Yoga by the Rice Terraces of Ubud
One thing I’d made up my mind about long ago was that in life I wanted to follow a path that I’d chosen myself. Recently it led me to the island of Bali and a broad expanse of brilliant green, terraced rice fields where I had the chance to learn and immerse myself in something that was new and illuminating. For six days and five nights I left the hectic chase of city life in Bangkok behind for the quieter and more relaxed atmosphere of Ubud on Bali, where I practiced yoga and its related breathing techniques and enjoyed food that nourished both the body and the spirit.
I was the last person to arrive.
A gong sounded softly to signal that we were all to gather at the yoga ground. As I made my way there I met for the first time new friends whose interests were the same as mine. It had been raining, but gradually the sky was clearing and sunshine was slowly spreading over the rice fields.
At the front of the yoga area was Iyan Yaspriyana, a yoga teacher with whom I had practiced three years earlier. He hadn’t changed at all. Iyan smiled as he welcomed everyone to Ubud for some time together when we would build up and increase our experience of yoga.
My heart pounded a little when I happened to hear some of my new friends introducing themselves as coming from Australia. It made me a little nervous because, as hard as a try, I’m never sure that I’m understanding everything when English is spoken with an Australian accent! But there were days ahead of me when I would have a chance to bring it into focus. Among the seven participants there were two Australian girls, really nice, who had flown in from Hong Kong and an Australian married couple who lived in Zimbabwe.
To start off, we followed the traditional Balinese ceremony that evening by going to Tirta Empul, a temple with a sacred fountain that is visited by people from all over the island to cleanse their bodies and souls and request blessings from God. Iyan had prepared long sarongs for everyone to wear, white ones that could be tied at the top for the women, and waistbands as symbols of reverence to be worn when entering the temple. People come to Tirta Empul 24 hours a day, especially when the moon is full.
The spacious grounds of the temple are full of Balinese who have come from all over the island to purify themselves in the pool around the fountain. Iyan handed each of us a coconut leaf container containing flowers and incense to present to the priest who chanted a prayers for blessings to be bestowed on us. The ceremony began with inhaling of the fragrant smoke of the incense to clean our bodies and minds in preparation for the chanted prayer. Then a flower of each color was taken by each of us from the basket as an offering to God. The first, a white one, which we placed behind our right ear. Then we picked up flowers in two more colors using our fingertips, held them in the smoke from the burning incense, and raised our hands above our heads, palms together, in a gesture of worship. Then we placed the flowers behind our left ear. Finally, we put flowers of different colors on top of our head. This was meant as an offering to God and a symbol of reception of his blessing.
When the chanting was completed Iyan led us down to the pool around the sacred fountain. The water was absolutely clear and so calm that the starry sky could be seen reflected in its surface. The Balinese believe that immersion in its water will make their wishes come true, cure diseases, help them to overcome obstacles in their lives, and strengthen them in their personal relationships and in their work. It is also believed to open the chakras, central points of the body’s energy. The experience also enhances health and strength and, especially important for Balinese believers, helps them to have children.
I stayed in the pool for a long time and was the last to leave, and felt refreshed by the new experience. It was easy to see from the smiles and looks of contentment we exchanged that all of my new friends felt the same way.
Adjusting the Elements and Achieving Balance
Our first morning in Ubud came to all of us with the scents of incense and dew-moistened leaves. As I opened my eyes, the first things I saw were the coconut trees along the edge of the rice fields and a squirrel jumping back and forth between them. A big snail was dragging its heavy shell along the top of a branch of a papaya tree, gradually making its way from left to right.
Iyan started our yoga instruction with the basic position – suriyanamasakaan – and others to stretch the tendons and build strength. The sun gradually brightened the sky to full brilliance, and when the sweat started running into my eyes I felt invigorated: I was getting into it.
Two hours passed very quickly. Everyone sat there smiling at each other as we got ready to move on to the verandah for breakfast. I checked out the snail again. It had covered the whole distance, and was now at the far end of a branch on the right side of the tree.
Unsweetened black sticky rice with coconut cream made up a Balinese rice pudding that got all of us excited. There were big glasses of mango juice to drink, and also fresh fruit and yogurt. This light, easily digestible breakfast was followed by a body-conditioning massage. Each day a whole range of different kinds of massage were available to choose from. The one that I was dreaming of that day was the Ayurvedic massage.
Iyan and the team at Ubud are masters of the Ayurvedic massage. Warm oil is dripped onto the body to stimulate the chakra. It didn’t make me drift off to sleep as I listened to the sounds of wind chimes and birdsongs coming into the treatment room. The effect was completely the opposite, awakening and bringing to life the different parts of my body. I felt vibrant and alive, aware of my circulating blood and of the air I was breathing. My awareness was at a peak for the whole two and a half hours of the treatment, and I seemed to feel the warm oil flowing into every chakra point, moving with the same rhythm as the hands that were massaging my body. Afterwards, flowers of many different colors floating in a wooden basin were squeezed together into an absorbent mass to soak the oil from my skin. I felt completely soothed and fulfilled.
That afternoon I asked a member of the staff to take me on a walk to his village, which was on the opposite side of the rice fields from our hotel. We strolled around looking at the work of the artists who were busy in a studio at the edge of rice fields that extended, terrace by terrace, to the horizon. Afterwards we went back and, in the evening, returned to our yoga practice.
An orchestra of insects set the rhythm for our practice with their songs. Iyan helped us all to practice the “A” position until it was strong and correct. We also worked on the “boat” position, which I was able to do in a much straighter and more dignified way than I had ever been able to manage before because of the boost I had gotten from the sitting position that we began with. With this kind of personal instruction, and teachers who were willing to spend so much time with us, I would be able to develop my body more quickly, not slowly and laboriously like the progress of that snail on the papaya tree.
