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Healing My Heart in Costa Rica

I arrived at Peace Retreat Costa Rica on an overcast Saturday afternoon.  My eyes were tired – I had been awake as a traveling insomniac for nearly 40 hours by the time I was met by the friendly face of retreat founder and owner, Kevin McQuillan, at the Liberia International Airport.  As we made the hour-plus journey to Peace Retreat, I was overwhelmed by the beauty all around me.  I have been blessed to have visited many beautiful places on this planet, but there is always something so special about those first few hours in a new country.

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Arriving at Peace Retreat
Arriving at Peace Retreat

The previous evening, as my boyfriend, Sean, drove me to the Calgary International Airport, I cried.  In fact, I cried a few days before I left.  And for the entire two hours leading up to the moment that we left our apartment.  And then I cried as I said goodbye, and when I checked in for my flight…and then I cried all the way to Toronto.  It was safe to say that I was a bit of an emotional wreck by the time I arrived at Peace Retreat.  I was missing Sean, I was anxious to be traveling alone for the first time to somewhere so different, and I was fighting back the thoughts of the life I had left behind in Canada.

I took this teary photo in the departures terminal at the Calgary International Airport to remind myself how I was feeling when I began my journey.
I took this teary photo in the departures terminal at the Calgary International Airport to remind myself how I was feeling when I began my journey.

Before I begin, I want to explain how I am going to break down my experience at Peace Retreat.  It came to me right in the middle of my trip, during a restorative evening yoga class that Kevin was teaching.  His words were – “Honour yourself – Who you Were, Who you Are, and Who you’re Becoming.”  I smiled as I realized to myself that I had found the perfect way to describe the transformation I was experiencing at Peace Retreat.  Who I Was – the shaky, unstable person I left behind back home.  Who I Am – the person on that mat in Costa Rica, and everything she thought, felt, and experienced during her time there.  And – Who I’m Becoming – the constant transformation towards who I will be, and all of the lessons I will carry with me from Peace Retreat.

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WHO I WAS

Let me give you a quick peek into the baggage that I begrudgingly carried with me to Costa Rica.  Two years ago, I had no significant struggles – other than the basic stuff…scary student loans, awkward twenty-something adjustments to real life, remembering to feed my fish.  But in the last 24 months, my father and my best friend, revealed his long-term struggle with addiction, which led to the eventual destruction of my parents’ marriage, my family, and all of our lives as we knew them.

My entire foundation felt like it was gone.  I went from being the girl from the Okanagan whose parents were happily married and owned a beautiful house in the hills with a big fancy boat, to a girl who watched her father slowly slip away deeper and deeper into the depths of alcoholism until it felt like there was almost nothing left.  I watched my mother attempt to start fresh at 52 on her own, my baby sister struggle with challenges that nobody should ever have to, and everything I had ever felt solid about dissolve into thin air.

I could write for days, weeks even, about my Father’s illness and what it has done to him, to us, to me.  And maybe someday I will.  But the real reason I wanted to write this article is to give my readers a real, raw, transparent and authentic look into the ways that my 10 day solo retreat at Peace Retreat transformed – and healed – my broken spirit.

The moment I arrived at Peace Retreat itself will forever be etched into my memory.  As Kevin showed me to my room and provided a brief tour of the grounds, my heartbeat slowed from anxious and uneasy to relaxed and safe.  I knew right then that I had chosen the perfect destination for my solo retreat.  I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Flying into Costa Rica
Flying into Costa Rica

WHO I AM

During my 10 days at Peace, I pushed my personal limits in many ways.  I disconnected from most of technology, I forced myself to be social and meet new people, I challenged myself to try things that I was afraid of, and, most of all, I spent 10 days by myself – a great feat for someone who felt she had become a little too reliant on the strong foundation of her boyfriend back home.  During the first few nights, my anxiety was elevated, simply because I was in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar sounds.  After some time passed, I began to relax and enjoy the silence and solitude.

My days looked like this; I was usually awoken by the Howler Monkeys at about 5:30am.  I would typically get ready for the day, change into my yoga clothes, and then spend 10 – 15 minutes doing mantra meditation in my room.  I would then eat a light snack (usually fresh fruit) before yoga began at 7am.  Breakfast was served after yoga, around 8:30am, and then I had the entire day to fill my time however I wanted to before evening yoga at 5pm.

A Happy Face in Costa Rica
A Happy Face in Costa Rica

The yoga itself was transformational and healing.  Most days we practiced a slower, deeper vinyasa flow, which was a huge change from the fast-paced, calorie-torching classes I was used to taking back home.  These classes were challenging in an entirely different way.  The postures were held for longer, and the instructors were attentive and made adjustments to you as they needed to.  The evening classes were typically more restorative, and on several occasions emotional.  I was relieved to know that I wasn’t the only one who had ended several classes with tears flowing down the sides of my cheeks while I lay in Savasana.

