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Friday, June 2, 2023

Yoga goes ‘beyond the mat’ in Montezuma

From the print edition

Three beach-bronzed women flow through vinyasa, a continuous series of yoga postures. They balance on river boulders and in sandy, fresh water pools. The yoga instructor, a petite, muscled woman with the figure and movements of a dancer, leads her pupils with a lilting voice. The trio looks like Amazonians as they glide into powerful poses appropriately named Warrior, Tree and Scorpion. 

Outside of their Zen, they are New York City professionals, escaping for a week to Costa Rica. But at the moment, they are jungle creatures.

Earlier this year, Ireni Stamou, a Greek Canadian, combined her love of dance, yoga, bodywork and nature into a holistic retreat program she calls Yoga Rica. Based in and around Montezuma at the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula in northwestern Costa Rica, the protected forests, rivers and coast make up Yoga Rica’s outdoor studio. Stamou takes people on river treks and power walks on the beach that include yoga sessions in the elements. These hikes explore meditation, tree climbing and dance. Most practices are timed by the moonrise or other patterns in nature. 

Stamou also teaches yoga classes on the mat at Ylang Ylang Beach resort studio and offers unique classes with bamboo staves.

“These retreat gatherings are to bring like-minded people together into nature,” she said. “It’s not that you just come and do yoga with us but rather we experience yoga together in the rivers and ocean as well as in the studio.”

Stamou first came to Costa Rica to study somatic bodywork. Somatics is a field that employs holistic, body-centered approaches to assist people in integrating and transforming the self through movement and awareness practice. Her career as a professional dancer led her to seek other healing methods. 

“This opens our awareness to the anatomy of ourselves on many levels,” she said, “such as skeletal, muscular, cellular, organs and breathing vessels. The body as a whole is the most important home we live in.”

Not long after her first trip, Stamou packed up her infant son and moved to the tropics permanently. After 12 years of research and practice, she has established Yoga Rica with her husband, Harold Hernández. Hernández also offers Thai massage, personal training and all-day hikes to a private nature reserve.

“A lot of the time people take better care of their cars than they do their bodies,” Stamou said. “The unique, tailored programs we design really put your entire yoga being into practice to maintain your body-engine.”

Vacationing from her desk in a New York City hedge fund, Victoria Schwartz found her way into Stamou’s yoga class from a sign on the beach at the Ylang Ylang Resort. Schwartz and her travel friend, Cassie Fireman, had planned to travel around Costa Rica, but after nearly a week in Montezuma doing yoga and hiking with Stamou, they had yet to travel on.

“Ireni’s yoga practices blend the traditional with spiritual awakening,” Schwartz said. “She combines nature in the practices by using ocean waves, rivers and trees as tools in meditation. This helped me get deeper into my practice and self.”

Yoga 2

Cassie Fireman embraces herself.

Hannah J. Ryan

Schwartz said she’s taken a lot of yoga class in the past seven years, and she hasn’t experienced anything like Stamou’s methods. 

“The things she tells you while sitting in the river or in the sand you can take with you into other aspects of life,” Schwartz said. “You take her yoga beyond the mat. It’s transformative.”

Stamou and her students are seated in a clear pool in the river. The sights, sounds and smells of a jungle-filtered river envelop the senses. These student and others agree that the river yoga practice Stamou leads is especially powerful.

“Being able to release my voice into a waterfall and allow boulders to hold me as I climbed through a river was a freeing experience,” Cassie Fireman said. “The combination of yoga, body work and nature is incredibly healing. I can’t put it into words well but I’m extremely grateful to Ireni for guiding me through these practices.”

In addition, Stamou invites her students to explore dance. Whether on the beach or in the river, alone or with others, we twirled and cartwheeled, leaped and swayed to whatever music was in our minds. Perhaps we looked silly, especially when practicing balance by walking with bamboo sticks on our heads, but it felt good and we had a wonderful time. Shouldn’t health be that way?

“It’s important that we never give up on our bodies,” Stamou said, speaking as a yogi, a mother, an acclaimed dancer, a choreographer and an incredibly fit 49-year-old. “With Yoga Rica, it’s like a return to our source. Here we can learn to be more aware of our environment, culture and living within our means.”

Going there

From San José, take a direct bus to Puntarenas and get off the bus to board the ferry across the Nicoya Gulf. When the ferry arrives at port, re-board the bus to Cóbano, then switch buses and head to Montezuma, where Stamou will be waiting. The cost is approximately ₡7,000 ($14) total. For more information and reservations, visit

Upcoming retreats

Where Dance and Yoga Meet, Where the River and Ocean Meet: Nov. 27-Dec. 3. “Dancers face major challenges and stressful lives and too often burn themselves out,” Stamou said. “The locations in this retreat are where the river and ocean meet making them powerful metaphors for connecting with the obstacles in our lives to flow into the faith of our work and purpose as artists and yogis.”

Redefining the Mid-life Adventure, a retreat for those 45 and older, Dec. 9-16. Includes yoga, meditation, scuba and horseback riding. “This retreat is about embracing aging by tuning in to the yoga practice and activities to sustain and maintain a healthy body,” Stamous said.


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