Crying in front of strangers is almost always uncomfortable and weird. However it was not uncomfortable for the Californian at a yoga retreat in the middle of a jungle in the middle of a rice field in the middle of the island of Bali. And that was weird.
The property cascades down a hillside beginning at the thatched roof dining/common area above the reception room next to the cement archway entrance. Continuing downward along a stone stepping path there are one and two story accommodations followed by the second floor bamboo wallless thatched roof yoga shallet that places you in the trees. Below the shallet are the gardens and the islands only fresh water swimming pool (fed by a natural spring on the property) surrounded by palm and other trees that meet the river that ends the property line. The seven day retreat offered two yoga classes daily, Balinese cultural activities, daily vegan meals, and allows for lots of free time.
The Californian has always found immersing oneself the best methodology of thorough exploration. Bali is perceived as a place of spirituality with an emphasis on wellness and goodness that can be observed in the countless massage and yoga studios and the smiling “hellos” of strangers (locals) on the street. Spirituality to him is a vague term, but a term with positive connotations.
What could yoga and clean eating do for his body? he wondered. Not having the willpower nor patience to practice two and a half hours of proper yoga daily and eat clean, he looked for structure and found it in Shanti Toya. Maybe the experience would offer him nothing more than a funky new pose or proper form. Maybe eating clean would do nothing other than make him realize a profound love for processed snacks. He had nothing to lose, so into the jungle he ventured.
The yoga went deeper than stretching. Unearthing physical liberation was the top soil of a deeper mental liberation buried below.
Following YouTube yoga videos which were no longer than 30 minutes at home, he had found some relief from back pain and muscle tension. But dedicated practices (yoga buzzword) provided something greater than what he had attained at home.
“Allow yourself to be with the sensations and feelings coming up, do not push them down or run away,” one of the yoga teachers told the class. For an hour, this sounded like hippie-crap. But in the final ten minutes of his first practice, the Californian had feelings reminiscent of puberty, when you don’t understand why or what you feel, but you feel in strongly. His first practice ended in tears. Tears that felt good. He stood up and shook his head, “What the hell was that?” he thought.
The rest of the week featured classes from yoga teachers who provided words of wisdom, some of which stuck and others that never reached him in the dense jungle humidity as he sweat and swore to himself while trying to hold the poses. But he struggled and succeeded with seven strangers, who, within mere days, ceased to be strangers. Like characters from “The Breakfast Club,” each had their own reasons for being in the jungle. The 60-year-old Australian couple found relief from physical pain, the world-traveling businesswoman found escape from work, the 18-year-old Canadian felt called to practice, and the Swedish Soldier found new life and hope for the future through yoga. The dichotomy of reasons to attend was both ever-present and never apparent. The Canadians’ enjoyment of yoga was a stark contrast to the Swedish Soldier’s passing in the last year of her closest humans, her mother and grandmother, and the ending of a long term relationship in which she gave and gave but did not receive. Yoga gave her strength and energy while home brought anxiety and sorrow.
The Californian learned there are many styles of yoga that emphasis different focuses such as muscle strengthening or endurance. He enjoyed yin yoga the best, which focuses on holding poses for minutes at a time and deeply unlocking muscle tension. This practice allowed him to stare upwardly at the bamboo ceiling which often featured geckos crawling about. The most memorial session was a partner class where he paired with the Australian ex-cement layer and fabulous storyteller with one golden tooth and a heart to match. They laughed and worked together shirtless as they attempted the poses with their matching “old man backs.”
It is a rare situation when eight strangers from different walks of life are forced to live together, eat together, and spend hours together every day and walk away without animosity towards each other. That sense of community and safety allowed him to tap into feelings buried by the chaos of daily life. Feelings that needed to be addressed but couldn’t in the regular grind. Release.
You know that feeling after eating a big burger or massive ice cream sundae? That feeling we identity as satisfaction and fulfillment that is accompanied by a “food baby” or gas? That feeling sucks. That feeling is not natural. That feeling is our body working overtime to process an excessive amount of bleh. Clean eating eliminated stomach discomfort and provided more consistent energy during the day and better sleep at night. The main trade off is it was harder to “fill up,” and there are only so many ways to prepare tofu and tempeh.
Bali is a Hindu dominated island. One of the activities they learned was making canang baskets which are used as offerings daily to the gods. The basket is comprised of red flowers representing nature, yellow for the sun, pink for peace, and purple for all the gods. They are then placed at particular areas around a property with incense and an offering of three splashes of water. To his surprise, this arts and crafts project he enjoyed, despite his usual contempt for the subject.
Herbal garuaranking tea-making using turmeric and ginger and other ingredients did not peak his interest, but it did decrease the inflammation he felt in his body from so much activity.
The most exhilarating, foreign, and memorable cultural experience was The Day of Silence, a two day event which celebrates the Balinese New Year. Between being the only foreigners to attend the ceremony in the village of thousands, and the police coming to the yoga compound, it will not soon be forgotten (post coming soon).
A cliche yoga retreat is not for everyone and can be scoffed at by many, even those closest to the experience. “Energy is just the Yogi’s version of god to other religions,” the retreat/hotel manager shared with him privately. “If it makes people happy, then great, I support them. But I think it is all bullshit. I am an atheist. I believe in nothing. Nothing.”
The Californian didn’t find religion or the desire to tattoo chakra symbols on himself that week. He did find proof in the power of consistency in terms of physical care and nutritional attention. The experience felt right and he left with more comfort in his spirit and confidence in his body to be strong, and acceptance that sometimes both can feel weak, and that is okay.