Paradise for the Spirit, Body and Mind: Blue Osa

 

Aaron on-the-beach-warriorHe has been featured in The Advocate and has thousands of devotees, yet the first time I heard of Aaron Star was when we met last spring.  This 40-year-old who boasts a surfer’s smile (and build), baritone laugh, and piercing hazel eyes, invited me to visit his yoga retreat that sets at the edge of Golfo Dulce in the Osa Peninsula—a remote Costa Rica area renowned for its massive rainforests, immense biodiversity, and killer surfer waves.

Arriving at Blue Osa—linked to the town of Puerto Jimenez by 11 kilometers of dirt, rocks, and questionable bridges—I found an oasis. Within a hectare of manicured grounds there is an expansive yoga studio, a 30-meter lap pool, accommodations to sleep 30, two spas for an array of holistic treatments using tropical indigenous ingredients, and an open-air restaurant serving gourmet meals—all from solar power.

The sun arising from the Pacific, as viewed from the second floor yoga studio, is stunning. Practicing the “downward dog,” “warrior,” and “triangle” along with other asanas (yoga postures) and meditating as AaronAaron in Yogi meditation leads chants of “OM” are remarkable sensory experiences against the backdrop of the ocean waves and sunlight glistening off the sea, holler monkeys and toucans.

Aaron, together with his main business partner, Adam Dolle, opened Blue Osa in 2010 after a multi-million dollar refurbishing. At the time, it was billed as a “Gay-Friendly Beachfront Hotel & Wellness Center.” Aaron told Fuse Magazine: “Our vision is to create a yoga sanctuary and spa for the gay community that will help us to spiritually reconnect to ourselves and each other in an environment that is akin to a paradise.”

The seed of the idea for Blue Osa was planted in 2006 when Dolle, a yoga student of Star’s, offered to invest money for a gay men’s ashram in New York City—what Aaron envisioned as the next step along his journey to spread yoga teachings.

Just five years earlier, in March 2001, Aaron had launched “Hot Nude Yoga” from his Chelsea apartment. Catering to Gotham City men, he wanted a safe space—unlike a backstreet or circuit party—“where gay men could come together to feel that male bond—that warrior, kind of instinctual male bond—that we have and that doesn’t really get an opportunity to get cultivated in our culture.”

At a young age Aaron realized the power of the masculine body and the potency male bonding. He attended an all-male Anglican boarding school, which upon reflection Aaron felt was a “very homoerotic environment” that included nude swims during camping trips, saunas, and guys hanging out in their underwear sharing hopes and fears.

Later, in the early 1990s, when working at a health foods store in Vancouver’s gay neighborhood of Davey Street, Aaron came across many gay people. “They pushed me outside of my comfort zone.” He frequented gay bars, but found the experience less than attractive as its seemingly sole trajectory began and ended with the one-night-stand.

At age 18, Aaron began working out at a nearby community center. There he saw lots of men, young and old, but he was particularly interested in those youthful older men whose body movements and elasticity set them apart. Star realized that if he was going to stay young—and not become like his biological father—that keeping in shape was a life responsibility. He began practicing yoga, which during that era “was more about stretching than philosophy.” By the late 1990s, he was a yoga teacher.

In January 2001, Aaron moved to Manhattan, hoping to establish a sufficient yoga practice to “live a simple life in the City and to go on yoga retreats.” Clients, though, were in short supply. Then, one day he hit upon the idea of an exclusive “hot nude yoga” sessions for gay men.

“I had this fantasy wouldn’t it be cool to hang out with gay men who are athletic, took care of themselves in a nude environment, where we can nurture each other.”

Behind_the_mask_of_the_mattachineThe twining of male bonding with homosensuality, of course, extends from ancient times when Athenian males wrestled nude to the near-present with YMCA nude swims.  As I chronicle in my book, Behind the Mask of the Mattachine, it is also one cornerstone for the early gay movement.

Adolf Brand, a German schoolteacher, launched the homoerotic magazine, Der Eigene, in 1896, seeking to establish Grecian male bonding as the basis for a modern gay rights movement.

In 1903, he formed the Gemeinschaft der Eigenen, an organization that rivaled Magnus Hirschfeld’s Scientific Humanitarian Committee. Unlike Hirschfeld, who viewed homosexuality as the “intermediate sex” and who embraced transgenderism, Brand elevated the virility of all-male culture and championed bisexuality. As part of Germany’s culture of nudity movementDer Eigene (nacktkultur), Eigenen followers placed great emphasis on male-only camping and hiking as well as other forms of exercising and sports, often practiced in the nude.

Like these Germanic activists, Aaron had little interest in attracting people who had “no respect for their bodies.” He also wanted persons who were already yoga practitioners. “These sessions were not a kick-start for men to get into shape or a men’s floor show.” Hence his trademarked name: Hot Nude Yoga.

