Maricar Cristina Holopainen, the woman behind the cult favorite Manila-based Yoga studio Urban Ashram, is taking her vocation to a 500-acre retreat haven in New Zealand.
In the Nelson-Tasman Region of the South Island of New Zealand, there lies Maruia River Retreat, a 500-acre estate both hidden and intertwined with nature. Regenerative travel is the ethos, as founders Maricar and Lasse Holopainen point out: “Intrinsic to this vision was the communion with nature that our modern lives have stripped us of.”
As a co-founder of the Retreat and as one of the people behind Urban Ashram, one of Manila’s most popular yoga studios, Maricar Cristina Holopainen has become a modern-day prophet in teaching wellness back to a world caught up with the anxieties of work and the stress of social media.
While the retreat’s real commitment to being a carbon negative resort makes for a complex operation, its offering is simple: to be a place of refuge, respite, and a regeneration of the self and of nature. Guests at the retreat, therefore, often leave with a newfound understanding of their vital relationship with nature, and the need of both sides to heal.
The Maruia property was a former fishing lodge nestled comfortably between a green trout river, and a lush forest of pale brown-red Beech trees, against the liberating isolation of rugged mountain ranges. In 2018, Maricar would make a home, both for her family and her vision, out of the 500-acre estate she bought with her husband Lasse.
While working to becoming a fully electric resort running solely on renewable sources by 2025, she’s turned the property into an earnest hub for all things wellness: hosting retreats of different focuses, hearty meals, walks, meditations, wellness workshops, yoga sessions guided by Maricar or Lasse, and, their latest addition, deep sleep experiences.
Years since opening, the resort has amassed a number of awards and certifications that speak volumes of the couple’s commitment to their carbon negative goal. Qualmark, New Zealand’s official quality assurance organization, for example, awarded Maruia River Retreat the Gold Sustainable Tourism Business Award, the organization’s highest honor, for the Holopainens’ best practices in running the retreat. Moreover, International Traveller would list Maruia as among New Zealand’s most luxurious places to stay, cheering the resort for its tranquil surroundings.
Both Maricar and Lasse share similar beginnings before their dedication to wellness advocacy. For a big chapter of Maricar’s earlier professional life, she would see herself flourish in the world of finance and marketing: 15 years in COL Financial, a long stint in CitiBank, an MBA in the Asian Institute of Management, and a period of setting up a business in Australia. Lasse, meanwhile, worked in corporations and government service as a former Assistant Secretary of the Department of Energy and president of the Philippine Electric Market Corporation (PEMC). But in the mid 2000s, Maricar would enroll him in the now-defunct Pulse Yoga in Greenhills, San Juan, provoked out of his increasingly painful lower back issues.
“In my previous life, we were controlling energy in big massive blocks,” Lasse says in an interview with BusinessWorld. “We were moving electricity one way or another in predefined paths […] The body is so much more intricate and so much more astoundingly complex but at the same time, so much more powerful. Electricity can only do so much. The body can change generations.”
In the early 2010s, Maricar and Lasse got serious with their vocations in teaching wellness when LA-based YogaWorks teacher Joan Hyman flew into Manila for a teacher’s training course. “There were seven of us [in the class] and five of us decided we wanted to open a studio.”
And so, they opened Urban Ashram Yoga, Maricar and Lasse’s first venture into their advocacy. Ashram, Maricar explains, is a Sanskrit word for “a place of study in the farthest corners of the Earth.” Commonly found at the top of mountains, they are temples in Buddhist monasteries. “Everyone just needs a refuge in the city,” Marica says. “But the truth is, the refuge is really within you. And that’s what we teach at Urban Ashram.”
Throughout the 2010s, Urban Ashram would also rise to become a significant force in cementing yoga as a profession in the country. “We had 72 teachers from around the world come over in nine years,” Maricar continues.
All of these teachers were trained by the rock stars of the yoga world, including Jason Crandell and Annie Carpenter. “We had them come to the Philippines, teach Filipino teachers, and we graduated over 250 teachers […] Urban Ashram has helped a lot of people. It’s helped make teachers, and our teachers have taught over 10,000 Filipinos—probably even more because they teach online as well.”
Maricar would move to New Zealand, first in Auckland, then she found a property in the South Island which would later transform into Maruia. They initially introduced it in 2019, essentially as a five-star international luxury lodge.
“And then the pandemic happened,” she shares. Remarkably, Maricar would finish her PhD in yoga while the struggle for both the Holopainens’ new venture at Maruia and their personal lives ensued aggressively. “Lasse and I were apart for two and a half years. I had to live with the kids in Auckland and he had to look after the Maruia property.”
During the height of COVID, Maricar was also teaching her father how to breathe. Her over a Zoom call, and him in an ICU. “For 29 days, my father was hospitalized in the ICU and all I could do was spend 20 minutes a day with him, breathing. What else can I do, right?” After all, that is, essentially, her profession. “Of course, I trained for this,” she thought to herself.
“I practice yoga because the mind is never quiet. It really isn’t,” she says. Maricar is a very philosophical person. While yoga and other forms of meditation are shaking off its pop cultural perceptions of being esoteric forms of healing and spirituality, Maricar makes you think that perhaps this is exactly what the world needs right now: a revisitation to our spiritual origins after being accustomed to its abandon due to, well, our all-too-modernist ways of thinking and dealing with our inner worlds. Spirituality, in this case, would mean the interconnectedness of everything and a call to zoom out of oneself. What Maricar seemingly proposes is a reconciliation between our spiritual selves and our physical worlds, thereby fostering a deep respect for each other’s core needs.
Malasakit, she points out, encapsulates the vitamin we all need right now—the deepest form of empathy and it’s actually all very Pinoy: “there’s no direct English word for it, right?” She begins with the concept of sakit and how it’s a very powerful and loud emotion. “One of yoga’s eight limbs [or tenets] is ‘Asana’, to sit comfortably and be at ease.” If you look at the root word of malasakit, –sakit could be felt as the opposite of ‘Asana,’ as sakit can be thought of as a form of disease.
Or Dis-ease. “You’re not comfortable. There’s something niggling. Your back pain, your sciatica, your headache, or…it can be that worry or that trauma that’s being triggered constantly.” And when we quiet our own selves and observe the world, we hear the –sakit of others so loud, malasakit pushes us to act. “Having malasakit, having this shared connection, it’s not just thought, it actually requires action. The reward is the joy of seeing somebody’s pain somehow alleviated.”
Looking at Maricar’s life in totality, has all led up to Maruia River Retreat, her magnum opus, made by a life’s vocation in teaching wellness back to society. She goes back to explaining her ethos behind regenerative travel: “It’s the hope that in the last three days, four nights or five days you were here that you experienced something that brought you a [certain] joy you would like to continue doing. Be it you eat healthier, be it you walk more, be it you sleep longer, you do yoga every day, or you just nap. It’s back to the simplest of everyday practices.”
By Marga Magalong. Photographs by Molawin Evangelista. Stylist: Renee De Guzman. Makeup: Poppy MacPhedran. Production Assistant: Monica Holopainen. Shot on location at Maruia River Retreat, Nelson-Tasman Region, Top of South Island, New Zealand.