; my espanol was, let’s say, no bueno. My knowledge of the Spanish language consisted of barely passing a year of language classes in college, along with slang and curse words I was taught while working in southern California restaurants.
2 other ladies and myself climbed into the 4 wheel drive taxi with me in the passenger seat, and we headed down an incredibly bumpy gravel road. The ladies were here for a yoga retreat and were staying at another eco lodge. They were very nice, and one spoke spanish. She and the cab driver conversed, while I, tired from a full night of traveling, listened intently hoping that some of it would stick.
Our cab driver turned on the radio and Milli Vanilli came blasting out of the speakers. He pointed to cows. “Las vacas!” he exclaimed, while explaining things that seemed very fascinating, according to the spanish speaking yogi’s reactions. “y los Caballos!” he exclaimed as we passed a field of horses. The spanish lesson died down as the chorus would come around so the ladies and the cabby could serenade me with “girl you know it’s true!”
The ladies were dropped off at their yoga retreat and it was just the cab driver, myself, and Marky Mark singing about Good Vibrations with his Funky Bunch.
15 minutes later we arrived to Tierra de Milagros – “The Land of Miracles.” The eco lodge was nestled within the jungle and overlooked the ocean. Heather, an english speaking (thank God) Caucasian lady with an instantly warm and inviting personality met us and took me to a large open house — the casa grande — with a kitchen, large couches, a dining room table and a couple hammocks. She gave me the run-down of things, and asked if I was hungry. It was 2pm; class started at 9am. I was late. I shoveled some delicious vegetarian curry with rice down my throat, and she showed me to my cabina. As my stomach was uncomfortably digesting food which I ate way too fast, it set in: I’m here for a week of ‘Chi Nei Tsang’ and Thai abdominal massage training.
Heather took me to my cabin, which was a small 2 story structure. It was completely open with waist-level walls, and a roof made of tightly woven leaves. I shared it with three bats and Pedro, a Tico (“Tico” is what Costa Ricans call themselves) living in New York, who I would meet later. He had taken over the first floor, so I climbed up a ladder and set my things down next to my bug net enclosed bed. I took a peek out my balcony and then climbed down so I could join the rest of the students.
I walked into a large structure facing the ocean. Instantly I saw the glowing familiar face of Kate, the beautiful left brained half of the duo who would be facilitating this magical week of chanting, sobbing, screaming, wretching, laughing, and bonding. This wasn’t some ayahuasca ceremony, or radical new-age therapy retreat. This was real bodywork.
Kate came over and gave me a big hug. She filled me in on some things and then I joined the group and observed Chris, the very solid bodied, long haired, right brained, unfiltered, mixture of crass, wisdom, and charm, as he was demonstrating how to open the wind gates around pedro’s belly button (more on wind gates another day). He finished his demonstration, had us break into pairs, came over and gave me a big hug.
Around 4:30pm we broke for the day. Kate announced that she was going swimming in the ocean. Pedro followed, as well as Adam, who was a tall ex-football player who used to work in trades and investments but now hugs trees and regularly practices yoga with his yogi entrepreneurial girlfriend Kaitlin, who was also in attendance. Kaitlin, along with Maria, Sara, Cecily, and Brooke, went back to their cabinas. My sweat covered body went to the ocean.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner were all prepared by Heather. They were mostly vegetarian, non-dairy and gluten free and without a doubt the best meals I’ve ever had. We had Tico-Thai tuna salad – a blending of Costa Rican and Southeast Asian influences, homemade falafel, hummus, pad thai made with veggie strings rather than noodles, soups, frittatas, star fruit and passion fruit juices and salsas, ceviche, fresh papaya, pineapple, watermelon, and salads with lettuce, cabbage, heart of palm, basil, rice and beans, and so many other flavors that my taste buds will never forget.
We stumbled to the casa grande for lunch one afternoon and Heather was playing “Let’s Dance” by David Bowie. I had a personal moment of silence and reflection for this great artist who passed away a week prior. I’ve always admired him and his music from afar. Here was a man who was teased as a child for being different, yet embraced his “otherness” and unapologetically followed his heart rather than his head, wherever it led him. How fitting, I felt, to hear him serenading this group of weirdos who left America, some, a week ago, some, twelve years ago, to learn how to rub bellies and chant and breathe tension out in ways that practically induced exorcisms, for a week in the jungle.
