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A young traveler in Costa Rica seeks out a yoga class, only to discover she has little in common with the other yogis.

As the bus halted and the driver yelled at us all to exit, I saw exactly what I had been expecting. Travelers wearing baggy, tie-dyed trousers. Reggae bars practically floating on smoke. Bohemian boutiques selling healing crystals and dreamcatchers and incense holders. Locals who looked like they had been out of it for the last three days swinging in hammocks.

I stumbled off the bus that I had been sardined into for three hours—relieved to no longer have my face pushed up against the window and my joints bent at inhumane angles—and breathed in the fresh sea air. My back cracked as I stretched. A soft breeze danced through my hair, and I almost thought I heard it whisper, “Pura vida, bro” as it passed by. I had arrived on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, and my first stop: Puerto Viejo.

Desperate to throw down the heavy backpack containing all of my basic necessities and all of my basic not-so-necessities, I marched through the town with determination, kicking up the black sand covered dirt roads as I went. Taxi drivers watched me pass as they rested in their tuk-tuks, feet up on the dash. Women selling shell necklaces on the beach front stopped stringing beads and turned to stare. Hipsters observed me over their smoothies. Rastas peered up from their joints.

I looked out of place. Was having a sense of urgency banned from this small town? Were priorities, punctuality, and persistence not allowed? I slowed my pace and adopted a surfer’s swagger. I undid two buttons of my beach shirt and released my ponytail. I took off my shoes. The hostel was a short walk from the beach, opposite a supermarket and a pizza shack that looked like inhaling its smell would get you ill. I sauntered over to my hostel home, wincing as sharp stones injected my bare feet.

“Dude, that’s why I only eat organic shit now. All the toxicants from meat totally got into my bloodstream and fucked me up. Trust me, dude, chickpeas aren’t even that bad,” a topless hipster sitting near the hostel reception said. Plants flooded the orange window sills, and a stylish black and white map of Costa Rica covered an entire wall. The room was spacious and bright. The sucking sound of lips leaving beer bottles seemed to echo all around. It was midday.

“Aren’t chickpeas the ones that make hummus? Hummus is rad, dude,” a blonde hipster replied to the topless hipster.

An elderly man with a cross earring dangling from his sagging ear lobe sat behind the reception desk. He took my backpack and informed me that I was too early to check in. Even from two meters away I could smell the thick smoke coiled in his thinning, shoulder-length hair.

“Dude, hummus is the shit,” topless hipster agreed. “This one time, I ate, like, a whole tub of hummus before a yoga class, and, dude, I can’t explain it. I felt so hyped, like, so energized. It was crazy, dude.” Blonde hipster smirked and slowly nodded, offered his fist to topless hipster, and they touched knuckles. Both of them took a swig of beer so simultaneously it was like one was a copy and pasted version of the other.

“Hi,” I turned to the boys, giving my best I-am-a-solo-traveler-needing-friends smile. “I heard you guys talking about yoga. You don’t happen to know anywhere good for it around here, do you?” Blonde hipster looked me up and down while topless hipster sat up a little straighter and broadened his shoulders. “I just arrived today,” I added and gave a small laugh to fill the intimidating silence, but it came out more like a squawk.

Twenty minutes later I was climbing the winding stone path—as recommended by the overbearing hipsters—and following the scent of incense like Hansel and Gretel following breadcrumbs. The yoga studio was located at the top of an empty road, an empty road that strayed off of a bigger empty road at the back of town. It was like the community didn’t want to be found, like they were only known through word of mouth, like only people truly dedicated to the art of finding themselves were allowed. The deserted-ness almost mystified the place.

I entered the treehouse room in the yoga studio. The large window at the front overlooked tropical plants that twirled and twisted together, sprouting hot pink flowers and spiky green fruits. Past the trees and into the distance the Caribbean sea was still, playing dead. Mountains backdropped the blue, growing fluffy moustache clouds on their faces. A Costa Rican paradise. In the treehouse, musical notes chimed through a speaker, echoey and trinkety, like some sort of unnerving pixie rain dance.

