A Balinese Retreat Where You Keep Calm and Carry On in Silence
Over on the other side of the globe, Aussie journalist Jenny Hewett has been hearing a lot about Bali wellness retreats where guests are asked to remain silent. When Hewett checked into Ubud's Kumara Sakti, she did so very quietly.
BALI — It's 6 a.m. and my head is ringing. It's not the symptom of a late night nor the offensive drone of my iPhone alarm, but rather the soft gong of the brass bell outside my bungalow door. This is my daily wake-up call at Bali's OneWorld Retreats Kumara Sakti in Ubud and I could very well get used to it. I hear the soft scatter of footsteps shuffling off to awake others for the first yoga session of the day.
It's pitch black in my room, but outside the sky is dull with the glow of the rising of the sun. The morning began like any other at this peaceful yoga retreat on a small, lush creek in the jungle. But today is a little different in that, for the next 24 hours, I won't say a word, make eye contact, or eat my meals with guests. No reading or listening to music. You can call me anti-social, but I'm just following rules: It's "silent day" on our six-day retreat. All nineteen guests have been preparing for this moment with a mix of curiosity and anxiety.
Kumara Sakti is all stone pillars and archways, hidden pathways, and fish ponds. There's a spirituality and calm here that seeps from the earth below. Staircases wind their way past bungalows to the outdoor reception and further up to a dining room on a terrace. There's a pool and lounge deck tempting guests when the sun comes out. I descend to the large open-air yoga shala overlooking the jungle. I look toward the ground to avoid making eye contact with others.
In a world where technology often replaces meaningful conversation, for the heavily connected there is perhaps nothing more frightening than the thought of spending a day without our lifelines or social interactions and distractions. Even as an introvert, the idea of shutting out my fellow retreaters is unsettling. Inspired by Bali's own annual Nyepi or day of silence, locals and tourists are encouraged to use the day for self-reflection and refrain from talking, working, traveling, and entertainment for a 24-hour period. The island is also free from the noise of boats and planes — even the busy airport closes. Resort co-founder Claude Chouinard says the experience can be life-changing.
"It's important to go within yourself when participating in a retreat. It just makes sense to have a full day for introspection, a day for the self and only for the self," he explains. Having completed three stints of Vipassana, an ancient Indian meditation technique where guests remain totally silent for up to ten days, the French-Canadian says it's an integral part of the six-day program. "I find the exercise so powerful that I want our guests to get just a blink of what Vipassana is all about. For some it becomes the highlight of their journey," says Claude.
We start by drinking hot lemon water on our thick Manduka yoga mats as we stare doe-eyed into the leafy landscape on the horizon. Our Javanese yoga instructor and retreat leader, Iyan, has thirteen years of experience behind him and his approach is soft and soulful. As the days go by, we gain more knowledge and tools to help us improve our practice and better understand our bodies. The program I've signed up for is suitable for even those with little to no yoga or meditation experience.
There is daily meditation, twice-daily yoga, well-balanced meals, and a number of activities — including a water purification ceremony, bike ride, spa treatments, a stroll through the rice paddies, and lunch at an organic cafe. And there's still time for the pool.
Back at the shala, Iyan is the only one we hear a peep out of this morning, his voice guiding us through a 20-minute meditation before we begin sun salutations. The yoga style is Ashtanga, though it's much less rigorous than the kind I practice at home, enjoyable without being overly challenging. I do, however notice that practicing twice a day very quickly increases my strength. Iyan's righthand man, Wayan, assist and make adjustments.
The mood is low, almost somber. The consistently chatty Aussie professional is unusually awkward and doesn't quite know what to do with herself, throwing a smirk to her friend nearby when she can. The determined Norwegian has her eyes closed and is already in meditation, the expression on her face one of deep concentration. I find myself somewhere between the two. Catching the eye of my new friend next to me, I smile her way. When it's not returned, I retreat into my silent shell.
After the morning session, I climb the stairs back up to my bungalow. There, on the large, open-air terrace (with incredible views), is a table set for one. I devour fresh fruit, listening to myself chewing and the birds chirping. Then I begin to feel a little anxious. What will I do after the meal? Will the hours drag by if I'm not able to stick my nose in a book? For those looking to escape rather than reflect, it's a common apprehension. "For some people, to be faced with themselves for a whole day is a true challenge," says Claude. "There is nothing much to do but to look inside and observe what is happening with the self," he says.
Claude explains this is where the novel room amenities come in. Each guest is provided with a wooden box with blank squares of paper, a pencil, plus an easel and watercolors. We're required to write down the things we'd like to let go of, so that they can be burned in a healing ceremony at the culmination of the retreat.
As someone who has always struggled with meditation, I find it quite hard to kill time between meals, particularly after already exhausting my thoughts onto paper. On the other hand, I'm relieved to not have to make idle chit-chat with a group of relative strangers, lovely as they are.
At 2 p.m. I robe up in preparation for a head massage. An in-house spa therapists appears in the doorway and motions for me to follow her. She's not speaking and neither am I. The Ayurvedic oil treatment and open-air bath (filled with rose petals and looking right out onto the rice paddies) is a highlight of my stay.
A session of slow, restorative yoga is followed by a romantic candlelit dinner for one on my terrace: tiger prawns with coconut steamed in pandan leaves. There's a deep sense of calm and contentment that have not been present in me for a long time. There's a reason why they say silence is golden. I keep quiet.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Fly: Ubud is a one-and-a-half hour-drive from Bali's Ngurah Rai International Airport (DPS), which is serviced by most Southeast Asian airlines including Air Asia and Singapore Airlines.
Book a retreat: Bookings can be made online. The program I signed up for is called Escape the World and the price includes airport transfers both ways. The retreat provides a packing list ahead of time.
FOR YOUR BEDSIDE TABLE
A House in Bali, by Colin McPhee
The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation, by William Hart
Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert
BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE
Detox Your Mind, Body, and Soul in Bali's Jungle
Adventures in Ubud