“Where the Mind Goes, Energy Follows”
Chi nei tsang and Thai massage are very much a dance between the practitioner and receiver. As the practitioner, I am working as a conduit of health and healing – a facilitator who listens to the body and goes where it takes me. I listen for the right depth, at the right place, at the right time. The receiver focuses on their breath, using it to bring awareness to the parts of their body being worked on, while relaxing areas of tension, literally exhaling out knots, adhesions, emotions, and other waste products (we eliminate more waste through exhaling than we do sweating and/or urinating). When these two beings come together, the dance can be beautiful and profound.
Thai medicine works on the theory that we are made up of Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and Consciousness. We have solid earth-like structures such as bone and solid organs. We contain water in the form of mucus, saliva, urine, etc. Fire aids our digestion, elicits anger, drives us to be successful. Wind flows through our muscles and tendons to move our joints and bring about mobility; it is the force that circulates our blood. All complement and support each other, and when one is unbalanced, eventually all will become unbalanced. It is this unbalance that causes disease and dysfunction. From this point of view it becomes clear that physical, emotional, and energetic tension are all the same. Tension is tension. You cannot elicit healing by compartmentalizing treatment and focusing on just one aspect; you have to be mindful of all realms that you are treading through. When studied in depth, one can explain all diseases western bio-medicine explains. They are simply two different metaphors describing the same chemistry, physiology, and dis-ease.
“Come To The River. Wash My Soul Away”
During our practices, everyone had some intense somato-emotional reactions. Some responded with a contemplative gaze, others shed tears. Some rolled around and screamed and sobbed uncontrollably, and some ran to a nearby river in order to ground themselves. Not everyone knew where these emotions came from, but all these moments, no matter the degree, illuminated the magnificent interconnected beauty in all of us — the power of our breath and the compassionate space that everyone held for each other was nothing I’d experienced before, and something every human being deserves to feel. Maria eloquently observed that sometimes bad entities and emotions which have become stuck within us cannot compete with love and oxygen (this is why it is so important for the practitioner to be compassionate and for the receiver to breathe). Some leave politely, while others exit kicking and screaming.
As the end of the week approached, all of us gained a significant appreciation for ourselves, each other, and every body. The other students were taken away by taxis, with Pedro, mi hermano from another madre, being one of the last to go. I added three extra days to my journey in order to do some much needed decompressing from life outside the Osa, and to digest (no pun intended) all that I’d encountered over the past week.
Heather let me stay one more night at The Land of Miracles, as I was moving to another eco lodge in the morning. That night, she drove me on her ATV to Martina’s, an expatriate cantina. Friday nights are big social nights, with all the locals and tourists mingling and dancing and drinking together. Chris, Kate, Cecily, and Maria were there. They explained how yoga groups come in on Saturdays, and the participants experience a week of enlightenment and health. When Friday evening rolls around, they watch as the health and enlightenment quickly leaves to make room for each additional drink, and bodies begin to climb up and dance on the bar table. The two yoga ladies I met at the beginning of my trip ran into me, and I sat back and watched this theory turn into practice.
The moon was full that night as we headed home by 4-wheeler through the jungle. Heather and I bonded, and I felt eternally grateful for her hospitality and nutritional healing. We walked down toward the beach to try to see the moon. She told me that full moons always make for a restless night in the Osa. There were too many clouds to get a good look, so instead we gazed at a star fruit tree and a sky full of palm tree shadows, illuminated by the reflecting ocean.
I walked back to my cabina and read for a couple hours before trying to fall asleep. I tossed and turned all night until my howler monkey and bird alarm clock went off, and the tears began to flow.
It was uncontrollable. It wasn’t about pain or sadness. It was about loving kindness and freedom. Freedom from city life, tv, bars, excuses, denial, fears and other walls that work as great deceptors of ourselves. I was surrounded by nature that wasn’t tamed but rather co-existed with humanity; loving people, and love for myself. I was Earth, Water, Fire, and Wind, and this planet shared my consciousness. We are all interconnected vibrating atoms that share the unpleasant experience of tension in all of its manifestations. And when we hurt, the earth hurts. When we hurt the earth with pesticides and clear-cutting, the earth hurts us with bigger pest problems and unhealthy crops. We are all significant, yet humbly insignificant at the same time (your problems are no better than my problems. Problems are just problems that can turn into opportunities depending on one’s perception). When we focus on our differences it causes violence. Looking for and focusing on our shared experiences all of a sudden felt much more practical. With this I felt lighter and grateful.
I cannot wait to bring what I’ve learned back to my little massage clinic, as the healing of myself allows me to better facilitate the healing of others. So if you’ll have me, let’s dance.