Come on a journey of self-discovery in a land where health and happiness go hand in hand, writes Natasha Shaw.
Bali is one of those places that has a reputation for fun and surfing, but behind the façade of this Indonesian island is about four million locals who have built a society on spirituality, good food and a strong desire to promote their health and wellbeing.
Over the past year I had put on a little too much weight, thanks to periods of medication for a health condition and forced inactivity. Needless to say, I wasn’t all that fond of my new silhouette. However, I’m one of those people who finds it hard to up and change my daily routine (particularly start a new exercise regimen) when I’m feeling less than fabulous. So, when I had the chance to travel to Bali to write about it, I thought, ‘Fantastic! A couple of weeks to kick-start a new me in a place where the people are smiling all the time and practise healthy habits day in, day out.’
WEST COAST – a positive start
With my husband Murray in tow, my journey begins on the west coast at the InterContinental Bali Resort (bali.intercontinental.com) on Jimbaran Bay. At 7am on the first morning, I don my trackies and make the journey through the hotel’s beautiful gardens to the beach for a Bayu Suci class. As the class begins, we are told that Bayu Suci is a Balinese form of tai chi – Bayu means ‘power’ and Suci means ‘holy’. In essence it’s about energising through connecting with nature, and it’s supposed to distress, boost our metabolism and immune system, as well as improve our posture and circulation. The instructor takes us through a sequence of steps, reminding us regularly, ‘It’s all about the palms’ as we cup each hand above the other and move our arms slowly and fluidly.
Halfway through the hour-long class I feel my muscles beginning to burn from all the balancing on one foot, stepping in the sand and moving my arms about. But at the end I’m thrilled I actually enjoyed the work-out (it was like learning a dance routine), and I know that despite the slow moves my legs and arms will ache with a welcome soreness tomorrow.
Seeing as I’d completed a physical work-out, later in the afternoon I decide to exercise my mind by attempting a hotel art class in a garden pavilion. Our teacher spreads out his artwork over the floor and I’m very impressed by the detail of the traditional Balinese paintings. We only have an hour to create our masterpiece, so I quickly take a photo of one of the many frog sculptures in the gardens and go to work. I’m given a stick of bamboo, which I dip into black ink for the outline, and another piece of bamboo with the end pounded to brush in the detail. Sixty minutes later, mission accomplished, my painting actually looks like a frog. I’m so proud of what I’ve done, my self-esteem skyrockets and I literally hop back to my husband to show off my handiwork.
Apart from the innocent (yet unfortunate) mispronunciation of my name by many hotel staff as ‘Mrs Sow’, a couple of days into this trip, I am already feeling better about myself. But a makeover always helps, doesn’t it? I notice that the InterContinental has a hairdressers, so I book an appointment for a cut. At 4pm sharp, I’m sitting in the salon chair, staring at my reflection in the mirror. I am ready for a change, so I instruct my surprised stylist to chop off my long locks to just above my shoulders. She takes out a razor comb (yikes, now was the time to be brave) and proceeds to comb and slice away my hair. I have to admit she was doing a pretty good job. A big ‘wow’ from my husband as I surprise him in the Club Continental bar confirms that my ‘new me’ is beginning to bloom quite nicely.
EAST COAST – getting body beautiful
I am really looking forward to my time at Alila Manggis (alilahotels.com/manggis) on the lush north-east coast of Bali. The first day is no disappointment. I’m driven to the hotel’s organic garden about 10 minutes away. It’s surrounded by lush rice paddies and I immediately feel a sense of calm. At the far end is a small open-sided pavilion where I’m introduced to Kawi, my private yoga teacher. We lay out our yoga mats and Kawi begins our one-on-one class by explaining that yoga is a conversation with the body as he gets me to twist said body into various formations. Holding each of the poses (some pretty difficult) and trying to keep my core strong, I hear Kawi say: ‘Reach towards the nature and listen to Mother Earth.’ Just beautiful. I’m hooked.
All giddy from my surreal outdoors experience, I sit back in the pavilion as staff serve me a traditional Balinese breakfast – Jamu (a delicious health drink made from various roots, leaves, bark and fruit), along with chicken, rice and egg wrapped in a pandanas leaf, plus fresh fruit. Another highlight is when a young coconut is cracked open and I’m poured a glass of the fresh milk. Young coconut milk is packed with vitamins, minerals and electrolytes and I swear I can almost feel my body’s cells yahooing in celebration.
