"I was looking for a one bedroom on the beach, and wanted to work remotely part time, and write a book. But, I kept seeing a “tropical riverside retreat” for sale, and decided to buy Vida Asana site unseen instead."
Sean McDonald decided to move to a foreign country, not knowing the language, culture, or real estate laws - and had no hospitality experience. He put it all reasoning aside for a big dream that kept nudging at him - to own and operate an eco retreat in Costa Rica.
Sean McDonald grew up in Pennsylvania but moved to Belgium when at 17 to pursue a professional cycling career. He spent most of a year deciding whether he wanted to move to Belgium and pursue cycling, or move to Costa Rica to open a surfing camp.
Tell us about your life before Costa Rica – what events lead to your decision to leave the U.S. and move abroad?
I had been in rough shape for a number of years, from a cycling related injury and a fall down a flight of steps. I came to Costa Rica to a surf camp I found on Groupon or Living Social…and hurt my shoulder. The physical therapist after surgery found a hip injury that must have occurred when I hurt my back, but was missed all those years. After a successful surgery, I knew I wanted to get out of NYC and find a more active and outdoor lifestyle. Because I had dreamed of a surf camp in Costa Rica, and attending one there led to the chain of events that got my hip repaired - it was a natural place to come. I was looking for a one bedroom on the beach, and wanted to work remotely part time, and write a book. But, I kept seeing a “tropical riverside retreat” for sale, and decided to buy Vida Asana site unseen instead.
How did the experience from being televised on the popular HGTV show House Hunters International impact your life?
I got reconnected to a lot of people I met over the years. Plus, it made the whole thing seem real. My kid will see that one day, and I don’t want her to see me talking about things I was going to do, but never did. It also made me reevaluate my decision making as a parent. There are websites where people talk about reality TV shows, and on one of them people were making fun of our daughter’s name and my business decisions, and she could read that too one day. Just made me want to get my ego in check and to make sure she always comes first.
You had a major health set back – can you tell us about it and how it influences decisions, thought process, etc.?
I’m fragile, I get hurt a lot. I recently had a spine injury. I had a few discs in my neck that were compromised by a series of sports related traumas, and also many years of working hunched over a laptop. The final straw was one night when I was hula hooping with my daughter Juju on my shoulders and she and my head went one way, while I followed my hips the other way. I had two discs replaced in my neck, with an artificial disc called the “Mobi-C.” I did at hundreds of hours of research and spoke to a number of surgeons. Most surgeons wanted to push me into a fusion, but after a lot of research and talking to many surgeons I knew that wasn’t the right option for me. I was having a hard time getting on the schedule of the surgeon I wanted to see about the Mobi-C, which meant travelling back to NYC. I was here in Costa Rica and had a great surgeon here, but he wanted to do a fusion. I was in so much pain that finally I cracked and scheduled the fusion, but I knew in my head the replacement disc was right for me. So late on a Friday I cancelled Monday surgery, and then was able to get an appointment at Dr. Huang’s office in NYC at Hospital for Special Surgery. He agreed that I was a candidate, and blessedly also agreed to take my Costa Rican insurance. Within a month I was feeling better than I had in years.
Can you give us some insight on what it takes to start and maintain an eco lodge in Costa Rica? What are the biggest challenges? What are the biggest rewards?
