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Seoul Searching: My Visit to a Buddhist Temple

geumsunsa-templestay“How do we know we’re in the right religion?” That was the question I asked the bishop who visited my 5th grade classroom at St. Mary’s Catholic School long ago. Even as a 10-year-old child, I questioned religion – the dogma surrounding it, the proposed path to an eventual salvation, the confines of man-made rules.south-korea-templestay I don’t remember the bishop’s words, but I remember his body language: a hesitant shift at the podium, a calm, yet confused look on his face, and the cool pace with which he delivered his answer. It was as if he had been asked this question many times before, but was uncomfortable sharing his response with a room full of young children.

south-korea-templestaySo how does one know? What leads people on their spiritual journey? I had the chance to think about these questions while on a visit to Geumsunsa Temple in South Korea. I’m not Buddhist by label. I have a Taoist devotional next to my bed, but not far from it are various healing crystals, a Virgin Mary statue, and beads gifted to me by an indigenous Brazilian shaman. That was the beauty of visiting Geumsunsa; they welcomed everyone no matter your faith or fatherland. We had a diverse group from around the world – Mexico, Hong Kong, France, Germany, and me, repping the United States of America!south-korea-templestay Tucked away in the mountains outside of Seoul, Geumsunsa is one of the Buddhist temples throughout South Korea that offer what is known as “templestay” visits to foreigners from all over the world. Depending on how much time you have and where your travels take you in South Korea, there’s a templestay to fit every tourist’s itinerary.seoul-searchingmy-visit-to-a-buddhist-templeseoul-searchingmy-visit-to-a-buddhist-templemy-visit-to-a-buddhist-temple Upon arriving to Geumsunsa, I already felt at peace. Lush fall foliage, just changing their leaves, enveloped cozy colorful dorms and nearby sitting nooks. After setting up my modest room, I changed into the temple uniform and joined the rest of our group for the beginning of our stay. Sitting amongst the trees and the cool, crisp air was the perfect setting to listen to the monk’s words and simple wisdom.geumsunsa-templestayTemple101south-korea-templestay After a ceremonial ringing of the temple bells, our group enjoyed a vegan meal together. We ate in silence, as instructed, and with a renewed focus on my food, I felt satiated and healthy. As I carefully chewed each bite, my mind wandered and my thoughts drifted from the mundane, “why did I get so much rice at the buffet?” to the random, “I wonder if Buddhists have something like Lent?”.

 

I’ve been on my own spiritual search ever since those early days in Catholic school. While other children knelt with eyes closed, waiting for the bread to turn into the body of Jesus, I peered skeptically at the ceiling, looking for something, or someone to come from the heavens and turn the priest’s unleavened bread into a holy object. south-korea-templestayOur next activity was a visit to the temple – finally! The monk prepared us for our evening meditation, and the more mentally demanding 108 prostrations that were to follow. I really had no idea what to expect, as the extent of my exploration with Buddhism was reading my “Daily Tao” at bedtime back home. This was a bit more intense.geumsunsa-templestaysouth-korea-templestaySo what is a prostration? I consider it a test of your physical and spiritual stamina in one move – and I truly didn’t think I would be able to do 108 of them. About ten minutes in, I felt fatigued, but the messages that the monk recited for us motivated my mind and body to absorb the meaning behind this physically demanding exercise. my-visit-to-a-buddhist-templeUpon finishing, we retreated to our rooms, and it was in this private space that I released all that had passed through me in the temple. I cried cleansing tears and wrote down some of the mantras I recalled, and what they meant for me.

I prostrate in gratitude for all those who made me suffer and helped me to become mature after hard times.

We’ve all cursed at those exes, annoying coworkers, and the guy that cut us off in traffic, or really anyone who has made us suffer! I thought about some of those people and how they helped me to evolve into the person I am today. I felt a renewed sense of gratitude.

I prostrate in gratitude for having my family who shares happy, sad, and challenging moments together.

Hearing the word “family” sent a flood of tears down my face as I thought about my grandfather and father, whose only visits to Asia had been for fighting wars. How lucky I was to be visiting this country on my own terms, with peace and open-mindedness in my heart. I was sad that neither of them had been so lucky to travel here as I had – seeing the beauty of a new culture.

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I prostrate as a vow to blow all the jealousy, anger, and frustrations from my mind.

When I first started my company, a close friend told me that “only women with rich husbands or rich dads launch businesses like yours.” Ouch, that hurt! And it did make me angry and jealous for a time – and frustrated that I didn’t have those endless resources as some did. But I became resourceful and resilient, two things that make me an even better business woman today.

