“Perro mirando hacia abajo, downward-facing dog, adho mukha svanasana.”
Three languages leave Juan Carlos Sánchez’s lips as he guides yoga students through postures at Krama Yoga in the western San José suburb of Escazú.
Around him, students inhale and exhale through the effort of sustaining the pose, pushing their heels and palms against the floor as their bodies become triangles.
The ancient Indian practice of yoga has Ticos and expats hooked at Krama and other studios as its popularity in the Western world trickles to Costa Rica.
Trendy though yoga may have become, several well-trained instructors here ensure the essence is not lost. The goal of each class remains the same: a connection of mind, body and breath that creates a deeper awareness of one’s being.
There’s something out there for most everyone interested in yoga in the San José area, from those who’ve been practicing for years to curious newbies. Different studios focus on different methods, and each has its own vibe, from meditation and relaxationbased classes to sweaty, aerobic sessions.
At Krama Yoga, Sánchez teaches vinyasa flow, inspired by two yoga styles: anusara, a practice focusing on alignment, and ashtanga, one based on a series of challenging postures.
The studio is a converted warehouse near Multiplaza mall in Escazú. The expansive room with its high ceilings and windowless walls creates the feeling of being in a yoga bubble, even though the classes sometimes attract as many as 50 students.
Sánchez usually begins his classes seated, with deep breathing and closed eyes. Then a series of traditional flowing sun salutations gets the heart beating faster. The class progresses into more challenging postures intensified by holding them as Sánchez counts, “Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco.”
By the time he reaches cinco on the difficult poses, what started as dewy perspiration on foreheads becomes full-out sweat as muscles burn and hearts race. At the end of a hard class, sweat drips from unlikely places, such as forearms and shins.
Sánchez’s vinyasa flow class is intense, and regular students are advanced.
“I feel that with an easy class it’s harder to connect with the mind,” the instructor explains.
He says the studio plans to begin offering different levels of classes to give beginners their own environment.
Krama also offers hot yoga classes, for which the room is heated to 30 to 35 degrees Celsius. The idea is that the heat loosens the body and makes it more flexible. Special classes for pregnant women are also available.
Jardín de Yoga Kapoli offers the same level of strenuousness as Krama with a different setting and style.
As the name suggests, the studio sits in an oasis of greenery, back from the main road of busy San Rafael de Escazú.Windows allow you to take it all in, and the sound of a running creek creates a peaceful backdrop.
Instructor Silvia Monge is trained in anusara, and attention to alignment is the center of her classes.
On a recent sunny Thursday morning, a group of about 10 students gathered at Kapoli, a house that’s been converted into a studio. It holds only about that many people, making classes small and attention more personal.
Giving a steady stream of detailed instructions about the correct form for each posture, Monge runs through sun salutations, twists and other poses.
“It’s about learning how to flow with grace and be in an optimal state in which energy flows freely in the body,” she says about anusara practice.
The class wraps up with a long, quiet savasana, or corpse pose, in which Monge encourages students to allow the body to reap the benefits of the class and seek a deep state of relaxation.
In addition to Monge’s vinyasa flow class, Kapoli offers yoga for pregnant women and mothers and babies, as well as classes focused on meditation and mental rejuvenation.
Owner Pilar Herrero jokes that the benefits gained from a yoga class are easily lost if one must commute across San José and back to receive them. She recommends finding a studio close to home.
Fortunately, east-siders have yoga options on their own turf. Kasasana is the reincarnation of Centro Balance Integral Gaia, a former hub of yoga, homeopathy, massage and other treatments in the eastern San José neighborhood of Barrio Dent.
Like Monge, instructor Juan Pablo Barahona bases his classes on anusara, a technique developed in the United States by yoga scholar John Friend.
Barahona describes it as “alignment, incorporating deep intuition.”
This focus on form aims to prevent injury, and Barahona says it helps beginners master proper techniques before moving on to more advanced exercises.
Kasasana’s daytime students are mostly a young, energetic group, reflecting the university vibe of the east side.
The studio is inside a small house, but the classes aren’t so small. This means you could brush arms with your neighbor when swooping your arms overhead during sun salutations. But no one seems to mind, and the closeness creates a collective energy.
Sighing, moaning and laughing are also accepted and normal at Kasasana. In fact, letting go is encouraged.
“It’s a way of playing, making noise and being joyful as the body opens naturally. It’s concentrating on being connected, not forcing silence,” Barahona says.
