In India, you have to go and find the ashram, a teacher told me. In Bali, well, you find the ashram the moment you step off the plane. Bali is the ashram. This is one of the reasons why Yoga in Bali is a growing and a vibrant practice.
The island of Bali has a predominately Hindu population within the democratic nation of Indonesia, made up of a collection of islands with a large population of people who identify as Muslim. This makes Bali unique within Indonesia. Balinese observance of Hinduism is a product of the syncretism of sects of Hinduism brought from India in the 10th century and then flavored by the practices and beliefs of the indigenous animistic culture.
The result: Ceremony is a way of life in Bali, something that permeates the everyday experience. It is a spirit culture. It feels like the land of the goddess, an embodiment of Lakshmi, the goddess of abundance. It is a feeling that is even marked on the island’s annual calendar: twice a year there are are days dedicated to Sarasvati, the form of the goddess representing knowledge, wisdom, study, and the arts.
When I started to lead chanting at the local schools, on one of my first days I said that I would teach the students the Gayatri Mantra. The teacher smiled at me. I didn’t understand the look on her face until we sang and I discovered that Balinese kids learn the Gayatri Mantra in kindergarten. They pray every morning before school. The women practice short meditations daily during their daily offerings and in their family temples. This pervasive sense of spirit is one of the forces that brought me to Bali and keeps me coming back. I’m not the only one.
Emily Kuser is someone who planned to move to Bali on her very first trip to the island. She sold everything, completed a teacher training program, and made soul connections. Family pulled her back to the states, but then she returned for the second Bali Spirit Festival. She’s still there, teaching at the Yoga Barn. Why? “Bali is warm. People are smiling. The island is bursting with spirit. The number of global souls wanting to make sense of their lives, prioritize health and connect with others are high — especially in Ubud. It’s a great place for yoga and trainings because the collective mind space is open to spirituality. People don’t seem to need much convincing about alternative lifestyles and the benefits of holistic practices while they are in Bali.”
This permeable open-minded approach may originate from the very nature of the land and the local life. Since moving there for 18 months in 2010, teacher Tara Judelle has been continuing to spend a few months each year on the island. She says, “Life in Bali is lived indoor-outdoor in a seamless continuum. Ceremony is a daily way of life. The Balinese people are inherently loving and spiritual and treat each other with kindness. When I first went there as ‘the yoga teacher,’ I was a big city asshole. I realize that they taught me yoga in their being-ness.”
Something about the root of Balinese spirituality may speak to why Bali in general, and Ubud specifically, has become as powerful a magnet for the yoga community as Los Angeles or Rishikesh in India. According to Bali Spirit Festival Co-Founder Meghan Pappenheim, “In my opinion, the traditional philosophy of ‘Tri Hita Karana,’ derived from Balinese spiritualism, is what catapulted Bali into becoming part of the global yoga community. Tri Hita Karana promotes harmony among fellow human beings through communal cooperation and compassion. It includes: Harmony among people, Harmony with nature, and Harmony with God. The principle of Tri Hita Karana guides many aspects of Balinese life, from daily rituals, communal gotong-royong cooperation practice, agricultural organization, and even the spatial organization in Balinese architecture.
Native New Yorker Meghan Pappenheim is one of the catalysts of the Bali Spirit Festival, an annual event that has infused harmonious and also palpable heart chakra energy into an international world music, devotional music, yoga, and health and wellness festival. Meghan’s background provides the perfect resume for someone who would be deeply involved in an international festival. She came from a multi-cultural background, attended the United Nations International School, explored all of the world music and art available in NYC, studied anthropology, art, and Asian studies at Beloit College where she spent her junior year of college with the Experiment in International Living.
In 1992, Meghan spent four months in Sienna, Italy, four months in Antiparos, Greece, and then four months in Bali, Indonesia. After graduating and working at galleries in SoHo and then pursuing her own handicrafts business, she returned to Bali for love. She met Kadek Gunarta when she was a student in 1992. Now Meghan and her husband Kadek have built a global event in the Bali Spirit Festival, community, and family. It may be her version of Eat, Pray, Love, and it has created an accessible entryway for people to touch the heart of this land.