I prostrate in repentance for seeing this world as absolute right or wrong.

This led me to reflect on my faith, as something not so rigid, but fluid and evolving. I thought of all the friends I had of differing faiths: Christian, Muslim, Wiccan, Catholic, Jewish, and how at the heart of every religion seemed to be a message of love. Oh how I wished we could all be more accepting of each other and focus on our own spiritual growth, and not what others were doing wrong!

SS15I prostrate as a vow to lead my life with passion.

This is harder than it sounds! I had a flashback to a short time in 2018 when I lost steam and suffered burnout. Life as a passionate entrepreneur was taking a toll! So I got back to basics, and did things to rejuvenate myself like listen to music, exercise more, and take care of my health. Only then could I really feel the passion for my work.

I prostrate as a vow to keep focused and refrain from many distractions.

Cell phone, anyone? To combat this distracting tool, I started setting aside time for Instagram, I shut off all notification banners, and did some other things to manage my use of technology. I admit, it’s a great tool – my favorite meditation app is on my phone! But everything has it limits…

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I prostrate as a vow to be free from the ordinary standards that everyone in the world follows.

This was a memorable prostration, quite simply because it was a reminder that I was going in the right direction. My path didn’t need to look like everyone else’s. And it’s okay.

geumsunsa-templestaygeumsunsa-templestayOn the flight home from a luxury travel conference in France last year, I read through a pamphlet titled “Luxury Experiences in South Korea”. Flipping through it, I was surprised to find a segment about templestay visits in there. But as I reflected on my own templestay, I thought, yes, it was a true luxury to connect with myself. To connect with others. To connect with my soul. And this luxury is truly priceless. my-visit-to-a-buddhist-temple

Thank you, Geumsunsa Temple for the photos! 

 

 

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Casa & Mar: A Wellness Hotel in Rio de Janeiro

wellness-hotels-in-rio-de-janeiroA house and the sea. Such a simple concept, and yet that’s what makes it so elusive. What is it about the ocean, about nature, that draws us to ourselves? I had a chance to reflect on this while visiting Rio de Janeiro’s only wellness hotel, Casa & Mar.wellness-hotels-in-rio-de-janeiroCM25Set up on the cliffs outside of a small beach town north of Rio called Maricá, Casa & Mar is the perfect location to explore wellness – in every sense of the word. With sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean from every room, this ideally situated hotel is a natural gateway to healing and health.wellness-hotels-in-rio-de-janeiroSpeaking of healing and health, as I learned from Anna Bjurstam, Vice President at Six Senses Spas, during her presentation at ILTM in Cannes, “Wellness Tourism” is 25% of the global tourism market with a value of over $639 billion dollars. Just this past year showed a 14% increase in wellness travel bookings! As Anna pointed out, “wellness gateways”, a term she uses to define an experience, a person, or even a location, are a person’s first experience with health and wellness, and are often discovered on a vacation or retreat. Maybe I had just entered a wellness gateway here…

 

