Finding Bliss on Bali – Yoga, relaxation and belonging

Travel & Leisure Magazine – December 2008

Evocative sounds filtered through the open-air yoga pavilion as I completed a sun salutation at Bali’s Como Shambhala Estate at Begawan Giri: the sunset song of tropical birds, the rolling thunder of the Ayung River, the faintest chant originating from a Hindu temple. I stood on my mat and marveled at the view. Mountains, draped elegantly in coconut palms and rice fields, were carved with cascading streams. Between two waterfalls was a plateau punctuated by a deep river canyon at its base. Across the river, the fading light illuminated three terraces of green rice paddies. The pulse of natural healing energy was almost audible, demonstrating why this lush, tranquil interior region of Bali is—even more than the island’s developed southern coast—the ideal spot for a destination spa.

The guiding Hindu philosophy of the Balinese, tri hita karana (three-balance relationship), dictates that individuals maintain harmony with their community, with nature and with God and that in so doing, they will find peace within. Therapies that aim to achieve this state have been a part of life here for centuries, which is why one is never far from a spa on Bali. It’s no surprise, then, that when hotelier Christina Ong, a practicing yogi and fervent believer in holistic medicine, set out to create a flagship for her Como Group’s Shambhala wellness getaways, she chose Bali. (Among Como’s seven other properties are Parrot Cay, in Turks and Caicos, and Cocoa Island, in the Maldives.) In 2004, Ong bought a majority stake in the Estate at Begawan Giri, the lauded resort in the cultural heartland of Ubud, and proceeded to build her dream spa.

The forty accommodations include ten ultraprivate detached villas and five “residences”: thatched-roof suites clustered around a communal open-air living room and library and a pool lined with daybeds. The villas and residences are secluded from one another on the twenty-three-acre plateau, where stone paths wind past trees of frangipani, teak and mahogany toward the soul of the property—the new hydrotherapy pool and wellness area, anchored by the 11,000-square-foot spa and a state-of-the-art fitness facility. A crackerjack team of health-care professionals was brought in from around the world, and the two restaurants now serve organic and raw foods. “When people came here before, they wanted a luxury holiday,” says Sally Halstead, the spa manager. “Today they come with health in mind, and we have programs to help them achieve their goals.”

Indeed, that’s what lured me to Shambhala. Upon arrival, guests are greeted by a personal assistant, who is theirs for the length of their stay. My attendant, Wiwied, was warm and witty, a Como veteran who said he was once an assistant to Bruce Willis and a full-time butler for Queen Noor of Jordan. He checked me into the Tejasuara (Sound of Fire) residence, where a fire pit lights the communal pool area at night. Except for the flat-screen TV, my suite, with its beamed ceilings, teak floors and antique furniture (from the islands of Sumba and Java), could have been a setting in a Somerset Maugham novel. The bathroom had a soaking tub surrounded by bromeliads and a divine rainfall showerhead.

Like all guests, I was encouraged to embark on an optional three-, five- or seven-day program, such as the antiaging facial package or the soothing Ayurvedic regimen of shirodhara-oil therapy, yoga and massage. I chose a three-day stress-management plan with private yoga instruction and spa treatments twice a day.

Of course, Shambhala’s programs aren’t one size fits all. To tailor mine, I consulted every day with Deepak Deginal, an Ayurvedic physician from India. When we met, I was fresh off a grueling ten-day trip through Sumatra (I’d arrived there after a 6.5-magnitude earthquake and had toured some of the ravaged areas). I was worn out and felt a fever coming on. Deginal offered nutritional advice and prescribed an herbal remedy for internal cleansing, a hot-oil massage for releasing toxins and a rejuvenating session in the Vitality pool, a hydrotherapy circuit combining aqua-aerobics with stints at seven jet stations that massage every inch of the body.

In addition to my private yoga sessions, I joined some group classes, which ranged from Pilates and tai chi to meditation. (As at Ong’s other properties, the estate often hosts retreats led by experts, such as yoga with Rodney Yee and Buddhism with Robert Thurman.) These classes made it easy to mingle with other guests, who had come from all over. An Indonesian woman was hoping to exorcise divorce demons. A couple from London and Kuala Lumpur came to rekindle a long-distance love affair with the help of a Javanese Lulur bath ritual. At the Vitality pool, I met Emma, a middle-aged British woman in the midst of a seven-day detox with her husband. “This is the first fast we’ve ever done,” she told me. “Yesterday I had a headache—you know, three days without coffee. But today I feel great.” Both were adhering to a regimen of raw foods and juices. “It also includes colonics,” she said with a grin. Nobody said healing was all fun and games.

After three days of fitness classes, muscles kneaded by master hands, walks along the river and nothing but flavorful organic food, I felt centered, completely invigorated and ready to embrace a healthier lifestyle. On my last day, a therapist specializing in Balinese and Ayurvedic methods massaged aromatic sesame oil infused with boiled herbs into each muscle. It was relaxing and revitalizing; the hour ended far too soon. Afterward I sat on an outdoor staircase of ancient volcanic stone and watched as one of the staff performed a daily ritual, offering flowers, rice and incense at a tiny Hindu altar. It was a classic Bali moment. Her movements were slow and deliberate, and in keeping with tradition, when she closed her eyes she prayed for harmony.