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A Balinese Yoga Festival

INDONESIA | Friday, 22 August 2008 | Views [1913]

Day 1: The Yoga Retreat w/Laura DeFreitas (& Danu Enterprises)

It is morning over the rice fields. Expected sounds of roosters crowing and crickets singing spread across the valley. Small birds chirp as they hover over the green carpet and geckos skitter along patio walls. The daylight of Galungan is cast over Ubud, and amidst the silence of the hour, an elderly man acts as a human scarecrow. He barks tonal commands and guttural expressions. He swings a bamboo pole tied with plastic. This is his duty, and as the days continue and our presence remains, it becomes habitual. The man is protecting his family’s income, shooing away the flocks of feathers from eating their unhulled grains.

Morning—it is standard. Rise for Balinese kopi (coffee) and teh (tea) before an 8AM yoga practice with Laura DeFreitas. During the movement and stretch, I recall the day’s significance. For every religious local August 20th, 2008 is the first day of Galungan—a day of cultivating goodness to overcome evil. From a Western perspective it is equivalent to Christmas morning, and as the gamelan (the traditional Balinese orchestra) begins to play upon the streets, sounds of drums and cymbals echo through the coconut trees whilst my body heats to a number of sun salutations. I become aware of the tension in my hips and hamstrings. I recognize my feelings, my drive to let go and take in. I listen to my breath, the pulse of my heart race. I try to slow it down—all of it—to the pace of life around me, this Balinese life.

Then, I sweat. I sweat bucks as my voluptuous glands drip strings of pearls down my cheeks and off my nose. My earlobes get slippery. My cracks and crevasses slide. I am cleansing. I am burning my body’s toxins along with the ill-tempered thoughts found within the mind. I breathe in Galungan, and as the practice finishes with sivasana followed by seated meditation, I jump into Ubud Aura’s swimming pool with anticipated relief. The cold water washes over me. The feeling of floating releases Earth’s dense gravity. I’m free and sit beside the group of nine yogis for a breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, muesli, yoghurt and fresh fruits.

10:30— Judy Slattum, the leader of Danu Enterprises, greets us with the day’s activities underneath a long traditional bale—an open-air shelter with a table suitable for our Western seats. For an hour we learn basic Balinese conduct, the appropriate hand gestures and body language, and the cultural norms of the relaxed tropical civilization. We have a rundown of typical Indonesian phrases and learn simple historical facts of past and present: with an archipelago consisting of 1300 islands, Indonesia is the world’s 4th largest country as the Indonesian tongue becomes the 4th most widely spoken language.

Outside the pavilion, a gentle mist settles over the verdant rice fields. I watch it descend with grace—soft and calming, a blanket of moisture. In the distance the same elder is attempting to frighten away the birds of his sawah. He’s pulling on a tethered rope that stretches across the plot. It is draped with rows of more plastic, and as the ensemble dances above the rice with each yank he cries “Haaaa ya! Whoooooop!” He howls with assertion like a loyal dog protecting his master. He observes his rice fields like a shepherd entering wolf country. Back underneath the bale, surrounded by the daily sounds of rural Bali, we fidget in the humid air, examining last night’s mosquito bites.

Eventually the clouds part in time for our Ubud exploration. The village is the cultural center of Bali, but on this day the streets are practically deserted. Signs with the word TUTUP hang behind glass doors—the shops almost all closed. On Galungan, the Balinese congregate at their ancestral and village temples, making offerings in the morning hours to a pantheon of Hindu deities and animist spirits. To the culture, it is imperative to catch the gods before they depart this physical world in the latter part of day. In afternoons it is known they fly for the heavens.

So we waddle like a gaggle of ducks in the rice fields, we march like a colony of penguins through Ubud. In tow behind Judy, we learn about the ceremonial decorations: the penjor, a long bamboo pole adorned with palm fronds, banana leaves and coconuts with the tip curved over like a stressed fishing rod; the lamak, a woven palm leaf scroll with images of Dewi Sri—the goddess of rice; and the various boats of offerings placed on the street outside shops and family compounds to appease the lowly spirits and be granted protection. Inside the square plates made of young fronds are an assortment of red, yellow and coral-toned flowers; rice, fruits or Ritz crackers; and sticks of Copal incense.

“Don’t mind stepping on them,” Judy points out. “Once the offering is made, the offering has been made.”

The dogs know this well as they scrounge for leftovers.

