Yoga Around the World – Part four: Bali
Bali is many things to many people. This is the place where you can find two dollar beers and great surf beaches, active volcanoes, fancy resorts the size of small villages, UNESCO protected rice paddies, hawkers pursuing you down the street with their wares and, of course, yoga. And although my “Yoga Around the World” blog was intended to conclude earlier this year, somewhere around Thailand, it would be impossible to come to Bali and not write about yoga.
Staying in Ubud, located in the middle of the island, this small mecca of “finding yourself” will have you believe that yoga is a way of life here that everyone participates in. Entire odes to the yogi life have been written by people such as Elizabeth Gilbert (and yes, you can still find advertisements for the “Eat, Pray Love” street/house/restaurant where Gilbert – or her alter ego Julia Roberts – may have walked/slept/eaten), clarifying that in Ubud the idea of yoga extends far beyond the physical act of peering through your wobbly legs in downward dog, but encompasses eating, thinking, and breathing the very air of Ubud’s narrow streets and alleyways. Famous hipsters and rock-stars pride themselves on frequenting Ubud – in a very low key fashion, of course – and while that may make it sound like the perfect backdrop for some low-grade, predictable American movie, it actually isn’t.
Yoga is just one of the many components that make Ubud one of the most vibrant cities I have ever been to. The other parts include the indescribably green rice paddies, terraced in perfect balance on top of one another on the outskirts of the town; the rivers and waterways that flow across and around the town; the cacophony of daytime birdsong and night time frog ballads, providing constant ambient sound; the armies of lizards and skinks darting around pillars and walls in search of a tasty meal; the throng of scooters, often seating entire families (including nursing babies) which fill the street; and, of course, the people – the wonderful, welcoming and patient locals of Ubud who graciously share their city (and their culture) with hordes of strangers, seeking enlightenment in its various forms.
The first stop on my list of “must do yoga” in Ubud was the aptly named Yoga Barn. Although I had been warned about the larger-than-life aspect of Yoga Barn I was still surprised to find that our Vinyasa class was held in a hefty loft that fitted a seemingly endless array of suntanned, fit and tattooed yogis, who grudgingly moved their mats a few inches to make space for my yoga buddy and I. Cosily sandwiched in between this throng, my next surprise came when the yoga teacher, a small American man with bulging biceps and short-shorts, proceeded to turn on a very loud soundtrack of rock music. Having hoped to hear the sound of birds and Ubud, I heard Joan Jett’s “I love Rock’n Roll” as I painfully contorted myself on the mat. Having hoped for views of rice paddies and palm trees, I got views of the yoga teacher gyrating along to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers at the end of my mat. Sweaty and with my ears ringing I fled the class – in a most ungainly yogi haste – somewhere between Warrior One with the Rolling Stones and a sing-along to John Lennon’s “Imagine”.
Not wanting to seem churlish we went back to the Yoga Barn the next day. My yoga buddy – an eternal optimist – to try the same class again, while I settled for a much quieter, smaller and calmer Iyengar class with a Balinese teacher, and a view of the lily pond. No gyrating to be found here. No gyrating also in our next yoga class, this time on the other side of town, where a free class with a softly spoken Balinese teacher had us lying on a dusty concrete slab, facing the debris of what apparently had been a rollicking good night in a make-shift, open-air bar, that had been part of the Ubud Food Festival the evening before. For the parts when we could hear the instructor over the insistent traffic noises of the road next to the slab, the yoga was good. There is nothing quite like lying on your back in Savasana while next to you the entire city of Ubud is commuting from one place to another in cars, trucks and motorbikes.
And so, our exploration of the Ubud yoga scene would have gone on in this seemingly random way, except for a chance meeting with a teacher of Tao Yoga, Angelo Santos, who offered us the normally unattainable luxury of private yoga lessons. With the horror of Yoga Barn still fresh in our minds, we set off to the first of a series of private classes we ended up having. Held in a bale at the sublimely peaceful spa area of Arma Resort, a sprawling compound nestled amongst a river, various ponds, and trees the size of two-storey houses, I finally got the sights and sounds that I had been longing for. I also finally got the yoga that I had been longing for, as in a class of only two there is no way you can casually zone out, melt into the background of the group while you are half-arsing a particularly hard series of salutes to the sun. Especially with a skilled and persuasive teacher guiding you. In other words, I worked hard – I showed up for this practice where I had helped to set the agenda, and where the teacher became a sort of conduit between us and the ultimate yoga practice.
On the days that we couldn’t have private yoga classes we attended the public Tao yoga classes our teacher held at Taksu, another mind-blowingly beautiful setting that would spoil our esthetical expectations of yoga studios for life, and where the classes were blissfully small enough that it almost felt like a private lesson.
And so yoga did come to determine the rhythm of the rest of our time in Bali. When we were not practicing yoga we were thinking or talking about it, as with those private lessons the realisation finally dawned that yoga does not end once you roll off your mat in an exhausted, happy heap. Yoga is not about doing a series of poses that are a postscript to the rest of your life, but something that can actually be carried through to eating, thinking, and breathing the very air of the streets you walk down – whichever streets they may be. Even the streets of cold, wet, wintery New Zealand, without any rice paddies, Banyan trees or welcoming summer smiles in sight.
Especially those streets.