Ultratravel: A Balinese yoga retreat led by a rock star cum guru proves the perfect tonic to modern life, writes Mo Gannon.
A state of bliss on a yoga retreat in Bali
"The world around gotcha down
You got high blood pressure, people pushing you around ...
Take your time
Unwind your mind
We all need a little soulshine."
- Michael Franti and Spearhead
My first exercise at Soulshine, a yoga retreat centre built by the roots rocker Michael Franti in Bali, begins even before I set foot on the tropical trail to its door.
We arrive after an hour's drive from the airport in Denpasar, where I waited for half an hour, scanning the crowd for my driver's sign like a child forgotten on the school run.
He is late. It is humid. It begins monsooning. Then, as we pull into a short driveway off the road near the town of Ubud, he apologises, explaining that we must walk on the trail to the lodgings, but he forgot his umbrella at home.
My blood pressure rises. I don't mind getting wet, I explain, but my bags can't get wet because I have a laptop and ...
Just in time, a man in a rain poncho shows up. Pak Tangu, a wizened Balinese man with a smile so big it spreads across half his face, hands me his umbrella, hoists my suitcase under his poncho, balances my duffle bag on top of it and then waddles down the flooded trail.
Take that, princess, I admonish myself. I am humbled. It's a fitting introduction to my week-long stay at Soulshine, where friendliness is more important than five stars, and big hearts win out over big egos.
Pak leads me up the stone stairs to a majestic villa draped in vines, with doors framed by Balinese carvings. We are welcomed by Wayan at a tiny desk in a large common area with open doors overlooking coconut palm trees and rice-field terraces meandering up to the sky like a lush green pyramid.
Wayan shows me to my room with a canopied bed and a bathroom shared with the room next door that opens out onto a large outdoor shower surrounded by a stone wall and shrouded by greenery, with clay pots of soap, shampoo and conditioner. No phone, no TV and no blow-dryer: this is a yoga retreat, after all.
On a wander, I discover more flourishes: a koi pond that surrounds the common area like a moat and runs under the open floor of the washroom; a bungalow with a kitchen overlooking a castle-sized table on an outdoor terrace and below it, a deep, bean-shaped infinity pool; and up two flights of stairs, an open-air yoga studio stretching the length of the top floor, with views of the rice fields and a cushioned platform to lay back on and take it all in.
On my way downstairs, I find Michael Franti and Ryan Leier, the two rock-star yogis who are the reason I'm here, and what makes this more than your typical yoga retreat.
They are both barefoot with dreadlocks dewy from the rain and well, shining. Full of a smile-inducing exuberance, they stop to welcome me. Ryan, who teaches at his One Yoga studios in Canada and holds workshops around the world, kept Arcade Fire limber on their recent tour; Michael and his band Spearhead are a staple of yoga playlists and social justice music festivals from here to North America. (He's also a voice for peace in the Middle East: see his documentary, I Know I'm Not Alone, in which he travels to Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian Territories to connect with people whose lives have been ravaged by war.)
Michael and Ryan invite me to meet our group at dinner, a vegan/vegetarian buffet of grilled tempeh, rice noodles and nasi goreng, cooked for us by two smiling Balinese women, our table lit by candles and lanterns hanging from the bamboo rafters.
After dinner, we retreat to the common area to sit in a circle. Michael invites our chefs to sing us a traditional Balinese song and then picks up his guitar, leading us in a sing-along to Never Too Late. By way of introducing himself, he talks about how he started building Soulshine as his own sanctuary with Carla Swanson five years ago, then decided to turn it into something bigger, a place that yoga groups could take over for their own retreats.
"We wanted to build this as a place of happiness," he explains, encouraging us to make ourselves at home, take a break from the world and "let your soul be free."
Ryan asks us to introduce ourselves. Most of our group is Canadian and have practised with him before; the rest are from Australia. We range in age from 20 to 67, and in experience from beginner to yoga instructor.
Caitlin Powell-Bowman, Ryan's partner and One Yoga's manager, walks us through the week, which is to include at least two hours of yoga every morning, maybe more, and another hour of open practice at the end of most days.
That night we fall asleep to the crickets chirping, interrupted by the strange quacking sound of geckos that cling to the villa's beams. Waking up, I head sheepishly to the kitchen in hopes of finding coffee. To my relief, Ryan's there for the same. "My yoga teacher's 94 and he calls coffee the nectar of immortality," he assures me with a smile.