We end up at Wardani, a fabric and textile shop on Monkey Forest Road. Here we are instructed to purchase two sarongs (pronounced sar-oongs) and temple scarves (kain). They are necessary codes of dress for entering temples throughout Bali. With a gifted 30% discount, a long hour of mayhem erupts as fabrics of batik and ikat fly from their folds. In the end, we are all happy with our designs and fashion, ready for purification.

As twilight arrives we find ourselves out in a small Balinese desa (village). In the local temple, we wear our recent purchases, appearing like a circus of laundry cleaners after the drying machine blew up. Locals take notice, but only smile at our direction, happy and content with life and the sacred procession about to take place. It is a Barong—a ceremony with protective spirits residing in two distinct masks that are paraded around the perimeters of the village. Their purpose: to advise the lowly spirits to stay away. It’s a symbol for defense, a pronouncement of “Our lives are sacred and we’ve got our backs covered”. Each wooden puppet is immaculately painted and costumed, and as Judy informs us, these specific ones are two of the island’s most sanctified. Only eighteen other Balinese villages possess these sacred masks, which stamps on the emphasis of our fortune to be present and witness.

Day 2: Purifying Bali-Style

With a belly full of nasi campur (a medley of rice and vegetarian cuisine Bali-style) from the previous night, Laura and I emerge for 7AM kopi dan teh (coffee and tea). The eight others of our retreat slowly trickle out from their rooms, sleepy-eyed and jet-lagged, adjusting and adapting to Bali time. Yet instead of yoga clothing, we are once more elegantly adorned in our temple raiment. Soon, breakfast sinks deep in our bellies and the 8AM departure is precise.

Tirta Empul is the first stop, and along with Surya, Judy’s Balinese husband, we become purified in the popular holy waters. As a natural spring, the waters rise from beneath the ground and collect into an exquisitely clear pool. Dark fish, neon plant life and colorful algae (as well as a 4’ eel we spotted) thrive in its nutrients, which then pour out of fountains for locals to bathe. It is here where we gathered with many others, wrapped in our second sarong ready for purification.

After a blessing by the local priest, praying to our inner guidance, we submerge our bodies into the cool waters and file through queues. There are approximately 15 stone spigots, each with symbolic significance. We take turns beneath the pours, feeling the smooth pebbles beneath our feet as we shuffle to the front. Once there, we mumble our individual hymns, splash handfuls of water from the fountain over our face and head before completely sinking into the fountain. It is divine, the clear fresh liquid and the calm reverence of the springs. Founded in AD 962 men, women and children of all ages take part from all over the island. They laugh, giggle and smile. They chant mantras. They converse with our horde of white tourists, welcoming us to their holy springs.

Next—Pura Tirta Empul, the site’s holy temple. Once dry we sit in the temple grounds as the high priest chants and gives blessings, dousing us with more holy rose water, flowers and bindhis of rice.

Yes, there is no doubt—we feel thoroughly blessed, splashed with waters, pelted with rice grains and showered with flowers. So we snack on the offerings, drink our holy water and feel like we are floating. And like monkeys now crowned with halos, we load up. We head to the elephant’s mouth.

Goa Gajah (goa - cave; gajah - elephant) was more stone, more water fountains and no elephants. Instead, the cave is garnished with a carving of a demon and inside there lays one symbol of Hindu lore: the lingam. There are three of them, phallic erections representing the trinity of gods Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu with a representative yoni—the female Shakti energy. Within the dark, the air is moist and stale exuding an 11th century origin. In the opposite corner, we find the elephant Ganesha. As son of Shiva, the elephant-headed Remover of Obstacles is depicted with the soles of his feet together. This is Bali-style. If we were in India his legs would be crossed and seated in meditation.

We step back out into the Indonesian sun with Surya, wander to the vans, and pass out before lunch. I retire poolside back at Ubud Aura and do a little more chlorinated purification. There is 4PM yoga with the Luscious Lorikeet followed by a delicious one-hour massage at Jelatik Esthetic. Each yogi is scheduled for the first of our two included massages.

Eventually, under the heavy clouds shading a waning moon, Laura and I melt back into bed as the lotus flowers begin to blossom. We are loaded with a sumptuous Balinese dinner and now turn to a little pirated flick. We fly off into space with Pixar’s Wall-E.

Click here for Days 3 & 4...
Prayer Under Surya

Tags: bali, cam2yogi, cameron karsten, danu enterprises, galungan, indonesia, jelatik esthetic, laura defreitas, ubud, ubud aura retreat centre

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