When Peter Mico started to feel the physical effects of a long career in the restaurant industry, he knew he had to make a change. With back issues from long hours of standing on concrete floors and pain from his days as an athlete, Peter was facing surgery and the uncertainty of what the future would bring. One day, over 20 years ago, Peter came across an instructional yoga DVD while shopping and decided to give it a try. Over time, he noticed a significant increase in his flexibility and strength, a decrease in his pain and a general overall happiness.
“Yoga is a healing, as well as strengthening, art,” said Peter, who never had to undergo the surgical procedures he was told would alleviate his pain.
It was the beginning of a life transformation not only for Peter but for others who would later become his students of the ancient practice of yoga.
One of those students is Jody Pignolet, who was first introduced to yoga while taking swimming lessons. “My swimming instructor began each class with yoga,” said Jody, who began taking lessons from Peter approximately 10 years ago and received her training and certification in Greece three years ago.
Peter, who has owned a yoga studio in Downtown Sandpoint, Idaho, for more than a decade, has studied with yoga masters from around the world. In his quest of the ultimate goal of living a long, healthy life, Peter researched many ways in addition to yoga to achieve his goal. It was during this research that he discovered information on the “Blue Zones”; different areas in the world where people live much longer than average. The term was coined by Dan Buettner, who first wrote about his research in the November 2005 issue of National Geographic and has since performed extensive research on the topic.
The Blue Zones Defined
The Blue Zones, as defined by Buettner, are five places in the world where people not only live much longer than average lives but also live more fulfilling lives. The places Buettner and his research team defined as the Blue Zones are the following:
• Barbagia region of Sardinia – Mountainous highlands of inner Sardinia with the world’s highest concentration of male centenarians.
• Ikaria, Greece – Aegean Island with one of the world’s lowest rates of middle-age mortality and the lowest rates of dementia.
• Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica – World’s lowest rates of middle-age mortality, second highest concentration of male centenarians.
• Seventh Day Adventists – Highest concentration is around Loma Linda, California. They live 10 years longer than their North American counterparts.
• Okinawa, Japan – Females over 70 are the longest-lived population in the world.
Buettner subsequently assembled a team of medical researchers, anthropologists, demographers and epidemiologists to search for evidence-based common denominators among all places and found nine:
1. Move Naturally. The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it. They grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work.
2. Purpose. The Okinawans call it “Ikigai,” and the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida”; for both it translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.
3. Down Shift. Even people in the Blue Zones experience stress. Stress leads to chronic inflammation associated with every major age-related disease. What the world’s longest-lived people have that we don’t are routines to shed that stress. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour.
4. 80-Percent Rule. “Hara hachi bu,” the Okinawan 2,500-year-old Confucian mantra said before meals, reminds them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80-percent full. The 20-percent gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing weight or gaining it. People in the Blue Zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening, and then they don’t eat any more the rest of the day.
5. Plant Slant. Beans, including fava, black, soy and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat—mostly pork—is eaten on average only five times per month. Serving sizes are 3 to 4 ounces, about the size of a deck of cards.
6. Wine at 5. People in all Blue Zones (except Adventists) drink alcohol moderately and regularly. Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. The trick is to drink one to two glasses per day (preferably Sardinian Cannonau wine), with friends and/or with food. And no, you can’t save up all week and have 14 drinks on Saturday.
7. Belong. All but five of the 263 centenarians they interviewed belonged to some faith-based community. Denomination doesn’t seem to matter. Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add four to 14 years of life expectancy.
8. Loved Ones First. Successful centenarians in the Blue Zones put their families first. This means keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home (it lowers disease and mortality rates of children in the home, too). They commit to a life partner (which can add up to three years of life expectancy) and invest in their children with time and love. (They’ll be more likely to care for you when the time comes.)
9. Right Tribe. The world’s longest-lived people chose–or were born into–social circles that supported healthy behaviors. Okinawans created “moais”–groups of five friends that committed to each other for life. Research from the Framingham Studies shows that smoking, obesity, happiness and even loneliness are contagious, so the social networks of long-lived people have favorably shaped their health behaviors. (The above was taken from Power 9® Reverse Engineering Longevity by Dan Buettner.)
The Blue Zones and Yoga: A Perfect Match
All of this made perfect sense to Peter, who has now integrated the concept of living a “Blue Zone life” with the practice of yoga to create incredible opportunities for people. He, along with Jody, his daughter Kristen Mico and longtime friend and colleague Dr. Gloria Waterhouse, conduct Blue Zone yoga retreats, and together they are transforming lives.
