By Rachel Young
Bali isn’t the type of place that leaves you easily. Instead, you leave it — forcibly, unwillingly and feeling decidedly different.
The small island of Indonesia has a tendency to attract weary travelers with the promise of cleansing, renewal and wellness. It is, in fact, something of a wellness destination, promoting a type of indulgent austerity that you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere. The images of lush rice paddies, intricate offerings and colorful markets draw us in and do not permit our minds to leave. Even the name — Bali — is deliciously exotic.
On this island, wellness takes on an entirely new definition. Health is not a goal to be reached, but a journey to be reveled in, full of highs and lows, composed of things both physical and metaphysical. The relentlessly pursued amalgam of ancient medicines, herbal/earthly remedies, new-aged treatments and healthy dosage of spirituality creates an experience that is, for lack of a better word, overwhelming. Deep in the heart of Ubud (the arts and culture center of the island), the Balinese people take on this responsibility with grace and a gratitude that feels borderline… undeserved.
The spirit enters you, challenges your every belief, and then it does not leave.
It was a Wednesday afternoon and it hadn’t rained in some days; the air felt unencumbered and wind blew lazily, nearby the frangipani fell in droves and there was enough golden mangoes and tree-ripened papaya to challenge even my Miami-hardened tropical appetite. I sat amidst this vivid scene, appreciating the ambiance of a family bathing upstream. My gaze flitted from orchid, to hanging vine, to the fuzzy outline of the surrounding, sodden farmland and suddenly a strange, almost foreign, emotion rushed to fill me:
This might be the best I’ve ever felt in my life.
It wasn’t just the juices and kombucha (a local, probiotic drink made from fermented tea) that had me feeling so right. The yoga lubricated my body and the Balinese community stirred my soul, but it was the moments in between that truly captured me; a concept called dolce far niente, or the sweetness of doing nothing. The Italians do it so very well that they received the honor of naming it, but the Balinese could easily take second place. I was able to shed the [very western] senses of guilt and fear, opening the space within me to embrace the elusive nothingness. It is quite a shy thing, easily spooked by our phone’s push notifications and our busy, rather than intentional, scheduling — but here, there was nothing to do and nothing to be. I found it all too easy to tuck my cell phone away and let that email sit for another day.
My presence in Bali was called forth by a yoga teacher training. I was with a small group of nine people (all americans, almost all of us women) and though we all appreciate the art of yoga, we each entertained our own desires for this trip. One afternoon, when the incense sat heavy in the air, we developed a running list of the ways we liked to center ourselves. What spoke to our souls? The list, we discovered, was lengthy.
Sleep. Body work. Massage. Eating healthful foods. Adventure. Journaling. Yoga. Meditation. Nature. Singing, dancing, chanting. Surfing. Exploring. Animals. Scuba Diving. Energy healing. Chocolately desserts. Exercise. Gratitude. Risk-taking. Manis and pedis. More sleep.
We were an indulgent bunch.
There is something to the art of “getting away,” and that thing is different to everyone. To me, it meant distancing myself from absolute authority/responsibility, relinquishing control and reconnecting with my whims, however trivial as they may be — most of the sleep-oriented suggestions had been volunteered by me, after all. It was a beautiful list, one that reflected the kaleidoscope of souls that had comprised it, and from it, one thing was immediately clear: we all wanted different things, it was all perfect, and it was all available in Bali.
Personal bias tempts me to talk about Bali’s burgeoning yoga scene. Yoga and Hinduism have found a home on the Island of the Gods, and these deep roots mean that the spirituality of yoga’s practice is deeply ingrained in Bali’s culture.
In no place is this truer than in Ubud.
Ubud could easily be called Bali’s spiritual capital. The city’s auspicious aura has attracted medicine men and body workers, energy healers and yoga instructors all seeking to make their mark on humanity’s wellbeing. Hanuman Street, the small city’s main drag, is a bustling metropolis of sanctuaries, peaceful little alcoves, divine restaurants and dogs who understand the politics of the street better than a first time visitor might. There is a busy-ness to it all that is difficult to place, but we quickly realized it stemmed from our own desire to venture further down the road, onto neighboring side streets, into the curious shop next door or to the luwak coffee cart just down the road (coffee beans processed through the digestive system of the small, civet-type creature) — we wanted more, more, more! Ubud’s streets are lined with uneven pavement and hand-painted and stone-carved signs, all advertising the service expertise offered by the healers within. Amongst these myriad of options, the Yoga Barn stands out. It is a place where experienced instructors lead you through your favorite practice or, maybe, introduce you to something new. The classes, introspective; the entire mien, collaborative. The Practice in Canggu is other good, traditional find — the sights and the sounds here cannot be beat.
If you approach Bali with a physical yoga practice only, it is almost a certainty that you will leave Bali more open to the spiritual and philosophical paths too. The yogic life is lived authentically by the Balinese people, all of whom radiate joy and are all too eager to educate travelers in their Hindu/yogic customs — and soon, you’ll find yourself asking how to adopt such genuine contentedness for your own experience. Their answer? Love the gods. Love yoga. Love one another.