After brekkie I am treated to a session of reflexology as I lay back on a mattress in the pavilion. Reflexology involves applying pressure to particular areas of the feet and hands, with the belief that the pressure ‘heals’ various corresponding areas in the body. Ketut has ‘magic hands’. Using his fingers and a wooden tool, he presses on parts of my feet and hands, saying: ‘You have soreness in your lower back?’ Yes I do. ‘You have a sore knee?’ Yes, I’d tripped a couple of days beforehand. ‘You have problems with digestion?’ Yes, I have irritable bowel syndrome. Oh boy, this man was scarily right on the money. I was determined to locate a reflexologist on my return to Australia.
The following day, I try to gather my courage for ice therapy. And when Wayan arrives with a block of ice the size of a 2L soft drink bottle, my fear increases – I hate feeling cold. The idea behind it, I’m told, is to reduce inflammation in the body and increase blood circulation, similar to what happens when you put ice on a sports injury. Wayan begins by pressing the ice against my eye sockets and I immediately get ‘brain freeze’. Not a great start. Next she melts half the block over my head, then asks me to lie down and proceeds to melt the rest of the massive ice block on my body by massaging it over my skin. Ok, this isn’t so bad – it’s so cold it almost feels like it’s burning at times, but other than that it’s quite numbing. By the time my therapy is completed, I have to admit I feel really invigorated, kind of like I’d gone for a run in a wintry rain. Would I do it again, um, maybe.
I was quite sad to leave my little ‘health retreat’ at Alila and the lovely staff there. But I was also excited about all the things I’d learnt about my body and was looking forward to continuing my newfound health journey back at home.
IN THE MIDDLE – liking myself and moving on
I’d worked on my self-esteem and my physical body, so now was the time to further de-stress and reflect on all the things I’d been learning on this trip so that they could carry me forward in the long-term.
The artist community of Ubud in the centre of Bali was the logical town to end my journey. Surrounded by the man-made beauty of handicrafts, paintings and perfectly sculptured rice paddies, I could easily respect what self-control, hard work and belief in yourself could achieve.
Murray and I booked into Kamandalu Resort and Spa (kamandaluresort.com), a mere skip and a jump from Ubud’s centre, but encircled by peaceful rice paddies tumbling down the hillsides. The resort even has its own private terraced rice paddies.
Once we settle into our room, I am eager to visit the Spa to try one of their signature massage therapies that incorporates natural ingredients from the area. I choose the ancient Balinese Boreh (pronounced boh-rey) spice wrap, a three-hour deep heat experience that aims to soothe aches, improve blood circulation and relieve muscle tension. Before my treatment I am shown the various spices to be used in an array of small dishes – coffee, wild ginger, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom (wow, I am going to smell good enough to eat!).
I change and lie down on the comfy bed, ready to be pampered. Firstly, I am given a Traditional Balinese massage (where all my cares just slip away), then a mocha scrub for silky smooth skin and to get my circulation pumping. After this I shower and get ready to experience the famous Boreh wrap. The milled spices are spread all over my body – front and back – then I am wrapped in about five layers of cotton sheets and left for half an hour. I can feel the spice mixture heating up and warming my body from the outside in and I recognise that sleep isn’t far off as I completely bliss out. Another shower to wash off the spices, then I am directed to a bath, the surface scattered with bright tropical flowers. Here, I relax a little more (while debating if any more relaxation is actually possible) and sip on Jamu, before drying myself off and floating out of the Spa, my skin silky smooth and a true sense of relaxation and wellbeing emanating from within.
On our final morning, Murray and I decide to go on a private artist’s tour, organised by the resort. I am keen to purchase a painting that will remind me of my Bali experience – something that when my self-control is slipping I can look at and get all inspired again. We are driven to a few nearby communities and shown an abundance of paintings, contemporary and traditional, brushed by obviously talented artists. Back in the centre of Ubud, we wander into the busy markets, where several blocks are consumed by the local’s woodcrafts, ceramics and paintings. Then I see her. A beautiful grey-haired Balinese woman. Her head is tipped back as she drinks from an earthenware jug, a little water spilling down the sides of her weathered face. Despite her obvious old age, she looks healthy and happy, and full of a zest for life. This is perfect. Every time I view her back at home, I know I will aspire to work hard to improve my health and any weight issues, and my self-love and, therefore, embrace life as it is always meant to be embraced.
Have you tried any of the above treatments or been to one of the locations we mentioned? We’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.