Kasasana’s classes are organized by levels, from beginner to advanced. Yoga for beginners and pregnant women and meditation classes complement the anusara sessions.
Belly dancing, tai chi and “biocreation,” a class designed by Ronald Esquivel based on using meditation to achieve personal growth, are also on the menu.
On the northwest side of town, at Namasté Ashtanga Yoga Studio, owner Mariela Cruz has created an environment similar to the one in the Mysore region of India, where she has studied with her teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, every year for the past six years.
The studio is a large room with hardwood floors on the second floor of her home in La Uruca, where she lives with her husband Marco Amador, a physical therapist. They’re expecting a baby in February, and Cruz continues to practice daily as her belly grows.
Namasté offers ashtanga and anusara classes. Cruz recommends beginners start with anusara to learn proper techniques before moving on to the more demanding ashtanga practice.
Developed by Jois at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, this method involves synchronizing the breath with a progressive series of postures, Cruz explains.
A core component of the practice is internal heat, created by breath.
“You sweat a lot in the practice. It’s like boiling gold; impurities come out and the body becomes flexible like metal,” she says.
For advanced students, Namasté offers Mysore sessions, named after the region in India, in which practitioners move through the postures on their own under the supervision of an instructor.
The studio recently hosted a workshop with visiting teachers Mark and Joanne Darby, both longtime ashtanga students and owners of a studio in the Canadian city of Montreal. Mark led advanced students through an ashtanga series as Joanne observed, gently pushing back shoulders and hips and helping students make other adjustments. One observer for every 10 students is standard for ashtanga to ensure that no one gets injured.
As the class progressed, advanced students moved into some pretzel-like twisting and balancing postures.
But like any yoga practice, ashtanga is about respecting your limits, so easier variations are an option for those who aren’t quite there yet.
“As my teacher says, only the lazy can’t practice yoga,” Cruz says.
What It’s All About
With the smallest of gyms offering yoga classes and yoga mats on sale at Auto Mercado grocery stores, it’s clear that yoga has caught on in Costa Rica. But what’s it really all about? Instructors say it goes beyond flexibility and exercise to a spiritual and mental connection. And it carries over from the studio into everyday life.
Yoga “awakens consciousness and makes you really think about yourself and ask, ‘Where am I? What am I doing? What do I want to focus on?’” says instructor Juan Carlos Sánchez.
“Fear, conflict and insecurity present themselves and you confront them and realize, ‘Wow, I can do it,’” he adds.
Students tell him they’ve used attitudes developed in yoga class to face problems in their lives.
“They think, ‘If I can do this, I can face other challenges,’” he says.
Fellow instructor Silvia Monge calls yoga a “philosophy and a closer attention to the mind.” By paying closer attention to the way their bodies move, people learn to follow their “natural intelligence” and gain the freedom to trust themselves.
Students are also reminded of humility during class.
“If we’re forcing it, we’re not doing yoga,” Sánchez often says while moving into a difficult pose. “Listen to your body and respect your limits.”
At the end of each class, teachers and students move their hands into prayer position, bow their heads and say the traditional Hindu and Buddhist greeting “namasté.”
It means “my spirit salutes your spirit,” Cruz explains.
“It’s seeing the deepest part of the other person, the soul, and looking beyond the visible.”
Krama Yoga: Guachipelín de Escazú, 800 meters northeast of the Multiplaza roundabout, 215-3535, www.kramayoga.com, one class $15, one month unlimited classes $90, three months $230.
Jardín de Yoga Kapoli: San Rafael de Escazú, 100 meters west, 100 meters south and 100 meters southeast of Plaza Colonial, next to Tulú building, 228-1350, www.kapoli.net, ¢15,000 ($30) per month with one one-hour class per week, packet of six classes ¢30,000 ($60).
Kasasana: Barrio Dent, 250 meters north of Costa Rican-North American Cultural Center, 253-8322, www.kasasana.com, one class ¢4,000 ($8), 10 classes ¢35,000 ($70), ¢15,000 ($30) per month with one class per week.
Namasté Ashtanga Yoga Studio: La Uruca, 600 meters west and 75 meters south of Hospital México, 232-2464, www.ashtangayogacostarica.com, one class $12, one month unlimited classes $60, three months $150, private classes $30 per hour.
Note: These prices are just a sample; all studios have other pricing options by week, month, year, etc.