“I knew I was looking for more than just a place. I was seeking a feeling. I was traveling all over the world and when I arrived here, the energy was so powerful, I knew - this was it,” Johanna says, her face brightening as she breaks into a soft smile.
We sit side by side on the rocks in the river that flows through her property here at Living Forest Lake Arenal Retreat Center, located just west of Lake Arenal in Costa Rica. The clear, rushing water encapsulates us, as she shares her story. Originally from Finland, Johanna Harmala, Founder of Living Forest, spent nearly 20 years in Ireland where she ran a business based on reason - something her family would “approve of.”
“The difference between the furniture business I built, where I had to be strong and use my head, is that this place," she says, gesturing at the property, "this is what my heart wanted. When I chose to seek expansion versus contraction and design a life around what felt energetically right to me - one that focused on healing and helping others - I knew I was home.”
I drive toward Living Forest with Lake Arenal on my right, the outline of the majestic volcano further out, and the pastures filled with grazing cows and horses to my left. As I arrive, I pass the hand built stone pillars, which remind me of Ireland, and I immediately make the connection of this place with Johanna's native country.
“Welcome!” I hear, and then appears Bree Skoczek, Manager of Living Forest.
“You must be Julia,” she says with her Australian drawl and impish grin, grabbing my bag from the trunk.
She shows me the communal kitchen and the cozy room I’ll be calling home for the next eight days. I had decided what better place to ring in the New Year than a healing center in nature. We walk to the main space - an open, spacious yoga deck with hammocks outling the edges. The surrounding rushing river and singing birds act as our musical backdrop.
In the morning, I sit on the yoga deck near the altar feeling refreshed after my riverside meditation. I had slept so well as last night's rain drops played a tune on the tin roof. Bree invites us to close our eyes as we settle onto our mats, entering her yin “with a splash of yang” yoga sequence.
Afterward, I prepare a healthy breakfast in the kitchen made with local eggs and the organic produce that Christian and Sara from La Farmacia Organica personally deliver.
In the afternoon, I attend a private Transformative Cellular Memory Healing (TCM) session with Johanna. She studied under Don Hanson for over 20 years, traveling with her teacher around the world. TCM is defined as “an experience when tangible currents of energy move through the physical body - expanding and contracting different muscles groups and ultimately dislodging old imprints of fear and tension from the cells - guiding the individual through layers of emotional memory.” This cathartic experience left me feeling cleansed - both light and grounded.
I already begin to feel so connected, so at peace, as I stroll up the hillside, tea in hand, and find a place to lie down on the thick carpet of grass. The clouds have come in a bit as the dusky sky darkens, so I turn on some music and pull on my headset. As the music crescendos, I continue to gaze upward. Suddenly, as if the very song commanded it, the evening sky opens up. I catch my breath as the clouds part, and a deep blanket of stars, painted like low hanging fruit appear - so close, I could almost reach out and pluck one.
New Year’s Eve arrives quietly. I set my intentions, drawing cards with Johanna and Bree. We sit with other guests and share our stories over wine, excitedly and pensively thinking of the new year ahead. Russia, Germany, France, Australia, Finland, and the USA all represented around the table in this tranquil valley.
I get it, I think to myself. I understand how a single place could inspire someone to build her dream here. How her work comes from her heart, how Living Forest embodies mindfulness, nature, and quietude - offers what the human spirit craves. I understand why I will return, even a few weeks later to share this experience with my mother. I understand that I will continue to return here, how I aspire to host my own healing retreats here.
Thank you, Johanna, for following your heart and inspiring others to do the same. What wonders arrive when we move from this place.
The Living Forest is located off the beaten path, within driving distance from the airport, and near waterfalls, the volcano, hot springs, and the beach, but feels like a world away.
- Julia, Director of Outreach | Travel Writer | Yoga Teacher