Bali’s Wisdom for Wellbeing

Published in Australian National Healt June/July 2014

SUGGESTED HEADER: Bali’s wisdom for wellbeing

By Louise Wedgwood


Balinese healing traditions have endured through decades of mass tourism. To find true physical and spiritual rejuvenation in Bali, you just need to know where to look.


Since Bali’s tourism boom took off in the 1970s, millions of Australians have sought relaxation and healing on the idyllic Indonesian island. We continue to dream of frangipani and incense, lush jungle and breaking waves. Bali isn’t the only tropical paradise nearby, but it’s one of Australia’s favourites and 16,000 of us fly there every week. Despite the influences of crowds of rowdy surfers, young families and sunbaking retirees, there are pockets where Bali’s spiritual practices and nurturing culture remain relatively unchanged.

Yoga and meditation

Surfers were among the first to “discover” Bali but it’s yoga that pulls many westerners there now. Yoga came to Indonesia perhaps as early as the first century as an integral part of the Hindu religion. While the rest of Indonesia eventually converted to Islam and nine out of ten Indonesians are Muslim today, Bali remains uniquely Hindu. There are plenty of commercial yoga retreats catering to Australians in Bali, but why not experience yoga in its traditional home – a living, working ashram. To retreat to an ashram is to tumble out of the modern, globalised world and into a simple life in beautiful surroundings. A sanctuary where everyone lives and breathes yoga every day. Unencumbered by alcohol, junk food, TV and consumerism, your body and spirit are free to absorb the full effect of daily yoga and meditation. Other activities like chanting, kirtan (spiritual singing), spiritual discussions and cleansing ceremonies are sometimes offered too. You may be expected to help with upkeep of the ashram which keeps down the fees (as low as $25 a night). Retreating from modern life is even more tempting when ashrams enjoy the best of the natural world. It’s tough to choose between the rejuvenating forces of lush ricefields, shady forests or breezy beaches. Anand Ashram, for instance, is set amongst gardens and ponds overlooking the ricefields of Ubud. It offers guests “a sacred workspace” for personal development and growth. Yoga there is practiced as more than a set of exercises, but a way of life. In contrast to lower-lying Ubud, Landih Ashram towers 1,100 metres above sea level over lush green jungle, in a remote area about one and a half hours drive north of Denpasar airport. In the background, the silhouettes of Mount Agung, Mount Batur and Mount Abang rise even higher. On the east coast in Candidasa, Gedong Gandhi Ashram enjoys a particularly auspicious location, nestling between the ocean on one side, a spring-fed lagoon on the other and the sacred temple Candidasa on the hills behind. As well as holding group retreats and providing a tranquil, unstructured place to reflect, the ashram runs the Nature Cure Health Clinic, providing acupuncture and traditional herbal medicine. Rudi Oka is one of the sons of the founder of Gedong Gandhi Ashram, and says that about 80% of the Ashram’s short-term guests are female, and about 40% are Australian. Melbourne woman Claire James is one of those typical guests and has stayed in the ashram twice (so far). The first time, she says, “I was looking for peace and quiet in a warm climate, and a chance to reconnect with myself and rediscover my mojo.” She found the ashram to be a place of refuge and warns it’s not for people seeking an indulgent style of tourism. “The sheer unpretentiousness of the place allows you to focus on the abundant natural beauty around you, and if you wish, more spiritual pursuits.” Claire reinvigorated her personal yoga and meditation practice, discovered the power of mantra, and experienced changes in some long held attitudes and perspectives. She arrived home, “physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually rejuvenated and inspired.” Claire then returned to share the experience with her family. “I wanted them to be immersed in the antithesis of our comparatively materialistic and aggressive western culture” she explains. Both Claire’s young son and husband were reluctant to leave and all three look forward to returning.

