As I have recently written, Bali, in the sense of a picture-postcard, tropical paradise, has had its time. Murky waters, trash like confetti on streets and beaches and more traffic year-round than Byron Bay on Boxing Day has left the little island a less-than-idyllic holiday haven.
But, where one reason dies, another is born.
The Bali Spirit Festival began in 2008 and, in its six-year history has spawned offspring in Byron and Sydney. Away from the coast and the lure of surf, in the bustling town of Ubud, amongst rice paddies, banana plantations and sacred monkey forests, the Bali Spirit Festival creates an oasis of calm and serenity.
The festival is, for the greater part, yoga-based, or at least inspired, and from it has arisen a yoga-infused industry in Ubud. Clothing, studios, accessories, jewellery, even restaurant menus reflecting the clean lifestyle of raw veganism and organic superfoods have flooded the town. Ohm symbols, Namaste and Sanskrit texts outweigh the native language and every other person, even a small proportion of the locals, have yoga mats slung over one shoulder from dawn to dusk.
There is an unfortunate aspect of yoga that carries with it a pretentiousness, students bragging at how many asanas they can recite and perform and sneering smugly at how flexible I’m not. Ubud is packed with proficient yogis, sevenfold during the Spirit Festival. In some respects, being far from a regular or well-experienced visitor to the mat, this was my worst nightmare and mild panic took hold on my first morning in town. But arriving at the festival site, a short shuttle bus ride from the CBD, my fears could not have been proven more unfounded.
One of the true gifts of the Bali Spirit Festival is that it is for everyone. This may be the tag line on flyers or proffered in local advertising for festivals or classes across the world, but the reality is usually very different. Ubud’s festival actually embodies this statement. Guests from the States, Korea, Japan, throughout Europe and Australia, even a local contingent file through the festival gates each morning, all ages, all abilities and, if ego or pretentiousness exist in any visitor, they are immediately discarded.
Although this may be credited in part to an open-mindedness of participants, the festival’s stature and program hold much responsibility. Workshops on ecstatic dance, capoeira, meditation and traditional Indonesian dance are interspersed with a myriad of yoga practices, from beginner to rubber man or woman. You can take a single class on the nuances of head stands, target specific areas of your body or practice or explore a myriad of ways to unite your physical, mental and spiritual self. Even that phrase takes on a new meaning. Some might cringe at the hippy BS it exudes, but the Bali Spirit Festival really isn’t like that at all. These concepts, which often segregate, do completely the opposite, bringing together people of all walks of life, levels of ability and cultural diversity in very practical classes. While they may be spiritual and fluffy at the core, a very grounded and functional application is conveyed.
There are your way-south-of-centre alternative types, of course. As I lunched on a beautiful, fresh, vegan salad from the local Alchemy Restaurant’s stall, an overweight American lady with blue hair was having a gargantuan lotus flower painted across her almost-bare breasts. Such extroverted freedom of expression is allowed, even encouraged, but it is definitely the exception, not the norm. For the most part, every attendee is, dare I say it, ‘normal’.
The daytime activities take place in a small collection of wooded glades, some devoted to teaching pavilions, some hosting a collection of wonderfully healthy and delicious eateries and a retail area, purveying everything from functional yoga gear and clothing to mala beads, prayer flags and spiritual literature. You can do an early morning class, chill for a few hours, get some goodness in your belly and have some solid retail therapy and wile away your entire day in an area that wouldn’t take more than 15 minutes to circumnavigate.
But even yogis let their tightly braided ponytails down occasionally and the festival offers an extensive and diverse evening program to entertain the night owls. Sufi and Kirtan devotional music connect the day’s activities with the night time events, but artists such as Dustin Thomas and Xavier Rudd also offer a more contemporary edge for a post-practice party.
Set in the stunning grounds of ARMA, with it’s swimming pools and ornamental ponds, patios and pavilions interconnected by extensive stairways and weaving pathways and a breathtaking collection of ornate architecture, one is able to take in some music, dine on delicious cuisine or get lost in the sprawling, manicured gardens.
The Bali Spirit Festival is a place of familiar faces, one stop on a continually spiralling circuit on the global yoga network. Many shire residents participate, whether partaking in classes or teaching and performing. Byron local musos Mel Dobra and Kevin James, as well as Xavier Rudd, are on this year’s timetable, and many mutual smiles are shared, recognition of faces known though not introduced.
But never more true is it than at the Bali Spirit Festival that a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met. Happiness is unavoidable, contentment comes with a free slice of joy, and even the young girl suffering from an excruciating migraine in the medical tent was wearing an unsheddable smile.
The kindness and happiness of the locals, the healthy break from our toxic lives and the profound lack of arrogance and self-righteousness – we can all learn from the Spirit Festival experience. It makes Bali a better place to be.