So why are people spending more time seeking wellness vacations? I found my answer at Casa & Mar. From the moment you enter the gates, there is a garden greeting you with fragrant flowers and fauna, including my favorite Brazilian fruit, maracujá! Walking down the path to the reception, I was welcomed by the owner of Casa & Mar, Alex Reznik. Greeting me with a guava smoothie, he told me more about the history of Casa & Mar.CM30“I had been looking for a place to build a health and wellness hotel; I searched all over the world. And I found this beautiful enclave!” Sharing more about his own health history and philosophy on fitness, Alex started my tour with a visit to the hotel’s impressive gym. With every angle overlooking the sea, I knew it would be an easy feat to stay on the treadmill and squeeze in a workout with such an incredible view! As we headed back towards the reception, I couldn’t help but catch a glimpse of the glimmering pool below. I already felt better!CasaMar1What could be better than a dip in this gorgeous pool? Sitting at the pool’s edge and peering out over the vast ocean. In fact, as I gazed out over the natural beauty, I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes by poet Khalil Gibran: “In one drop of water are found all the secrets of all the oceans; in one aspect of You are found all the aspects of existence.”ALEX01-yourshadowOf course, another key element of wellness is taking care of your body, both inside and out. As part of my visit to Casa & Mar, I had an evaluation of my posture by Dr. Alex Kalinin, trained in osteopathy, as well as a private sunrise session with yoga instructor, Julia Glazkova. Painfully reminded of my sedentary lifestyle back home, I knew that sitting for hours in my office chair was definitely not a key to wellness! With a spa menu that includes shiatsu, lymphatic drainage, and sports massages, just to name a few, it was hard to choose. But you must not leave Casa & Mar without trying their Signature Hammam experience. Tailored to fit your physical needs, the hammam experience uses essential oils from Brazil, clay, steam, scrubs, and of course a therapeutic massage to leave you feeling in total bliss!IMG_5441Bliss was just this. A meditative massage with the soundtrack of the sea below. I felt completely transformed! Back in my suite, I sank into my bed feeling both relaxed and rejuvenated. As the gently lapping waves lulled me to a sweet sleep, my freshly massaged limbs melted into the cool sheets, and my mind into a dreamlike state.EEAF1C30-44A5-4944-BB2A-98C776F94A0BIMG_6368IMG_6478CM5How to lure me from my dreamy suite? With the seductive aroma of freshly grilled shrimp and bananas coming from the café below! During my delectable lunch, I learned more about Mr. Reznik’s plans for future wellness-themed events around yoga, healthy cuisine, and homeopathy. Joined by guest chef, Karen Slater, who was visiting Casa & Mar to infuse the menu with some of her unique creations, we all chatted about the evolving trends in travel.CM15CM19CM18Biting into the succulent shrimps, I listened to Karen share some of her ideas for the new menu. Having owned and operated two cafes in New York, with a focus on organic, vegetarian, and vegan food, Karen highlighted the addition of grilled eggplant and sweet potatoes, and what already sounded like my new favorite – pineapple cake!wellness-hotels-in-rio-de-janeiroWith a full belly and a happy heart, Alex and I walked up to his neighboring hotel, Pousada Colonial, where he maintains a garden that fuels much of the hotel menu. Star fruit, aloe vera, papaya, grapes, mint, and so many more glorious finds in that garden! I knew Karen would be thrilled to use these local ingredients in her new menu – I’ll have to sample some of her inventive recipes on my next visit…CM6IMG_6449CM3Back at Casa & Mar, I ventured down to the rocks to get a closer view of this natural landscape that locks in the hotel from all angles. Once there, I was completely transported to another realm. There is nothing like communing with nature. As I listened to the roar of the rhythmic waves, a flood of gratitude rushed over me. Maybe this is why wellness travel is trending. To push people back to the simplicity of nature, away from our electronic lives. To open our hearts to gratitude and wonder. The longer I sat in this sacred space, the further my seaside meditation led me down a reflective path.CM24wellness-hotels-in-rio-de-janeiroCM26CM10As I thought about the name of the hotel, Casa & Mar, I flash-backed to a psychology class where I learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. With basic needs of shelter, food, and health met, only then do we move on to fully appreciate and experience love, strength, and self-actualization. Health – the important element that I was reminded of here at Casa & Mar. Reminded through the food, touch, conversations, yoga, nature, and meditation that I experienced during my visit. I felt complete.CM20CM21CM7wellness-hotels-in-rio-de-janeiroBack on the patio of my suite, I remembered a quote from one of the other presenters at ILTM Cannes: “The greatest wealth is health”. As I breathed in the balmy breeze, I knew exactly what that meant. Rich in every sense of the word, I was healthy, happy, and whole. COLINAL_VISTA01

Contact me to book your visit to Rio’s Casa & Mar!

 

Credits:

Photography: Bitlab Media

Makeup: Alicia Ramirez

Wardrobe: Lenny Niemeyer & VIX by Paula Hermanny

 

 

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Birds of Paradise: Brazil’s Iguaçu Falls

The old real estate adage, “location, location, location” couldn’t have been truer for my picture perfect vacation to Brazil’s Belmond Hotel das Cataratas. The only resort with an enviable address inside Iguaçu Falls National Park, the Belmond is the ideal place to absorb the essence of this natural wonder.

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The Belmond from a helicopter – don’t look down!

In this breathtaking oasis, no filters are needed. The bluest sky greets you from above, while your body takes in the freshest air that carries healing ions pouring over from the falls. Standing on the steps of the Belmond lobby, I couldn’t believe how close I was to this marvelous display of nature! Did I even need to check-in to my room, or could I just stay here and stare at this wondrous sight?

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Private dining nook at Belmond Iguaçu – wow!

Eager to relax from my urban adventures in São Paulo, I made my way up to my suite, which I was thrilled to discover had a view of Iguaçu Falls! Enveloped in the most soothing shade of salmon, I sank back into my bed and enjoyed a rejuvenating nap.

