Richard Koob has spent almost four decades working with the Big Island retreat known as Kalani. We talked about why he calls it a spectacular getaway from the mainland, or for you Hawaiians out there, the hectic Oahu work week!
Living on one of the islands or visiting Hawaii in many ways is already a retreat in itself. So why did you want to open a retreat center?
My partner Earnest and I were based in Paris with our careers in modern dance. While in the south, performing in the Avignon Festival we visited a monastery that was for sale. It gave us the idea that we could live in the country and have the world come to us for transformation through nature, culture and wellness. Earnest was from Hawai`i, so we decided to come here to do it. Many people idealize island living; however striking out in the jungle to create a retreat was a formidable venture. For example my dad and I, machetes in hand, labored through 3 miles of dense, yet beautiful green, to lay the wire for Kalani’s first phone connection.
What made you want to move to the Big Island?
The Island of Hawaiʻi, aka “Big Island,” is the most natural and spectacular, and least commercial and crowded, of the State’s four counties. We toured all over the State teaching and performing in schools and the Lower Puna coast between Kalapana and Kapoho remains my favorite. There’s great vitality here on the largest conservation coast of Hawaiʻi with all the elements (fire, air, water, and earth) in full exuberance!
When you were building the center back in the 1970’s, you were out there chopping wood and building it somewhat yourself in a three person group: you, your partner and your best friend. That almost seems unheard of nowadays when I see people on TV remodeling houses! How do you feel now looking at what you’ve done? It must feel different than if you had a modern day construction crew come in and do everything within a few days.
The eco designs we incorporated into the first structures, embracing the air, view and light, remain the model for all that we’ve since accomplished. Presently, the thorough heritage and safe construction permitting standards of Hawai`i, plus landscaping, can result in a year or more for completion of one of our new bamboo cottages. Back in the 70’s we actually did it quicker, yet in some ways longer, because all we needed was a roof, floor, and screens to live in it, and then we took our time adding wall and windows as the weather required it. This experiment has refined natural and comfortable accommodations for guests while also providing an educational program that helps volunteers explore eco-construction, like being a kid and working with a mentor/parent to create a cozy tree house.
Your retreat is different than what people find on the mainland because it incorporates so much of Hawaiian culture. What is your favorite aspect of this? Which is your favorite class?
We were drawn to the area because the root culture is so strong, and Kalani is particularly blessed with preservedarchaeological sites: a halau (traditional school) and heiau (temple). This community center tradition had gone fallow for about 70 years until we came along, and we are honored to re-invigorated it. My favorite way of living the culture is through the hula, the mele (songs) and the oli (chants). A deep love for these was instilled in me by my first two kumu, Auntie Edith Kanakaʻole, whose ancestors were stewards of this āina, and also cultural treasure Auntie Iolani Luahine who Earnest and I visited in Kona.
If I were to book a retreat with you as a young, single female, what would you recommend?
While Kalani has many retreats which are ideal for women, single or otherwise, I often recommend the Kalani Experience program. It is always available and includes the best of Kalani: comfortable accommodations, rejuvenating body therapies, exhilarating educational expeditions, nutritious delicious dining, and your selections of more than 50 weekly activities.
What if I were married or had kids? What could I do that’s romantic or when I’m done, something that could involve my whole family together?
Kids love Kalani, especially the pool, Joy of Art, and spectrum of other activities including games, sports, and certainly the educational expeditions including nearby thermal springs, snorkeling and spectacular Volcanoes National Park. Just like the way kids naturally are in tune with the life force, adults too are inspired by the beauty, trekking along Kalani’s three miles of trails, exploring the county, state and national parks, and, of course, the passion of volcano goddess Pele. Because Kalani has so many conscientious adult volunteers, there’s usually plenty of opportunity to arrange child care support.
One of your classes is a naked yoga session. This sounds very terrifying. Not because of anyone acting inappropriately, but because you have to be naked and doing yoga positions. Yikes! How long does it take to feel freed of your clothing and feel great about the yoga?
Twice a year, we host a group which puts on a nude yoga retreat; all of our yoga classes are clothing required. The pool area and a section of the forest are generally clothing optional unless a group in residence requires clothing at all times. Otherwise throughout the facility clothing is required, except of course in private rooms. Personal growth and deepened connection with life occurs daily. One such transformation I’ve often witnessed here is people releasing, with their clothes, thousands of years of inculcated shame. Learning to love oneself, respect others and take care of home, local and global, is the deepest connection with life, and our natural evolutionary ability to let go and grow, to trust and triumph.
I’m particularly interested in the hula dancing class. What do you do here that makes it special? Besides teaching people hula, what music do you use? Do you get a grass skirt? Can men join the class too?
Native Hawaiian Jonathon Kalei Lopez provides a rich cultural experience honed by living his entire life in Hawai`i and the root culture. A special aspect of Kalani is that we’re in the midst of the forest, where lauhala is gathered for the weaving classes taught by Auntie Linda Tu’a and the lei making taught by 100% native Hawaiian Dottie Kyser. So students learn how to make a ti leaf pa’u (skirt), various musical instruments, authentic lei, and even learn language basics. Kalani’s annual Hula Heritage program is held as a cultural learning intensive simultaneous with the huge Merrie Monarch Festival hosted every spring by Hilo, the world’s “hula capital.” Men actually love learning hula, including the particularly masculine styles. In recorded Hawaiian history it is noted that it was men who performed the ritual temple dances.
If you had to recommend one class to strung out, stressed, pessimistic mainland people coming into the Big Island, which one would it be and why? And what do you want to tell people additionally about why they ought to be less stressed out and visit the center?
What speeds up connecting with one’s deeper self is that age old practice of yoga. Kalani’s many popular classes are meditative and invigorating for all levels of experience and participation. Yoga helps us see life’s every moment perfections and drop all our attachments to fabrications and chatter of drama and pain.
Immersion in the nature and culture of Hawaiʻi is life changing. Welcome heaven into your life!