Incense ambushed the air: wild jasmine and…carrot? A typical incense smell, let’s put it that way. Powerful. Musky. Grandparenty. The room was large, and windows stretched the length of each wall. Glassless windows. Maybe so we could all be more connected with the outside world, more at one with Mother Nature, more bonded to the plants and the dirt and the anonymous shrieking bird that quite honestly sounded like some sort of hellish demon. Relax. Breathe. Presence.

“Gently close your eyes. Reach your arms upward towards the sky. Exhale as you rise. Inhale as you release. Feel the power of the sun. The power of the Earth. The power of your heart. When you feel ready, slowly place your hands on your belly. Feel your being. Inhale deeply. Exhale deeper. Keep your eyes closed. Relax the backs of your eyeballs.”

Relax the backs of my eyeballs? And what is the best technique to accomplish such an elite yoga move, may I ask? I glanced around the room to gauge people’s reactions, expecting to catch the eyes of a few other amused yogis. Everyone remained composed. Serious. Balanced. Not a smirk in sight.

“Lay on your back. Push yourself into the floor. Feel the support from the ground. Feel its being on your body. Keep your mind focused. Be present. Become an iguana.”

Iguana? I scanned the treehouse room for an exchange of bemusement, even a sneaky eyebrow raise, just any sign of normality…please! Eyes remained closed. Backs remained poised. Dreadlocks remained locked. Would it be appropriate to interrupt and enquire how exactly one becomes an iguana? And what the benefits of such an act contain? And while we’re at it, why am I being hugely overcharged to lay here in the humidity with bohemian strangers—who are all oh-so-present and free and sane—and be told such hysterical nonsense?

The trees swayed outside. I didn’t feel the breeze despite the windows being glassless. Maybe the power of the collective um-ing and ah-ing had cast a powerful bubble all around us, non-susceptible to outside distractions. Or maybe meditation had got me so hot and bothered that my body temperature was past the point of return. Who knew meditation could be so riling?

An aggressive dragon sound piped up to my left. I discreetly side-eyed the woman next to me as she flared her nostrils so extremely I’m surprised their contents didn’t spray everywhere. Her shoulders exaggeratedly moved up and down in sync with her fierce breathing and her face was a slightly concerning shade of tomato.

I decided to abandon my discrete side-eye and adopt full shameless staring as she began violently rocking back and forth, and I wondered whether I should stop to ask if she needed any help. A tissue? Water? Straight jacket? She wore a pink bandana and had plaited thin sections of her wild hair in seemingly random places. Her purple sports bra showed off her tanned stomach, oversized belly ring, and the swirly tattoo that ran down her right side: la vida es bella. Baggy white trousers sat on her tiny hips, and the soles of her feet were sprinkled with dirt. I had a feeling I would be seeing many clones of this woman on my travels through Costa Rica.

I breathed in through my nostrils and out through my mouth. I closed my eyes. I tried to focus my mind on the moment. What’s so great about being present? What if I didn’t want to be there? What if I wanted to daydream about sharing a bottle of champagne on a private jet with Zac Efron en route to Bora Bora and pretend that I was not dehydrating in this treehouse, damaging my spine on the hard wooden floor while feeling its being? Being present was easier said than done when all I could think about was the class ending so I could go and demolish an açai bowl or some vegan vegetables or whatever mindful dietary choices the café downstairs offered.

“During our final position, close your eyes and relax. Release all tension. Think about why you came here today.”

Interesting question. My mouth was dry. My spirit was damp. My arms began to quake under the pressure of my tired body. Exhausted mind. Dwindling patience. I pondered life’s great questions. Dragon girl made an exaggerated groan as she stretched in front of herself, flipping her hair outwards from her head so powerfully her skinny plaits made a thud as they smacked the wooden floor. The hard floor was as comforting as a bed full of needles, yet I embraced it. Finally, I relaxed. I breathed. I was present…in my faraway dream land. Pura vida my a—

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Hannah Hughes

Author Hannah Hughes

Hannah Hughes is a Liverpool-based writing and travel enthusiast. She graduated from The University of Leeds with a degree in English Language & Linguistics, and during her third year completed a study abroad year at the Australian National University. During her time living abroad she backpacked through Australasia and South-East Asia, where she found her love for meeting new people, egg coffee, and crazy beach parties.

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