Waking from a restful slumber, I was delighted to find my welcome gift from the Belmond staff – a pair of Havaianas in their signature vintage blue. It was like a cue to relax – and I loved the idea of ditching my heels, makeup, and hair curlers for a few days! I slipped on my new sandals and walked over to the pool, loving that everyone at the resort had on the same Havaianas! Wrapping my body in the soothing water set at the perfect temperature, I floated around to the soundtrack of beautiful birds serenading me from afar.

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Belmond, take me away!

I’m not normally a morning person, but there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to enjoy a private visit up close with the falls. This is one of the best things about the Belmond; you have access to the falls before and after the park has opened to the public, allowing you to avoid the throngs of crowds that flood the scene.

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Serenity at dawn in front of Iguaçu Falls

I woke up well before sunrise because I wanted to get a few shots of the landscape uncluttered and bathed in that perfect light. But what I experienced was much more transformative than a solo photo excursion. Alone and undisturbed for a couple of hours, I cried, laughed, and allowed my soul to heal in the powerful embrace of the falls. This natural hug squeezed every ounce of gratitude that I had inside me as I shouted “thank you” to the sky. Thank you for this opportunity, thank you for everyone who made the trip possible, and thank you for a moment of peace.

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My healing didn’t end at the falls. In fact, this was just the beginning. My hosts from the Iguaçu Convention and Visitors Bureau arranged for me to participate in a tribal ceremony with the Tupi-Guarani Indians, a local indigenous tribe that welcomes visitors to take part in their intimate rituals. Walking through the dark rainforest with my guide, I was met by the warmth of a fire and the soft pulse of a drum, flashing back to when I had last seen a bonfire at my father’s funeral weekend just a few months before.

A powerful healing energy came over me as we all circled around the fire for what seemed like hours. Eventually sitting down to enjoy a traditional meal, the leader and shaman spoke about some of their guiding principles, with words that felt like they were crafted just for me. Grateful that I was able to understand his Portuguese without the assistance of my guide, I focused on every word, not wanting to forget a moment of this incredible experience. Back at my hotel, I journaled about all that had happened in an effort to process this unique encounter. Since no photography was allowed, I depended on the vibrant images in my mind to help me make sense of this once in a lifetime experience.

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One of the guards at Iguaçu’s Bird Park

If you must leave this tropical oasis that is the Belmond, then plan a trip to the Parque das Aves, a bird park that sits right outside the Iguaçu National Park. Parque das Aves is a pioneer of animal conservation, partnering with other organizations that support biodiversity conservation both in Brazil and throughout the world. This family-friendly attraction, which is also the largest bird park in Latin America, offers a behind the scenes tour where you can feed the birds and get up close with nature. I was getting excited as I heard the birds calling from inside!

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Luckily my guide Alex, who was the key to understanding every aspect of Iguaçu, joined me at Parque das Aves. You absolutely cannot go to Iguaçu without him! He is a walking encyclopedia of every biological, botanical, and spiritual aspect of the falls. At every turn, Alex provided insight to each species, the flora and fauna around me, and a sincere awareness of these endangered and vulnerable animals and birds.

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Are you my mommy?

The highlight of that morning was feeding the baby rescues. I giggled as they splashed milk all over me and nipped at my hands, eager to connect with their new visitor. After my private backstage tour was over, I begged to go through the park again – I didn’t want to leave!

On this next round, I spent quite a bit of time at the butterfly aviary witnessing one just coming out of its cocoon. Such a magical moment! With over 800 species of butterflies in this Atlantic Forest, I was mesmerized at the rainbow of colors and patterns. As I watched the Caligo brasiliensis butterflies munch on bananas, Alex shared with me how these butterflies use their owl-like appearance to avoid predators.

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I think he thought I was his twin with my bright yellow shirt!

Walking through the rest of the park, Alex highlighted the conservation efforts at Parque das Aves, specifically the toucans. “They’re not technically endangered, but do get injured a lot because of hunting accidents. The natural breeding that happens here ensures a safety population of this magnificent bird.” He also told me that their eyes can change direction, noting them as a “portal of positive energy”.

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PicadinhoBack at the Belmond, I enjoyed a late lunch of the most artfully prepared picadinho de filé, a dish that my tummy had fond memories of from São Paulo. I pored over videos of my new bird buddies from the morning – truly an unforgettable experience! Walking through the grounds at the resort, I noticed a tree that had a pink lichen – a botanical sign of high air quality based on Alex’s lesson of lichen, fungus, algae, and some of the 2,000 plant species that are here in Iguaçu. I excitedly took in another breath of this healing space. As I collapsed into a hammock, I drifted off to sleep with the lull of sweet birds chirping what sounded like, “Sarah, don’t leave…”

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