Aaron placed ads in a couple of Chelsea papers. Men contacted him by email with approval based on their application along with an accompanying photo.  Among the 17 application questions were age and degree of physical exercise, whether one practiced yoga/Tantric yoga and considered one’s body/self “in shape,” and the degree of comfort with another man touching your body non-sexually/sexually.

“I got pretty good at reading between the lines,” Aaron remembers. Successful applicants—all of whom were in-shape, yoga practitioners and ages ranging from 19 to 65—were then informed where the next hot yoga
 location would be. “It had the New York City sex party appeal without the sex.”

Eighteen men attended the first session; the second found 35 naked practitioners engaged in yoga. “When you get 40 nude men working their stuff out, stretching together, sweating together, there is something so potent and powerful about that,” he says.  Not surprisingly, his exclusive “member-only” classes were an immediate New York sensation.

Within a short time Aaron was offering hot nude yoga retreats from California to Cambodia and from the Left Bank of Paris to the Indian Himalayas. He also produced two best-selling DVD box sets (“Hot Nude Gay Yoga,” “Hot Nude Yoga Hawaii"), in collaboration with Michael Seldith of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

Aaron on the beach“So much of who we think we are is in our clothes so when you come into a yoga space and remove your clothes it’s sort of like you’re removing a sense of who you are”—or who you think you are or how you want others to perceive you. “That scares the crap out of most people.  But when a person truly show up to that space, magic happens.”

It was during filming in Hawaii that Aaron Star and Adam Dolle had an initial conversation about how to raise money and awareness to build “a community that is yoga-based, a community that is male-based, and a place where people can heal their spirits.” Aaron wondered: “Can we create a sanctuary where people can come, connect to themselves, reconnect to each other, and then reintegrate through yoga back into their life?”

“Showing up in our lives” is the willingness to take risk. For some gay men, simply showing up to practice yoga nude is a risk, observes Aaron. But, we need to push boundaries and to put ourselves outside of our comfort zones as each of us “steps up to life.”

The cost for stepping up to the next phase of Star’s yoga journey—building an ashram in New York City—would be high. “$20 million dollars would have been something difficult, but not impossible, to raise,” Aaron recalls. “But, sometimes just sitting with an idea, letting the seed grow inside of you,” is the best yoga practice. So, as the idea set, he expanded his Tantra yoga practice to a permanent Manhattan studio.

Tantra, “living mindfully,” is the essence of all yoga; it is awakening energy—the most powerful of which is sexual. “We are sexual beings. I think that is one of the most important things to acknowledge,” Aaron stresses. “One of the key elements of practicing Tantra is to develop this inner sensitivity and this inner awareness. I believe that practicing nude can accelerate that a lot.”

As Star explained in a YouTube Video, “I do encourage people to touch and they can be aroused,” but there are two rules: “No grabbing each other’s penises and no kissing.” More critically, Aaron asks: “How do we engage in this idea of spiritual touch? That is the essence of a tantric way of connecting. As being beings of light we need to expand that light and expanding our capacity to share more light….”

 

Yoga classes without clothing existed well before the Manhattan launch of Hot Nude Yoga. Although yoga was introduced in North America during the 1920s, naked yoga was first popularized through 1960s Eastern mysticism-inspired workshops at the Esalen Institute and in the 1975 Oscar-nominated documentary, “Naked Yoga,” featuring three attractive women practicing yoga along the Mediterranean seaside with a mixture of psychedelic images and Eastern art. Pop culture also depicted the practice in film’s like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and Robert Rimmer’s underground novel, The Harrad Experiment.

There are a variety of yoga pathways (haitha, kundalini, karma, bahki) and many more brand names other than Hot Nude Yoga (Power Yoga, Yin Yoga), but all seek wholeness among an individual’s mind, body, andAaron warrior pose spirit. Hot Nude Yoga is Tantric-based, combining elements of Ashtanga, Kundalini, and Contact yogas.

While staying at Blue Osa, I read Omar Garrison’s classic Tantra: The Yoga of Sex.  It is a special book for me, as it belonged to Lige Clarke, who bought it when the book was published (by the notorious Julian Press) in 1964. Lige, like Aaron four decades later, taught yoga in Manhattan. And, Clarke, along with his lover Jack Nichols, were gay activists beginning in the early 1960s. They founded the first gay newsweekly, GAY, in 1969. The front page of its first issue featured a nude Clarke in a lotus position; Lige wrote a regular column on yoga.

In the introductory pages of Tantra, Lige had underlined the following passage: “Only by laying hold of the power inherent in the force can we find the creative energy to ascend to spiritual liberation.” Although sexuality is one of life’s most powerful forces, it can be as controlling as it can be liberating. And, there are individuals and institutions that wield it simply to control others.

Like Brand and some of the other early German activists, this book highlights the negative role played by Western religions, which “have sought immediate and absolute control over the sexual mores for humanity. Without exercising such dominion, established religions cannot control….” Or, in the sharp-tongue phrase of Hal Call, who along with his nemesis Harry Hay, carried the banner of the Mattachine Society, “The genius of the Church is that it took something that felt so good—fucking—and made it into a sin which could only be forgiven through penance in the confessional.”