But, also, the food! Healthful, whole foods provide the canvas upon which we paint. Most of the cuisine we enjoyed had been grown in fields a mere stone’s throw away from the kitchen. A nice treat, but the small portion sizes, at least for this American, took adjustment. The garlic, turmeric and kaffir lime clings to the tongue and surely dissuades the nightly onslaught of mosquitoes. Fish and chicken are commonplace (since Bali is an island that celebrates Hinduism, beef is rarely eaten), but the mainstay of the cuisine was on the fresh rice and farmed vegetables that were watered, harvested and cooked that very morning. As a vegan, I was delightfully surprised with the availability of animal-free options; even tempeh (the fermented tofu that costs a small fortune in my grocery store back in Washington, DC originated from Indonesia and was a welcome addition for vegans and omnivores alike. Each meal was composed in such a way that the flavors complemented each other, from sticky and sweet to sautéed with (oh my god so much) garlic. Somehow, we never felt too full, no matter how much we ate — and we ate a lot.
Don’t tell anyone, but more than once my training comrades and I snuck out for some incredible Chinese food, tucked away in an unassuming building off of Hanuman Street. Whatever feeds my soul, right?
Eastern medicine has fascinated me since I was young, but (in my experience) it has been difficult to find a western doctor that 1) describes themselves as holistic and 2) takes my insurance. In Bali, there is no shortage of shamanic options to cure your every ailment — just so long that your mind is open to accepting things that cannot be seen, but felt energetically.
One of these places is run by a healer known only by his endearing moniker, Papa. His studio is situated in the back of Sandat Bali, a lush homestay with tropical foliage, koi ponds, statues with offerings and cooing doves in cages. Papa’s main tool is foot reflexology — but this is not your everyday foot massage. Papa is by no means a big man, but he is skilled in the body’s meridians and is quite strong. With deft fingers, he slathers you in an oil that smells of mint and cloves and presses it into an area of your sole that will drive you to sit straight up and wonder what on earth did I just agree to?
“Ah,” papa will state incredulously, “that is your shoulder.” Then, he will proceed to knead the area until that energetic blockage is worked loose and the flow of prana (the Hindu word for life-force) is restored. This is not a gentle procedure and certainly not for the faint of heart, but Papa and his family are right beside you, smiling and singing and playing music for those who have yet to explore the upper limits of their pain tolerance. The family doesn’t know you but they care about you and want your body to feel better. The reflexology is repeated on your toes, the tops of your feet, your calves and your forearms, treating each painful area until it, miraculously, doesn’t hurt any more — a methodology Papa laughingly calls pain medicine. When I was finished 15 minutes later I swore I didn’t have any bones left, but I will always be amazed at how Papa’s healing hands and authentic smile healed my tight shoulder with nothing more than a well-placed thumb to my right inner arch. The fee for such healing magic? Absolutely nothing, but there is a suggested donation of $100k Rupiah ($7 USD).
I went back three more times before I left Bali.
Papa is just one example of the many talented healers who called Bali their home. Most were raised on the island, learned their practices from their parents and are proud to accept even the most skeptical of ailing travelers. From reflexology to reiki, massages to aura readings, acupuncture to chakra opening, they want to heal you — but if nothing more, they simply want to share the love of their craft with you.
By far, Bali’s biggest wellness asset is the strength of its people and community. We learn that yoga should be lived both on an off the mat, and that spirit is so strong on this island that it’s borderline intoxicating. There is a sense of spirituality, ceremony and pomp to the most mundane actions, such as setting out a meal for guests or displaying an offering upon an altar (done multiple times a day, every day, for longer than any of us have been alive), that epitomizes the concept we call mindfulness. Even with all the hardships they may face, the Balinese people are happy. Rarely will you find a Balinese person alone with a frown — if there is a problem to solve, you know an entire group will be present to help solve it. If a dog on the street looks particularly hungry, there will be a person to feed it. If you are lost, there are multitude of store owners who are happy to point you in the right direction and will probably bless you in the process. Free time is spent creating music, singing and dancing, or flying bird-shaped kites high above the rice paddies, or officiating ceremonies and spinning tales of Bali’s spiritual past. If you want to join in, just ask! It is more than likely that you will be welcomed with open arms. It’s beautiful… almost too beautiful to believe, like something out of a documentary, but the Balinese energy is too consistent for me to believe it’s just a show for wayward, culture-hungry travelers.
Bali can be uncomfortable. Uncomfortable because it challenges you in ways you don’t expect to be challenged; uncomfortable because it encourages you to explore realities that may not have existed for you before; uncomfortable because you must open up to responsibilities and roles that might appear foreign. It asks you, do you have the ability to find your truth and live it fully, not only when in Bali but also when you are home?
To grow, we must find comfort in the discomfort. It’s something I’ll always struggle with, but the inspiration I’ve unearthed in Bali will never truly fade.
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A new contributor to Travel to Wellness, Washington, DC – based Rachel Young attended a 21 day, 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training in Bali, Indonesia in 2017. A spirited explorer and lover of nature, Rachel has a desire to impact social action and change, which has led her to advocate for many causes close to her heart including literacy/education, animal rights and environmentalism. Read more of Rachel’s work at www.therachellaurenyoung.com, seedtoroot.co or www.instagram.com/therachellaurenyoung