Massage and beauty treatments

Relaxing horizontally and enjoying the timeless magic of massage, you can’t really go wrong anywhere in the world. But massage to foster inner and outer wellbeing has been fine-tuned in Indonesian culture over centuries. Traditional Balinese massage, including the use of scented oils and plants, combines the wisdom of both Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine which were brought to the archipelago by Buddhist monks and Hindu priests. While Bali’s spas have modernised, many health and beauty treatments used there today were first developed by royal women in the Majapahit kingdom of the 13th to 16th centuries. For example, the Sekar Jagat Spa in Jimbaran will treat you like a princess for three and a half hours with their Royal Shirodhara package, including Balinese massage, ayurvedic shirodhara (the pouring of warm oil on the third eye), lulur body exfoliation (with a blend of ground rice, jasmine, turmeric and other healing ingredients), a fragrant blossom-filled bath and hair treatment (about $105). At Koa Boutique Spa, Sanur, two blissful treatments for travel-weary muscles are the herbal poultice massage and the hot stone massage that uses local basalt stones (less than $9 for an hour). For something different again, visit Jamu Traditional Spa (the word “jamu” refers to traditional herbal medicine), at Kuta or Sanur. There, you can have a fresh fruit facial treatment to clarify and soften your skin, and a rose petal eye mask to calm and soothe your eyes. New mothers can take advantage of the Selendang Body Wrap to help return their body to its previous shape. The holistic effects of treatments such as these seep far below the skin, unlike many contemporary Western spa treatments. Caroline Nelson works in the Gold Coast spa industry, mentoring other spa owners. She’s brought home more than a few tips from her regular visits to Bali in a love affair with the island of nearly 30 years, and the lulur scrub is one of Caroline’s favourites. Although Australian spas can copy these treatments, a key element that’s not easily transported is the calm atmosphere that the Balinese therapists create. “They appear to float around the spa which creates a calming effect on their guests. Nothing is too much trouble and nothing is ever rushed,” says Caroline. The nurturing Balinese nature is about as far from stereotypical Australian brashness as a massage is from a slap on the back. Traditional medicine If you have specific health problems, a traditional healer may have the answers you need. You can still find the healer Ketut Liyer, who Elizabeth Gilbert visited in her book Eat, Pray, Love, but there are about 8,000 Balians (also known as dukuns or shamans) to choose from. That’s around 40 times more Balians than there are doctors in Bali. Good medicine is part art, part science, and people suffering physical and mental difficulties that the science of medicine hasn’t solved often take their problems to a Balian. Their knowledge and skill is usually passed down the male line and methods vary between families, but some of the methods they use include massage, prayer, acupressure, energy balancing, spiritual advice and herbs. Each healer has particular expertise, from healing broken bones to broken hearts, tummy troubles to mystery disorders. Ask for personal referrals from local Balinese people and choose one that suits. Avid traveller Valen Dawson ( visited Bali last year and saw four healers in the Ubud area. “Startling accurate” is how she describes their readings of her physical and emotional health. The first one she visited poked her feet with a stick to find what needed healing, and put his fingers in her ears and on her head. Another administered a type of massage so intense that she “wanted to leave the earth because I didn’t think it was possible to endure such pain”. A third prescribed meditation exercises to keep her energy field strong, and ended with a purification ritual: “I tilted my head down and he poured flowers and water on top, and at the end put rice on my forehead…This was a very special experience and one that brought a lot of healing into my life on an energetic level.” Valen used local taxi drivers and online recommendations to track down these Balians. She would recommend them to anyone, saying “I’ve never experienced such amazing healing sessions as I have from the healers in Bali.” Valen recommends that if you do visit a healer, you do so out of more than mere curiosity. “These healings aren’t tourist attractions, but very real treatments that will change your life and shouldn’t be taken lightly.”


Insider tips – yoga at an ashram  It’s not a hotel, so bring your own toiletries. But it is a simple life – leave your makeup and hairdryer at home.  Choose loose cotton pants and conservative tops over skin-tight yoga wear.  Ease your body into the simple and delicious (usually vegetarian) diet, by weaning yourself off sugar, coffee and alcohol before you go.  Bring a journal or laptop to record your reflections.

BREAKOUT BOX 2 Insider tips – massage and beauty  If you try the lulur treatment, be sure you wash it off well as the bright yellow colour from the turmeric can stain clothes.  It’s usual for Balinese therapists to be less prudish about exposed breasts than westerners. Just ask for a sarong or towel to cover you if need be.


Insider tips – traditional medicine  Balians may not speak English. Ensure your driver or guide can act as translator for you.  Show your respect by learning how to greet them in Bahasa Indonesia. (Ask a local to teach you.)  Give your offering (at least $10 to $20 for foreigners) with your right hand.  Dress conservatively in a long skirt or pants with long sleeves. *Prices given are in Australian dollars using exchange rate at time of writing Louise Wedgwood is a health and wellbeing writer working with magazines, newspapers and healthy businesses. She’d love to talk with you further on twitter @louisewedgwood