“I began to think that maybe there’s a collaboration between yoga and Blue Zones,” said Peter of when he first came up with the concept. “Blue Zone living is a way of life, and yoga can help bring you into the zone more quickly by reducing your stress.”
They have conducted two retreats to Costa Rica and are traveling on a third one this month to Greece. “I love the intimacy of having a smaller number of people,” said Jody, citing they have had groups that averaged eight people so far. “But we could take anywhere from 10 up to 20 people and still have a great student-to-teacher ratio.”
When traveling to the Blue Zones for their retreats, they are mindful of the setting and the culture they are visiting. “We do not want to be the tourists who come in and leave a carbon footprint,” said Peter, who shares that the group will clean up beaches and participate in giving back to the communities they visit in other ways. “Creating community is one of the core values of our retreats,” added Jody.
The locations are extremely remote as the importance of stepping out of one’s everyday life and making oneself more available to the experience is vital.
The group’s goal is to help those on their retreats learn about the different practices of yoga and the Blue Zones, and that in turn will help their body and soul to feel better. “They go back home with a template they can work from. It’s not a diet or a routine. It’s a way of living that translates into everyday life,” said Gloria. “The idea is simple: reconnect with self, purpose and passion.”
Each morning during the seven-day retreat, the group wakes up to the sound of chimes at 6:30 and participates in a group meditation. They then gather around the table for breakfast followed by their first yoga session of the day. “All meals are community meals,” said Gloria. The meals are either prepared by a chef in the villa where they stay or by Peter and are made from locally sourced food. It’s a time for those on the retreat to share a meal and fellowship.
Individuals are then given an opportunity to explore the area, whether it is the local markets, ruins, go on a hike, go fishing or relax on the beach. When they return to their villa they participate in an afternoon yoga session and lessons from the Blue Zone by Gloria, a PhD psychologist, who translates the lessons into aspects of personal development, overall health and rejuvenation.
“It’s all about community and connection,” she said, emphasizing that the Blue Zone retreats are for people of all skill levels and ages.
The group agrees that much of the Blue Zone philosophy revolves around having a purpose in life, and Jody said they see that in the Blue Zone places they travel. “I have been blown away by the quality of the people we have connected with. They are happy and welcoming and find a real joy in giving.”
The tenet of having a reason to get up in the morning is especially evident in the fact that in all the places that have been identified as the Blue Zones there is multi-generational living. The older generation is not put into homes for the elderly to live out their days; instead they live with family members and are surrounded by ones they love.
And when it comes to practicing what they preach, there is no doubt the three leaders do this. Peter said he has taken the philosophies of the Blue Zone and applied them to his everyday life, and the difference has been impactful. “When we go to the market in the Blue Zones, there are no processed foods, there is not any packaging and everything is fresh,” said Peter. “I have found that when I’m eating right I have far less trash. If you eat healthy, the planet will in turn be healthier.”
The Blue Zone retreats are unique in that they are not just focused on the physical aspect of nurturing the mind, body and spirit through yoga but also on the outside influences of environment that can benefit you as well.
“Yoga is wonderful, but one also gets validation from other places like the Blue Zone way of living,” said Jody.
She shares a story of a woman in her 80s who recently traveled to Costa Rica on one of their Blue Zone retreats. “She said her whole life she has never felt comfortable in groups and never felt connected. She said she felt that for the first time in her life with us on the retreat.” Jody was truly moved by the impact their time with this woman had on her.
Sharing his experiences and the benefits he has received through yoga and living a Blue Zone way of life is something about which Peter is passionate.
“Yoga has changed me, and now the Blue Zone life is changing me,” he said.
Blue Zone Yoga is affiliated with Blue Zone, LLC with a pending licensing agreement. Blue Zone, LLC is continuing to research the Blue Zones and ways to integrate its principles into various cities in the U.S. The partnership between Blue Zone Yoga and Blue Zone, LLC is one that Peter said he hopes will grow as people begin to learn the benefits of both yoga and the Blue Zone way of life.
For more information on the Blue Zone retreats, and to see photos of the spectacular places the retreats are held, go to BlueZoneYoga.com. For more information on the Blue Zones, pick up a special edition of National Geographic which covers the Blue Zones in great detail. It will be on stands through mid-November.