Published in The Sunday Telegraph 2009
The dawn chorus begins well before misty morning creeps across the emerald paddy fields. A reedy cockerel kicks it off; a shrill peeping soon follows; then all the birds in Bali join in, shrieking and whooping and whistling. The discordant symphony makes it impossible to go back to sleep and, for a moment, I long for the soothing rumble of London traffic. But there’s no time for lying about in bed. I have a busy day of yoga, massage and navel-gazing ahead of me.
On the face of it, flying all the way to this tiny Indonesian island for a stress management course sounds absurd. I can – sometimes even do – practise yoga and meditation just as easily at home. And yet if there is a nation that knows a thing or two about equilibrium, it’s Bali. The Balinese philosophy is based on tri hita karana, which essentially means maintaining balance and harmony between the gods, the environment and the community. Only with this balance, the Balinese believe, can you achieve happiness and peace. Add a long history of healing, an abundance of plants with curative properties and a therapeutic massage technique, and the question becomes, why wouldn’t I go to Bali?
So here I am at the COMO Shambhala Estate, pulling yoga clothes out of my suitcase and hoping they won’t make me give up coffee. Formerly a small resort called Begawan Giri, the Estate was bought and developed by COMO Hotels and Resorts in 2005. COMO’s other luxury properties – including Parrot Cay in the Turks & Caicos and Cocoa Island in the Maldives – all have spas, but this is the first resort to be wholly dedicated to wellness, employing a team of yoga, Pilates and t’ai chi teachers as well as nutritionists, bodywork and Ayurvedic specialists. Cuisine, as you would expect, is delicious but healthy, made from predominantly organic ingredients, sourced locally where possible. And yes, they do serve alcohol. Hair shirts are not required in either of the estate’s restaurants.
After a breakfast of exotic fruit and homemade muesli, I set off to explore. The sun is not yet hot and the air smells green and damp. Fat, pink claws of heliconia are draped over the high wall on one side of the path; coconut palms rustle above. I avoid crushing the delicate box filled with petals and bread at my feet (an offering to maintain balance between the physical and spiritual world), and follow the path to a small shrine. Dozens more of the tiny boxes are scattered over the stone steps; above the mossy walls jut white and gold temple umbrellas, bright against a cloudless sky. I’m not sure which path leads to reception but I appear to be in paradise.
It is hard to imagine anywhere better suited to a “wellness” (for that is the term we must now use to describe health of the mind, body and spirit) than this. Half an hour’s drive from Ubud, the estate tumbles down one side of a gorge, through tangled forests of frangipani, mahogany and teak, to the banks of the Ayung river. Just above the river, three “sacred” springs converge in a waterfall, while on the opposite side of the ravine, above the trees, terraces of rice fields glitter against a mountainous backdrop.
To this natural bounty, COMO has added some health-giving properties of its own, including a spa, a light and airy space offering 20 Asian and Western holistic treatments; a yoga pavilion, a gym, four outdoor treatment pavilions and a Pilates studio. COMO also gave everything evocative Sanskrit names: the spa is Ojas (Sanskrit for “essence of life”); my retreat villa – one of five – is Vasudhara (Mother Earth), while one of the five “residences” (four or five suites with shared public areas arranged around a swimming pool), is called Wanakasa (Forest in the Mist). However, the restaurants are called Kudus House and Glow – perhaps the naming committee rather dropped the ball there.
There are plenty of secluded spots throughout the estate in which to contemplate your navel, mumble your mantras or reread your copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-seller, Eat, Pray, Love, but I don’t have a great deal of free time.
My course is designed to help you make positive lifestyle changes to combat the pressures of modern life. Programmes are not prescriptive and begin with a consultation with a doctor and a psychologist who will adapt the programme of eight 60-minute spa treatment massages and three one-to-one yoga lessons, plus group classes in t’ai chi, Pilates and aqua therapy, outdoor activities and wellbeing lectures, as appropriate.