When I wasn’t in yoga class, I would fill my days with poolside relaxation, reading, writing, journeys into town to buy groceries or to the beach, and self-guided meditation.  I spent one day zip lining, which was thrilling, challenging and empowering, a day in the nearby town of Tamarindo for some shopping and dinner with a few of the girls I had met, and an afternoon in a life-coaching style session with Kevin, where I was able to release a lot of the things I had been holding onto when I arrived at Peace.  I ate whole, healthful foods and drank no alcohol other than one fresh strawberry mojito in Tamarindo and the local beer I had on my last night.  With each passing day I began to feel lighter, as if some previous weight had been lifted.  I began sleeping better, meditating more deeply, and being more mindful of everything I did – including my yoga practise.  I found peace in stillness where I would formerly find unease.  I found relaxation in solitude where I would formerly find anxiety.  It was a beautiful transformation.

Sunset Beach Yoga
Sunset Beach Yoga

WHO I’M BECOMING

I have been home from Peace Retreat for 3 weeks now, and I cannot express my gratitude for the time I spent there enough.  Since returning home, I am a much more calm and mindful person.  I came home to a couple of rude awakenings – my car broke down the day I got back to Calgary and had to be taken in to the shop THREE times to fix the problem, costing me just shy of a thousand dollars.  The stress reaction in my shin returned when I began running again after 3 weeks of rest – meaning that I was to endure another devastating, lengthy period of no running.  And, most traumatic of all, my father ended up back in the hospital for complications due to his illness, and I was told that he may not survive this time.  I was on a plane a few days later to go and say what I thought were my final goodbyes.

Even though life has thrown me several harsh curve balls since returning home, I have been able to handle them all with ease and grace, and I know that I owe this behaviour to my time spent at Peace Retreat.  Experiences that would have formerly crippled me and left me panicking, crying and looking for someone to blame instead brought me to deep breathing and approaching the challenges in a new way.  And guess what?  This is a MUCH more peaceful way to live.

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The main things I learned at Peace Retreat were;

1. Solitude is a blessing, not an inconvenience.  Being peacefully alone with oneself is one of life’s greatest gifts.

2. You have no control over the world around you – you can only control your own reactions to the circumstances before you.

3. Your worth as a human being is not defined by the struggles of the people you love.  It is okay to distance yourself and create the person who YOU want to be instead.  This doesn’t mean that you don’t still love these people.  It just means that you will not let their choices determine your destiny.

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I envision myself headed towards a life filled with even more peace.  I aim to continue meditating through my favourite forms – mantra meditation, art and running – and to continue practicing yoga, but in a new way.  I used to see yoga as a workout…my intention was typically to get my heart rate going and burn lots of calories.  After spending time at Peace Retreat, I now see yoga as a way to connect inward to myself and as a meditative way to connect movement to breath.

I also plan to spend more time alone.  And not alone by laying on the couch watching Netflix and texting my friends…truly alone, in pure, quiet solitude – especially in nature.  My time in Costa Rica has also inspired me to do more solo travel.  It is such a beautiful and empowering thing, and you feel stronger and more confident every single day.  I actually currently have my sights set on Scotland – where I plan to visit one of the amazing girls that I met at Peace Retreat.

If you’re searching for answers, whatever your struggles may be, I hope that, instead of looking for them outside of yourself, you instead turn to seek them inside of yourself.  Whether you need to book a solo retreat to Costa Rica like I did, or go somewhere else, or just take a day to sit with yourself in the comfort of your own home, I promise that you will feel stronger, more peaceful and more balanced if you simply tune in to yourself and give yourself what you need.

You are always ready for Peace.

*Read my detailed review of the Peace Retreat Property here.*

*Interested in doing your own retreat at Peace?  Check out their upcoming retreat called Ready?  Shed!  Glow.  I wish I could go more than anything!*

Ashley Dempster is a twenty-something Canadian Travel and Adventure blogger based in Calgary, Canada. Her passions include good food, minimalist packing, running, music, and chasing down every opportunity for adventure.

10 Comments

  1. This is beautiful, Ashley <3
    The entire Universe has a beautiful way of preparing us for what we need to face, at exactly the time it needs to happen.
    I am so happy to hear you are facing all your challenges with grace. I trust that things will only get easier from here.
    And this retreat sounds so amazing! I'll have to take a peak =) Thank you for sharing.

    Stay blessed.

  2. What a beautiful post and experience.
    I’ve had the opportunity to take classes from Kevin and Hallie when they’ve been in Calgary and they are truly amazing.
    I’m sorry for everything you’ve been through. I too had my life shaken 2 years ago and it’s been a struggle, but I’ve learned so much.

    1. They are truly amazing! I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting Hali but I could sense how much of her heart and soul went into creating Peace Retreat.

      I’m learning to accept these struggles with gratitude because as cliche as it sounds, they truly do make us stronger. ❤️

  3. Firstly, what a great blog! I’m a first time reader who stumbled upon this when I saw your review of Peace Retreat on Trip Advisor. I too am traveling solo to PR in two weeks. I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed your time there so much. I too will be traveling alone for the first time and am nervous about meeting new people on my own without the support of my more outgoing husband. I’ll be volunteering my time there in the mornings in exchange for free accommodation. Did you see any volunteers when you were there?

    1. Hi Laura! I hope this reply made it to you in time, I’m so sorry it has taken me so long.

      90% of the people I hung out with were other volunteers. They are amazing, friendly, so sweet, and all there for the same reason. You’ll meet people so easily. Kevin holds morning meetings with all of the volunteers and they’re more like therapy sessions haha…it’s such a beautiful space. You’ll be in heaven.

      Good luck and enjoy the journey! xx

      -Ashley

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