Aaron in his Yoga StudioWhile Tantric Yoga is associated with sex in the Western mind, it is really about focus and control of one’s life energies. “Plunge into being with sharpened awareness,” recommends the author of Tantra, for “he who realizes the truth of the body can then come to know the truth of the universe.” And, in subsequent passage starred by Lige: “The whole principle of Tantrik discipline is not to shrink from the senses but to conquer them through experience.”

Although Aaron readily admits that “If a person can get in touch with another person’s breath and tune into that, then your sex life will go through the roof”—that is neither the reason nor the endpoint for yoga.  “Properly understood and used, such a union can intensify and expand the knowledge, talents, and mental powers of both partners.”

As Hot Nude Yoga became more popular during the mid 2000s, it also created controversy within traditional yoga circles. Critics, including Aaron’s teacher, questioned the value of practicing nude yoga with others. “There are a few blessed people who have come to realize what Hot Nude Yoga stands for,” observes Aaron. It “is about how we play in our life, or more particularly, the degree to which we ‘show up’ in our lives.” He also cautions, “everyone has to find their own path. At different parts of our lives we need different things. And, at times, people may think people who do not follow their path are not taking the right path.”

Aaron found himself at such a juncture last year. It had been six years since the seed of the yoga retreat was planted in Hawaii. In 2007, while visiting Costa Rica, he and Adam Dolle stumbled upon a gated waterfront site with a rusted Century 21 sign standing guard. Consisting of several cabins and a main house, they purchased the property and began renovating. Blue Osa was born.

In 2011, Aaron faced a dilemma.  Blue Osa had been opened for nearly a year but the anticipated gay clientele had yet to materialize. From his personal connections with more than 50 gay yoga groups, only two had visited. The number of gay travellers was even more disappointing. “Clearly this is not the direction we are meant to go,” he told Adam, his business partner.

Reflecting back, Aaron says this concept might have worked ten years earlier, when Costa Rica was the gay destination—now it is simply a popular destination. Additionally, “the world has changed. It is not the case anymore for gay people to want to go to ‘gay things’.” The market is more fractured than ever before and the advent of social networking coupled to the blurring of sexual identities has made marketing even more difficult.

More immediate, the sheer size and location of Blue Osa made invisibility (and nudity) as impractical as it is illegal in Costa Rica. And, “I am also maturing,” reflects Aaron. “I am still about community, but an expandingAdam and Aaron to people from all walks of life seeking inner reflection.”

At this juncture of his pathway, Aaron “had to deal with lots of feelings about this.” I ask, “How could a gay man who built an empire of DVDs, worldwide retreats, and Hot Nude devotees and yoga groups divorce himself from both the enterprise and its philosophy?”

Detaching oneself from one’s ego and from one’s possessions, of course, is a core tenet of yoga.  And, Aaron has come to realize “my own calling is to a wider audience.”

Star has also come to question whether, to a certain degree, he may contribute to some men’s sexual addictions and to the latent tendency and addictive nature that is with us all, and most strongly felt in sexual desire. “A huge percentage of those who came to Hot Nude Yoga came for the need of community and male bonding,” he says, but the potential for harm is always there. Most importantly, he does not want to be known as the guru for Hot Nude Yoga—only as a teacher.

“As a teacher, there are four things I want my students to have. First, a sense of being heated. I really want them to be spiritually heated-up. When we get heated we can burn away our ego and our ignorance, which is what stops us from remembering who we are. The second thing is that I want my students leaving feeling that remembrance. Third, they leave feeling good and restored. And the fourth—and most important—is that they leave feeling a sense of community, brotherhood, and fellowship…. I feel blessed to be a witness to such a transformation.”

It is along this pathway that Aaron Star is unwavering.

“My vision with Blue Osa is that when people are quiet, removed from distractions of everyday life, something magical happens. A deep calling starts to surface, to awaken.”

James T. Sears, PhD. America's foremost LGBT historical expertThis deep calling is certainly stirring Aaron. “I am not a customer service person. Our job is to be of care to people, to give them the space for people to be still. The greatest gift we have at Blue Osa is stillness.”

Like Esalen on California’s Big Sur coast, Blue Osa is a state of mindfulness. In the stillness of this space Aaron has also found his deep calling.

You can find more photos on Blue OSA at Dr. James T. Sears' Facebook Page.

You can also find Blue OSA's Facebook page by clicking here.

James T. Sears, PhD, the author of two dozen books on gay history and education-related issues, taught at Penn State, University of South Carolina, Trinity University, and Harvard University, before retiring. He now works as an international investment property specialist, with home bases in Granada, Nicaragua and Charleston, South Carolina, and lectures throughout the world. His firm, Sears & Partners, offers LGBT & Friends real estate tours of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama. More information is at www.searspartners.com

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