My fellow guests – many of whom are here alone – are not all taking the same route to health and wellbeing: some are on a Get Fit programme, others on a Rejuvenation, Ayurvedic or Cleansing course (which includes colon hydrotherapy), though you don’t have to do a formal programme: you can just book treatments as you go along. We have all been assigned a personal assistant, a sort of butler who also knows your schedule inside out and will ensure you get to your appointments or classes on time.
First up for me is a consultation with Dr Deepak Deginal, who is an Ayurvedic doctor as well as an osteopath and a yoga instructor. He explains the physical toll stress takes on the body and on the subtle body (an Ayurvedic concept). He tells me he will adjust my diet for the duration of my stay to balance my doshas (another Ayurvedic concept) and speed up the healing process. He doesn’t proscribe coffee but he says I must always balance it – that word again – with a small amount of dairy.
Then he drops his bombshell: did I know that I have a pronounced tilt? He tells me to stand up. My right shoulder is much lower than the left and my hips are nowhere near level. I have very poor mobility in my thoracic spine. I feel vaguely insulted but cheer up when he says my stiff spine is the reason I have constant lower back pain, neck and shoulder ache (and, though I can stand on my head, I can never balance on one leg), and that he can help me. He adjusts my programme to include two sessions of osteopathy. The psychologist, by contrast, gives me a pretty clean bill of emotional health. Oh, the irony of coming all this way in search of life balance, only to learn that the balance I lack is physical.
But then, as I discover, Bali isn’t quite so perfectly balanced either. There is crime and corruption here as anywhere else and tri hita karana obviously doesn’t preclude chucking litter out of car windows. Despite the boom in the tourist industry over the past 20 years, the average worker still earns less than £100 a month and a young woman tells how she would never be able to travel. “We watch American movies and think that everything is so easy in the West,” she says. “You can work hard for a year, then go away on holiday. We could work hard for four years and still not have enough money to go anywhere.” The sexes aren’t equally balanced either and women must marry quickly because a Balinese man won’t look at a woman over 25. No wonder there are so many beauty clinics in Bali offering Botox.
Despite this, my lovely personal assistant, Ningsih, smiles her beatific smile and says that no, her friends and family don’t suffer from work-related stress. Road rage, maybe? She doesn’t know the term but shakes her head when I explain. Most Balinese don’t even harbour anger about the terrorist bombings of 2002 and 2005, viewing them as the inevitable bad karma that followed so many years of good karma. Ningsih does admit it can get pretty stressful keeping track of all the rituals and ceremonies that take place in her family temple (every household has its own temple) and the village temple, not to mention all the others scattered across the island: in caves, in rice fields, up mountains and on water. Whoever originally awarded Bali the epithet “Island of the Thousand Temples” clearly couldn’t count: there must be hundreds of thousands of them, each one more stunning, more beautifully elaborate, than the last.
As it seems that I’m not suffering much from emotional stress, my programme is refocused to concentrate on my physical wellbeing. Dr Deepak’s osteopathy sessions bring great benefits but my other treatments – the massages, yoga, Pilates, t’ai chi, even the food I eat – all contribute. In what little free time I have, I swim, take long walks through the estate, drink copious amounts of ginger tea and do the exercises Dr Deepak has prescribed. Curiously, concentrating so hard on my back has the effect of freeing my mind anyway.
My five days of bliss pass in a blur of self-absorption and contentment. I chat to other guests who, like me, only change out of their exercise clothes for dinner, but mostly I keep to myself and go to bed early. All too soon it’s time to return to the real world. Some visitors find enlightenment in Bali. Not me. But I’ve found something much more useful: my balance.
Shambhala is a Sanskrit term, meaning “sacred place of bliss”. COMO Shambhala Estate is that and much more.
- 2014 update: more on COMO Shambhala Estate at www.comohotels.com/comoshambhalaestate