I think to be stubborn and unwilling to take no for an answer are the two most important things. Just to relentlessly go forward even when everything seems hopeless, because holy shit, at times it felt so hopeless. We had legal issues, the previous owner got sued and we couldn’t close because there was a lien on the property. We had days or weeks where we couldn’t get the water turned on, issues with being able to get stable electric. I had never worked in hospitality, never been the boss of anything, didn’t speak Spanish, had no background in yoga, was just becoming a dad, was still working remotely in the US… everything about the first 2 or 3 years was a challenge. The food, getting the food right was an enormous challenge that my friend Heather Hands solved for me, by creating an menu full of complex flavors and advanced cooking concepts, systemized so precisely that anyone who can follow directions can achieve the dishes we serve. But we learned as a team here, I have two employees who started my first day here, and a bunch more who have been here for several years, and we just continued to learn. Now the biggest challenges are maintenance, and the round the clock nature of the space. 24/7 we are responsible for the health and wellness of our guests who are on retreat in a foreign country. Just expecting the best and being prepared for anything. Selfishly returning guests are what I find most rewarding. I mean, there are countless awesome places to take a retreat, so having groups come back 6 years in a row is huge personal validation for me. People come here and feel like they leave having shifted a lot in their lives. We also host a free retreat each year for parents who have lost a child, through Waves of Hope (wavesofhope.life). They get all of the experience of any Vida Asana retreat, all of the yoga and activities are included, and we fly in a group of great professionals to help them process grief. I think most importantly the create a fraternity of people who can understand the experience, because they are also living it.
Please tell us how yoga plays a role in your life
It’s funny, I never even thought of or had any interest in yoga. I bought Vida Asana with a plan to reinvent it as more of a summer camp for grownups. I think to some extent I’ve accomplished that, but in a very yoga-centric way. I live in a small community and do my best to live to the teachings of yoga. I had developed a consistent daily practice I loved until the recent surgery and I’m just now ready to get back on the mat. I’m emotional by nature and just getting more consistent at returning to my breath has made me a more competent leader of Vida Asana and a more proactive father.
Describe a typical group retreat at Vida Asana
Every retreat in unique and different, but one thing I think we do our best at is food. We’ve hosted everything from silent meditation retreats to what I call “retox and detox” retreats where the groups are pretty boisterous in the evening, but then up with the sun for yoga and a smoothie. To my previous comments, the bulk of our retreats are what I’d call mindful and adventurous yoga camp. We do a lot of yoga, but we also go rafting, surfing, ziplining, have cacao ceremonies, Temazcal sweat lodges, hiking, swimming in waterfalls, etc.
If you could look back 10 years and offer yourself words of wisdom – what would they be?
Don’t be a dick.
What do you see for your future in Costa Rica?
We are embarking on a pretty ambitious remodel and will have some apartments and timeshares available. I just want to continue to build this community in a way that serves everyone from the once in a lifetime retreater, to the once a year guest, to the live here all year permanent resident. I want to build community. Eventually my dream would be to sell or donate Vida Asana to a non-profit and for it to have enough capital that we can run whatever retreats and efforts we chose free of financial obligations.
What advice would you give someone who is thinking about completely changing their lives in order to fulfill their quest for happiness?
Follow your heart but take your head along with you.
What is your mantra, phrase or words that you live by?
Be like an ant, always go forward on instinct.
From the cookbook Sustenance: A collection of plant based, gluten free recipes created for Vida Assana School of Yoga in Costa Rica
6 C. tomato sauce
4 C. sunny nut meat (recipe below)
3 C. roasted mushrooms
2 Roasted red peppers
3 eggplants, sliced into long, wide strips
3 Zucchinis, sliced into long, wide strips
Sunny Nut Meat
6 C. sun dried tomatoes
6 C. sunflower seeds
Place the seeds in a food processor. Pulse to finely chop – be careful no to reduce to a powder, you will want a little texture. Transfer to a mixing bowl and set aside. Add the sun dried tomatoes to the food processor and pulse until minced. Transfer the tomatoes to the bowl with the sunflower seeds.
Preheat oven to 350°. In a large Pyrex, layer the ingredients in this order:
Sunny nut meat
Repeat until about ½” from the top of the Pyrex. Cover the top layer well with sauce and top with Sunny Nut Meat. Cover with foil and bake for 1 hour. Remove the foil and continue baking for another 15-20 minutes. Remove from the oven, and carefully tilt to drain any excess liquid. Let rest for 10 minutes then cut and serve.
WHAT AN AMAZING LIFE! THANK YOU FOR SHARING YOUR STORY AND INSPIRING US TO WORK HARD, NEVER GIVE UP AND TO LIVE YOUR PASSION.
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STEPHANIE, SAVI AND MARTY