In any discussion of yoga in Bali, the Bali Spirit Festival is always mentioned. Started in 2008, it’s become something of a yogic mothership that brings students and teachers to Bali. The Festival integrates world music along with traditional Balinese and Indonesian arts such as dance and gamelan, so that attendees experience a full showcase of traditions from around the globe, as well as those indigenous to the land. There is a special family day that is free for the Balinese locals to attend.
Connections are made there and it’s one of the reasons why yoga has grown in Ubud. It’s why I first came to Bali, to help build the foundation for the first festival held in 2008. I witnessed Eat, Pray, Love being filmed in Bali, and the explosion of tourism and spotlight on the traditional Balinese healers and teachers that took place after the film was released. But Bali is more than a film, the indigenous spiritual teachers practice because it is their calling, their way of life, and the yoga community is more than the Festival.
For some time, the Yoga Barn in Ubud was really the only yoga studio, and a large class would have 10 students. Now there are yoga studios in Ubud and beyond as well as resorts at centers including Soulshine Bali, an oasis in Ubud co-founded and co-owned by musician, yogi, and activist Michael Franti. These days at the Yoga Barn, it’s not unusual for up to 90 people from around the world to sweat and pray together in yoga and for 150 to participate in ecstatic dance. Emily’s regular classes have on average 50 people of 15 different nationalities, including Balinese people and Indonesians from other islands. It has also been a fertile ground for creativity and connection.
When I first moved to the island, I was asked to lead kirtan on Sunday nights. I collaborated with local musicians, who even though ceremony permeates the island, had not played much of what we think of as yoga music. They all did know their reggae, since the Balinese love reggae music. Yet in the studio, the musicians who made a living playing in bars while people drank, loved being in a place with people who listen and appreciate the music. There is a spirit in the studio, which is why any of us love kirtan.
Back to the Yoga Barn, Emily says this about the space, “It’s more like a spiritual campus because of the magnitude of offerings in six studios on one campus. There is yoga, Qi gong, sound medicine, women’s circles, meditation, Yoga Nidra, an Ayurvedic spa, a detox center running three-to-seven-day detox retreats, a restaurant, trainings, retreats, workshops, craniosacral sessions, channeling, Theta healing, Reiki, ecstatic dance, and more. Also, the architecture is absolutely mind-blowing. There is nothing like it. Anywhere.”
While the vastu, or sacred architecture of Bali, informs all of the structures, it is important to note that Bali is more than simply Yoga in Bali, more than Ubud, and far more than the beaches. Meghan says her favorite places on the island are the small roads and villages that lead up to the rice bowls. Tara says, “The magic of Bali is in the mountains. They consider the mountains the heart of the island.” Remember when you visit Bali, the land is more than simply a resort community or a place to practice yoga. There are people who call Bali home.
Tara Judelle makes it a point to remind people that as much as visitors or expats may feel a soulful synchronicity with Bali, it is not our island. Her advice, “Respect the locals and the local culture. While the traditional Balinese culture is so accommodating, it is still considerate to cover your shoulders, especially in temples, and to wear sarongs in temples. Do not treat the Balinese as servants, or rudely. Be polite.”
The politeness matters, the heart chakra is part of the magic. Bali serves a bit like a fountain of restoration and renewal in today’s global community, particularly when it comes to the sharing of yoga and ceremony. People from around the world travel here to allow the seeds of their practice to be nourished by this fertile land. They practice Yoga in Bali, they pursue teacher training. They stay for as long as they are guided. And they are changed.
As Emily Kuser says, “All my questions about life, death, sex ,and purpose were planted in the soil. It’s been nine years. I’ve been steeped in daily ritual. The Balinese gather water, flowers, and food from the earth. They prepare their offerings and they pray, predict, celebrate, and mourn. Openly. I think I have a steady patience and an increasing capacity to trust after being on this land, with these people. That has had a huge effect on my practice. It’s changed me.”
For more information about the Bali Spirit Festival, visit: BaliSpiritFest.com
Discover music and workshops by Daphne Tse at: DaphneTse.com