Soul searching in Bali

As Bali braces for the Hollywood effect, Amanda Wilson believes peace can still be found in Ubud.

I confess I was a Bali snob. Millions of words have been written about the island but I hadn't read a syllable. What I thought I knew about Bali didn't interest me.

When I used to spend months at a time wandering through wild and difficult lands, Bali seemed too easy and too close to home. I joined other "real" travellers in pouring scorn on Bali as a place where hordes of Aussie tourists lie around pissed and baking in the sun. Later it was somewhere I might visit when I'd run through my list of "must-see" places.

Finally I went. I put my preconceptions aside because, I thought, I'm not really going to Bali. A friend had convinced me to join a retreat in Ubud, the mountain village of artists that has grown like Topsy in recent years; it now has more fancy restaurants, spas and chilled-out baby boomers per square kilometre than Byron Bay.

Kathryn Riding and Vijoleta Braach-Maksvytis run a retreat called Artistry of the Soul in Penestanan, a village on the outskirts of Ubud. I didn't think too much about what "artistry of the soul" might mean when I signed up, only that I wanted to practise yoga every day and enjoy some respite from winter.

What I found was a place where anything seems possible and where, if you haven't been in touch with your soul lately, you're in for a treat. I defy anyone to stay in Ubud without feeling you have visited a patch of paradise and can breathe easier. There is the lush, green landscape and a vibrant culture of beauty, art, timeless ceremonies and music that tinkles its way into your subconscious. And then there are the Balinese; everyone I meet is truly delightful.

But maybe it's Riding's daily yoga class in the wantilan, a pavilion in the rice paddies near our cottages - all that downward dog can lead to rushes of blood to the head. Or maybe it's Braach- Maksvytis's revelation that photography can be a form of meditation, an easier way of reaching inner stillness than through one-nostril circular breathing. Or perhaps it's the regular stroll through the rice paddies to the little Cantika Spa, a haven of secret women's business and massages.

Something unfolds in me on every day of the retreat and I find myself exploring new paths of creativity and the cultural gifts of the people around me. Sounds soppy? It isn't. It's called a retreat but there is also plenty of good food, beer and belly laughs.

But before I give the impression of complete bliss, there is the baptism of fire at Denpasar airport. First there's the mad rush off the plane into a hot, crowded arrivals hall. We queue to pay for visas and then join another queue to have our passports stamped. But where do these queues begin - and end? After two hours standing in a seething mass of hot and bothered tourists, I emerge regretting my decision to come to Bali.


That's almost forgotten an hour later when I arrive at Melati Cottages, which are serene and modest, with a rhythm unlike anywhere else I have stayed. I begin to think of it as a Melati timespace continuum where nothing is rushed and no one minds very much about anything.

My room is huge, with a queen bed, a king single and a day bed facing the garden and Bali's sacred mountain and home of the mothership temple, Mount Agung.

The following day I meet Riding and the other 14 participants. She is a performer, performing arts teacher, voice coach and yoga teacher. Here's her description of what we are about to do: "The Artistry of the Soul retreat is an invitation to deepen your yoga practice, to explore improvisation with movement, voice and storytelling, to experience the thrill of spontaneity, the empowerment of embodiment."

She's able to put us at ease and starts to create a cohesive group almost immediately, so I'm looking forward to her "interplay" sessions: improvisation using voice, movement and storytelling. I can't explain how it works but after two sessions I'm swaying, twirling, bumping and grinding with the best of them. When it comes to exploring the voice, so warm and welcoming is the atmosphere that I only barely restrain myself from taking centre stage in the wantilan to belt out my party piece de resistance, You Can't Get a Man with a Gun.

Braach-Maksvytis runs her own Ubud retreats but here she is assisting with the yoga. And having more than one teacher means it isn't long before someone is gently adjusting you into the correct position for your level of experience. Even I, with a wonky hip and a tendency to throw my back out at the drop of a yoga mat, can take part all week with no dramas.

Braach-Maksvytis also holds photography and writing sessions each day and, by the end, everyone has produced something of beauty. It's a revelation to see how people whose careers range from farming to architecture can produce words and images worthy of a wider audience.

And as for my wonky back, Braach-Maksvytis has something for that. With the help of her Balinese friend and fount of spiritual wisdom, Ketut Sukra, we visit a healer - and, no, not the one depicted in the film starring Julia Roberts, Eat Pray Love, due for release on October 7.

This encounter is not easily explained. He is a lithe 80-year-old with great bone structure, a twinkle in his eye, excellent English and a tobacco habit, who lives in an old palace outside Ubud. To visit him, we must wear traditional sarong, sash and long-sleeved shirt and take offerings of fruit and flowers. Related to the last king of Ubud, the healer is seated in a small pavilion amid old palace buildings and we sit at his feet, waiting for him to finish his cigarette.

When he beckons me, he can see I'm limping slightly and asks if that's the problem I've come to see him about. I say yes but nothing more. I sit on the floor with my back to him and he begins to feel my neck and head. One spot on my head is very painful and his touch triggers a shriek of shock. He asks me to lie down, takes a small stick and presses in between my toes. The pain is so excruciating I start to cry uncontrollably.

"Ah-ah," he says. "So that hurts, does it?" "Yes," I gurgle, unable to speak through the tears. He loosens my sarong and starts to rub my hip and thigh, massaging turmeric oil into spots that seem to become more painful, not less. By this time I'm gasping and sobbing at the same time. He says there'll be bruising and I'll feel better in a couple of days. Then he gets out the stick again and presses it between my toes. I brace for more pain but there is none.

I'm still crying when he shakes my hand, then presents his cheek for me to kiss. "You will be OK," he says. And I am.

Within two days my leg and hip feel better than they have after months of rehab. No doubt the yoga, massage, dancing and strolling through the rice paddies in warm weather also help.

During eight days I discover many things, including that the Balinese seem to be able to remain true to themselves and their traditions despite the advance of tourism. Much of Ubud is bracing itself for an onslaught after the release of Eat Pray Love. The "love" part of the story happens in Bali, and I now understand why.

Getting there Garuda flies to Denpasar from Melbourne (6hr) and Sydney (6hr 30min) for about $960. Virgin Blue flies fromMelbourne and Sydney for about $792. Fares are low-season return including tax. Australians obtain a visa on arrival for $32 for a stay of up to 30 days. Keep some local currency for the departure tax, which is payable at the airport. A taxi from Denpasar airport to Ubud costs about $30.

Staying there Kathryn Riding's eight-day Artistry of the Soul retreat costs $1000, including accommodation at Melati Cottages, breakfasts, three massages at Cantika Spa and all classes. The next retreat is on August 30. Vijoleta Braach-Maksvytis's next retreat is on November 12. See; and