Upstairs, sitting cross-legged before us, he begins our first class with a short talk about yoga as a way of life, quoting from his teachers, both old-school and modern: BKS Iyengar, Baron Baptiste, Father Joe Pereira and Nicki Doane. He speaks slowly, thoughtfully, pausing to stroke his long beard or break into mirthful laughter. He reads a Rumi poem, "Sunrise Ruby", which inspires my week: "Work. Keep digging your well. Don't think about getting off from work. Submit to a daily practice. Your loyalty to that is a ring on the door. Keep knocking, and the joy inside will eventually open a window and look out to see who's there."
Ryan guides us into deep "Ujjayi" breathing and long, purposeful vinyasa poses, encouraging us to "melt into the move" and "let the pose find you". As our stretches get more intense, he turns on emotive music that is refreshing for its lack of sitars - Arcade Fire, Bon Iver and Sigur Ros. He punctuates his adjustments with a playful sense of humour: "stop smiling, Myrna," he'll joke, or "this is how the yoga gangstas do it," demonstrating a pose, or picking us up with a "c'mon girl"...
We wind up with backbends that leave many of us crying involuntarily on our mats in shavasana, the final relaxation pose, releasing emotions I didn't know I had.
And just when the tears threaten to overwhelm, Michael and Ryan get us up to dance - bopping around in a circle with the music pumping, we take turns pointing to one another, the cue to follow the tagged person's chosen dance move. It busts out the silly in the most hesitant among us.
Brunch after our class is like a blessing: rolled-up banana pancakes with mango and coconut, a vegan egg scramble, fresh-baked bread and tropical fruit, which we help ourselves to hungrily on wood plates lined with banana leaves.
And so goes our routine for the week. When we struggle with a move, Ryan advises us: "Watch yourself from inside." When I find myself fidgeting on the mat, he asks: "What are you running away from?"
The soreness that I feel progressively each day is outweighed by the enthusiasm I feel waking up, and melts away with more stretches. By the end of the week, even the beginners are triumphantly hoisting themselves up into headstands and handstands.
The same progression happens with our group dynamic. Whereas on the first day, we retreated to our rooms, we begin eagerly greeting each other at the breakfast table, or arranging trips into Ubud or Seminyak for dinner. While at first the bathroom doors I share with my neighbours, Sam and her daughter Carley, remain closed on either side, by the end of the week they're open and I'm popping over for talks late into the night.
We spend our afternoons on outings organized by Caitlin, piling into the Soulshine vans or riding on its scooters. Michael takes us along to a gig he plays with the Ghanaian musician Afro Moses at Bali's Green School, and its founder, the Canadian-born John Hardy, shows off its elaborate bamboo buildings. The next day, we stop for coffee from beans excreted by Asian palm civets, then take a walk through the Enchanted Monkey Forest and browse the boutiques of Ubud.
Back at Soulshine, Agung, one of the crew, takes us on a walk through the rice terraces, explaining how it's harvested and protected by offerings - three a day, along with others throughout the year - to the god Sanghyang Widi.
Another rainy afternoon, we take an ambling ride on elephants, shielding ourselves under umbrellas, at the Elephant Safari Park. And when the sun finally comes out, I skip river-rafting to lay by the pool and let nature buzz around me: white herons, black butterflies, red dragonflies and bees as big as hummingbirds.
We end our days in the studio with Ryan or in a trance on Soulshine's massage tables. Occasionally, a few overnight guests join us for dinner. I feel bad that they're not part of our group, sharing the inside jokes we've developed over the week, but Michael and his partner, Sara Agah, welcome them all like they're old friends.
The last night, the table and chairs are cleared away for a "dance party" and Michael turns up his upcoming single, I'm Alive - Life Sounds Like. Everyone - including Wayan, Agung and the ladies in the kitchen - joins in our dancing and singing. When people start jumping in the pool with their clothes on, I hesitate, looking down at my party dress, but Michael grabs my hand, walks me to the edge and we dive-bomb in together. Treading water, I laugh and laugh and laugh, feeling, as Rumi predicted, the joy open a window.
Our last yoga session the next morning is heavy with sweet sorrow. As we lie in shavasana, we hear Michael's goodbye song, See You in the Light, only it's not a recording. It's Michael on his guitar, playing a slower and slightly sadder version, before Ryan gathers us together for one last tearful group hug.
As we say our goodbyes, talking about a reunion, there's no doubt we found soulmates at Soulshine.
Ryan Leier's one-week yoga retreats cost about $2,200 for single accommodation and $1,700 for double. The next one is in Reykjavik, Iceland, from July 1 to 7. For information, visit saskatoonyoga.com or email email@example.com. Retreats or single nights at Soulshine can be booked by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org; Jalan Abarawati, Ubud, 085 333 499 499, www.soulshinebali.com
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