When I signed up for a yoga retreat in northern Bali, I imagined myself sweating out toxins, contorted in pigeon pose or downward dog, releasing my joints of tension and giving my body a much-needed overhaul.
I had done yoga on and off for years, and though I was no dedicated yogi, I wasn’t phased by immersing myself in this ancient practice for five days. What I would experience, however, would challenge me to do possibly the hardest thing of all; slow (inhale)… down (exhale).
The three-hour drive from our meeting point at Sanur was, however, enough to put anyone off. Not that it wasn’t beautiful, because it was. Clove tree-lined streets led us past Kintamani volcano, through the small villages where people gathered for lunch at local warungs. Traditional Balinese kampongs flew past my window, allowing me fleeting glimpses of family life. But the winding roads took their toll after a while, forcing me to close my eyes and hope my breakfast wouldn’t make an encore appearance.
It was a welcome relief to be deposited at the front gate of Mandala Resort, my car-sickness quickly forgotten as the staff showered us in flower petals and presented us with young green coconuts to drink from.
The tropical grounds were lush and alive, welcoming our weary city dwelling bodies into its vibrant foliage.
My room took my breath away! A high thatched roof, billowing curtains, and a double bed draped in mosquito net. All for me? I was overwhelmed by its simple charm. Then I found the bathroom! Flowers and candles adorned every surface, and from the outdoor shower I could look up and see the birds in the trees. Bliss!
I explored the grounds, taking in its beauty. The fresh water pool invigorated my travel weary limbs with icy coolness. From the pool I looked out to sea as the local fishermen made their catch.
GGONG! GGONG! GGONG! It was time for lunch.
To be honest, I hadn’t expected much. I mean weren’t these places meant to serve bland, nutritious fare? Not at the Mandala. Vegetable curries, fresh catch-of-the-day tuna, delectable vegetable fritters and rice were served. There wasn’t going to be any detox-style weight loss here, people! I went back for seconds, unable to quell my culinary greed…and then the cake came out!
We were sipping on freshly made ginger and lemongrass tea when Gisela, our teacher and the owner of the resort, breezed in, a picture of wellness, in a bright turquoise dress. Her eyes shone as she greeted us, and I thought to myself “I wanna look like that.”
The gong sounds at 7am, though I am already up thanks to a very noisy rooster. I have a cup of Balinese coffee and a banana in the restaurant overlooking the sea. The beauty and seclusion of the place relaxes and soothes me…
We gather in an enormous open sided rotunda, seated in a circle on foam mats. In the middle, a fresh flower arrangement and flickering tea light candles draw our focus. The sound of the waves crashing onto shore fills the space. I have never done yoga anywhere so beautiful!
Gisela takes us through our first yoga class. It is Kum Nye yoga, from the Tibetan tradition, and involves slow, deliberate movement in unison with the breath. No downward dog here! It is different from any yoga I have done before. My mind wanders and I chastise myself, wanting to do it right, but Gisela tells us not to judge ourselves, so I try to let go…
The Noble Silence
Our schedule looks something like this for the next four days:
6am wake up- coffee/tea/fruit
7am Yoga and meditation class
9am Breakfast (did I mention banana pancakes?!)
10am -1pm Free time (sunbathing, swimming, snorkelling, massage)
2-4 more free time (another massage? Or maybe a nap?)
430pm Afternoon Yoga and meditation
8pm Reading, then bedtime…
Then on the evening of day 3, the noble silence begins. A whole day of not speaking! I manage pretty well, enjoying my own company. It’s nice to eat in silence, so I take my breakfast to a secluded spot by the sea. I eat mindfully, trying to appreciate every bite. It’s not hard with the fresh fruit, yoghurt and banana pancakes on offer. What is hard is not shoving it down like I usually would.
A Special Gift
At the small spa on site, I book a treatment called a Mandi Lulur, consisting of a flower bath and massage. It requires 24hrs notice.
As I walk into the room, I try to catch my breath but it’s been taken away. This takes the concept of a massage to a whole new level! The deep stone bath is completely filled with bright pink and gold flowers. In the centre of the room sits a statue of Buddha, seated on prayer, and at his feet, flowers form the words, Welcome Sarah.
I am overwhelmed by the beauty of this gift, and again think to myself, all for me?
For the next hour I bathe in gratitude, unable to believe my senses. From the bath, I look across at the special shrine that spells my name and smell the incense burning from it. Is this real? How did I get here?
All Good Things Must Come To An End…
We do a walking meditation through the tropical grounds, observing the bright colours of the foliage, the sun on our skin, and the earth under our bare feet.
The colours come alive and I feel hyper aware. This unsettles me a bit, I kind of feel like I’m on drugs, but realise that the flowers are always this bright and intricately detailed, it’s just that usually I don’t take the time to really look.
For the final exercise, we walk around the room, and when we meet another person in the group, we stop, and look them in the eyes, taking a few seconds to truly see them.
This is the most powerful experience so far, bringing me to tears with every person I meet. Just like the flowers, when we take the time to truly see someone, we are connecting on a deep level, and I feel a huge surge of compassion and love.
Back To Reality…
I wake up on the final day we are due to depart, with a feeling of excitement, connection and contentedness. I realise that though I am alone, I am not lonely. I have made friends with myself over the last few days, and hope that I can take my new friend home with me!