The Day of Silence
Today speaking or conversing was forbidden. The only voice heard was Iyan’s as he led our practice. It is a Day of Silence, a form of meditation observed by people on Bali. On the island, days when people must remain silent, or on which they are forbidden to engage in any kind of activity, are determined according to the Hindu calendar.
On days of complete inactivity, called Nyepy, everything comes to an absolute stop. People are forbidden to work, leave their homes, or do anything at all. This is a custom that everyone on the island observes because of the belief that a vicious giant is passing by, and that to protect themselves from him they must keep silent and stay hidden in their homes. This tricks him into thinking that there is no one around and he moves on.
During these Nyepy no one goes anywhere, watches TV or listens to music. Everyone stays in his own home. The streets are completely deserted, there is really not a soul to be seen. “The airport is closed. No flights arrive or depart,” explained Claude, a Canadian who is so in love with Bali and Indonesia that he’ll never be able to leave. He was the organizer of this retreat, and explained its purpose of helping us to learn to meditate in a way that would allow us to know ourselves more fully and truly.
Actually, silence is already an important part of yoga practice. The only sound heard is that of breathing in and out as the air passes back and forth through the throat.
Today breakfast was served to each person on his private porch. The herbal oil massage used Ayuvedic techniques to enhance inner balance, and was conducted in complete silence as the day’s policy required.
The growling sky and cool breeze put me in the mood to take out the watercolors and paper that they had provided and sit down to let out some of my feelings. Colors looked intense from my porch because of the light from the dark sky. I grabbed my umbrella and headed out for a walk without waiting for the rain to stop. It seemed easier then just sitting around because all there was to do was stroll along and smile. There was no talk or conversation.
Given these circumstances there could be no better friend than a museum. There was a bridge made of brick, with raindrops glistening on the moss and ferns that made it look like the entryway to some ancient realm. I crossed the stream it spanned to the other side where I found Puri Lukisan, an art gallery where canvases, drawings, and sculptures by local artists were on display. I was so eager to tell the others about it that I was ready to burst, but I had to practice the discipline of silence and save the news for the next morning, when we would go to practice suriyanamasakaan in front of the sacred volcano Gunung Batur.
The Day of Nature
A cool breeze came in through the window as we drove to the crater of the Batur volcano. I hadn’t realized that we were going to start the day with yoga and solar namasakaan at a volcano, and was very excited. We took a shortcut around the rim of the crater and parked in front of a restaurant that was completely dark. Then Iyan led us to a place where we could breathe the fresh air, an open verandah that astonished the eye with its vista of the peak of the mountain: “This is where we’ll practice yoga.”
The blue of the sky, not as dark as the color of the volcano, only added to the mountain’s air of majestic size and tranquility. As before, Iyan began with an interval of meditation. Was it the complete silence of the day before that made the meditative state come so easily now, without any effort? Or was it the power of nature here at the crater of a volcano?
We practiced yoga as the sun gradually suffused the horizon with new color. I breathed in as deeply as I could without letting the smile disappear from my face when I heard Iyan say, “Look at the peak of the mountain.” Oh! How many days are there in our lives when we can experience something like this? It was pleasure, but also a kind of good, positive power that I felt. Before long the sun became intense as clouds floated in and blocked the view like a great, white curtain being drawn.
I don’t know exactly why, but it was clear to see that, at the table while we were eating, talk flowed more freely and easily than ever before. Afterwards we rode bicycles down the mountain. Those who didn’t know how to ride a bike rode in the vehicle that followed us the whole way. It was there for anyone who didn’t feel up to the long bike trip down, or who wanted to rest along the way. Then the bicycles would be loaded onto the van.
We started off with six people riding bikes, together with three expert guides. Before starting off we turned around to look at the mountain peak, which by now was hidden by the fluffy white clouds that filled the whole sky. Then we faced ahead to scan the road we would be following to get down below. We couldn’t even see the end of it!
The sounds of the tires speeding over the road and of the wind rushing in my ears combined into a single sibilant roar. It was like I was flying, and going down, down, down from some place in the sky. We stopped along the way to see coffee plantations, fruit orchards, and the village of a local ethnic group called the Aga. Then we visited a tiny village where the smiles of the inhabitants greeted us on all sides.
There were green forests where the air was so chilly that I got goosebumps as I sped past and there were villages where people carved stone pillars or carved sacred images. We couldn’t stop here; the road was now a steep incline all the way down.
At the last curve in the road we came to gracefully terraced fields that continued all the way to the bottom. We finally stopped when we had to pick up our bikes to cross a waterfall, and at that point we were back in Ubud again. There were three of us left, and our trip down the mountain had taken three hours. I had seen more of Bali than ever before.
Once we were back I lay down for a massage specially conceived to relax a fatigued body followed by an Indonesian specialty called a Mandi Lulur Floral Bath. From the distance I heard Iyan’s voice as he said, “Accept what you feel. Don’t force it or resist it. Be aware that it has happened and that it is. Accept.” Then I dozed off.
The Last Day
“We challenge ourselves and take as much as we can stand,” Iyan said in greeting when he saw us looking a little droopy after the previous day’s activities.
The final evening was the most fun of all. I did a headstand for the first time in many years. Many did their first-ever headstands leaning against the wall. We paired up with different friends and practiced various postures together. There was a give and take that opened us all up and strengthened our trust in each other as the perspiration flowed. Anyone watching would have heard a lot of laughter and seen many smiles.
Eventually the sun began to set and it was cocktail time. We all met beside the swimming pool, where Claude poured the wine, a white wine that came from the North of Bali that would have gotten a nod of respect from even the choice Aussie vintages.