This story was originally printed in the Australian Yoga Journal.
To the Balinese, Ubud has always been an intensely spiritual place. But it’s only over the last 10 or so years that the rest of the world has really caught on. And it hasn’t exactly happened by accident. In fact, you could say the determination of a handful of people has had a lot to do with shaping Ubud as a ‘spiritual’ destination. For American Meghan Pappenheim and her Balinese husband Kadek Gunarta, the 2002 Bali bombing was the catalyst for Balispirit, a concept to attract the ‘spiritually inclined’ tourist back to Bali. Since that time, Meghan and Kadek have opened yoga studios, community spaces, healing centres and restaurants, and inspired many others to do the same.
Where to Start
Once you arrive in Ubud, head to the Yoga Barn, which Meghan and Made opened in 2007. What started as two yoga studios has grown into a mini village where you can do everything from yoga teacher trainings to holistic retreats. The Yoga Barn has built two new beautifully decked out studios which can hold up to 80 people. The studios host up to a dozen classes a day, featuring yoga styles from Yin to Power to Anusara. But it doesn’t stop there. The timetable also offers Qigong, meditation, ecstatic dance, Kirtan and sound healing. And on top of that, there are also regular Dharma talks and movie nights.
The Yoga Barn is the type of place you can spend a whole day (or more). After a yoga class, you can eat at the organic café, Little K, where you’ll find amazing salads and an incredible array of juices. Next, you can walk through the rice fields to the ayurvedic centre KUSH; a rustic building surrounded by rice fields, jungle and the sound of water. You can opt for an abyanga massage where the therapist starts by standing on you and pulling you in different directions, or for a more relaxing treatment, go with Shirodara, where hot oil is poured continuously onto your third eye. And if you’re too relaxed to leave the Yoga Barn premises after your treatments, there’s now accommodation on site.
If you do manage to prise yourself away from the Yoga Barn, venture over to the other end of town to Radiantly Alive. The studio is the creation of popular American teacher Daniel Aaron, who is known for his skill in weaving storytelling and harmonium playing through his vinyasa classes. His purpose-built studio has a calm, grounded feel to it. The design incorporates wide open spaces, wooden floors, subtle lighting and thatched roofs, with glimpses of greenery through the glass panels surrounding the yoga rooms.
Radiantly Alive’s timetable is extensive and varied and features classes including iyengar, partner yoga, meditation and tai chi. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also try out yoga with hanging belts. After class, you can head straight across the road to an Ubud institution, Bali Buddha. The multi-level restaurant serves vegetarian, raw and vegan food, and is known for its environmental policies; you won’t find a straw or a plastic doggy bag here.
If you’re new to yoga or don’t enjoy big classes, then you might want to head to Taksu, in the centre of town. Taksu differentiates itself from the other yoga studios by employing Balinese teachers instead of foreigners. The yoga rooms are relatively small and so are the classes, but that’s the way Taksu likes it. “We cater for people who don’t want to join massive classes in some of the big studios and instead want more one on one attention,” says manager Lisa Cross. Taksu offers classes with a mix of styles, which are mostly hatha based. There are generally two classes a day. If you’d like an even more personalised session, you can book in for yoga therapy session which can help you learn how to correct your alignment and how to incorporate the changes into your practice.
After your yoga session, you can choose from a range of treatments at the Taksu healing centre. The massage rooms are some of the most beautiful in Ubud; built in stone and surrounded by jungle. The Eselen massage is a soothing choice and involves long strokes while the therapist breathes in time with you. Taksu also offers Watsu (water massage) and of course traditional Balinese massage.
If you’ve worked up an appetite after all your yoga and therapies, there’s a restaurant on site at Taksu. Another option is to head down the road to Earth Cafe. The restaurant serves only vegetarian food and the kitchen uses organic and local produce. The menu is enormous in both size and scope, and features dishes including Indian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and even Russian. Earth Cafe also has a shop below the restaurant which sells a huge range of products for healthy living.
The Balinese are intensely spiritual, and the healing arts are passed down through the generations. Going to see a traditional healer is definitely an experience, but expect to be smeared in foul smelling poultices, or even have the healer chew them up and spit them on you! An esoteric Balinese Healing Massage shouldn’t result in spitting, but can include everything from massage to reflexology to pranic (energy) healing.
As part of the movement to attract spiritual tourists back to Bali, the Balispirit festival was born. The festival is held in the tropical grounds of the Purnati Arts Centre around March every year and attracts thousands of yogis from all over the world. It goes for five days and features hundreds of workshops. Pretty much every type of yoga you can think of is on offer, from tantra to prana flow to yoga for surfers. Many of the classes are accompanied by live music including guitars, wind instruments and harmoniums. But it doesn’t stop at yoga. There are also classes in African dance, ecstatic dance, singing bowl meditation, hoola hooping and kirtan. And if you don’t feel like doing anything active, there are always workshops in philosophy or writing. There’s also an area for kids as well as food stands and plenty of stalls selling everything from crystals to yoga mats. The festival also has night events, which are held at two different venues in Ubud.
Even though Ubud is a haven compared with the craziness of Kuta, the streets can still get a little hectic. The good news is, there are plenty of resorts surrounding Ubud that offer everything you need, so you won’t have to leave the grounds at all if you don’t want to.
Uma Ubud is only about 10 minutes from the centre of town and is a charming resort which features white, elegant, understated rooms with spectacular, private views over the jungle. The yoga studio is open on two sides and also offers inspiring views. The daily classes cater for all levels and are the perfect way to start or end the day. The restaurant at Uma is amazing and offers many healthy food options which you can delve into while looking out over the massive Koi pond. The day spa is clean and serene with a wide range of treatments and exceptionally well trained therapists.
If your budget allows, you might choose to stay at Uma’s sister property, Como Shambhala. Como markets itself as a wellness retreat, and it has the staff on hand to prove it, including an ayurvedic doctor, dietician and yoga teacher. The yoga pavilion, like everything at Como, is beautifully presented with dark wood floors and thatched ceiling. It offers views over the jungle on one side and water features on the other, which means classes are done to a soundtrack of tinkling water.
The property itself is beautiful almost beyond description. Where Uma is understated and elegant, Como is breathtaking and dramatic. It sits on a peninsular, bound by two flowing rivers and the sound of water is everywhere. Como is divided into 5 residences which all have a theme based around the elements. The villas are stunning, all dark wood and bamboo and glass, and sit among the trees like big and incredibly luxurious tree houses. The two restaurants on site also serve an unbelievably delicious array of healthy, organic and raw dishes.
Just down the road from Como is the award-winning Alila Ubud. The resort is built on a spectacular property, with sweeping views over the jungle from many of the rooms. The whole resort centres around an infinity pool which looks like it pours into the tree tops. Tai Chi classes are held next to the pool every morning and are a calming way to start the day before heading up to the restaurant to eat breakfast while gazing out over the jungle. Yoga classes are also offered three days a week, or there are plenty of little bales (huts) on the property for private practice or meditation, as long as you’re not distracted by the monkeys watching you!
Alila is also recognised for its world-leading environmental policies, which follow the Balinese philosophy of Tri Hita Karana, promoting the balanced relationship between human beings, their gods and the environment. The rooms open up into stone courtyards filled with tropical plants and feature outdoor bathrooms, which give you the feeling of being in nature. You also won’t find any plastic in the rooms; shampoo and conditioner are in ceramic refillable bottles and water is provided in glass bottles.
So whether you’re looking for five star luxury or a more simple yogic experience, you’ll have no trouble getting in touch with your spiritual side in Ubud.