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Souvenirs: Bali Retreat Recap

I pulled my bag closer on my lap, checked for the umpteenth time that my passport was still in its designated pocket after 27 hours of travel, and braced myself against the door of the van as we bumped off the road onto a craggy dirt path. We’d been driving for quite a bit, and I still hadn’t seen a sign that would indicate this little turnoff meant we were nearing our destination.

That’s not to say there weren’t any signs; I saw a handful of ads tacked to poles for the nearest Circle K convenience store, at least a dozen arrows to indicate where one could buy a bottle of petrol for their motorbike, and several posters featuring local musicians who would soon be performing at the nearby beach bar… but nothing on this road, if you could call it that, to suggest we were close to Mondo Surf & Lifestyle Village, our home for the next two weeks.

I shot my fellow passenger a look of confused concern. We’d met a man at the Denpasar airport who assured us he was our ground transfer to our accommodations. We had been in the back of an unmarked van for 45 minutes. I was sweating profusely, more from anxiety than from the heat. She smiled and shrugged. It was comical, actually. We had absolutely no idea where we were—or how we’d contact anyone if we didn’t end up where we were supposed to. And we were in no position to take action or help our own circumstances if we wanted to; we were each other’s emergency contacts for this trip!

So I did what any Westerner on the verge of panic in her first disoriented hours in a foreign land would do. I sat back in my seat, clutching my bag. I took a deep breath. I surrendered. I looked out the window at passing rice terraces and packs of stray dogs, at dwindling kerosene fires in fields and children flying kites. Eventually, at another unmarked fork in the dirt road that only the locals could perceive as an optional route, we took a sharp turn and bumped our way down what you might call a driveway to a brown fence covered with climbing vines and purple blossoms. We’d arrived.

My time in Bali proved to be many things, not the least of which was an exercise in letting go of control, of any knowledge of the day’s plan, and just letting it unfold... much like that first ride into the town of Canggu, whose unmarked dirt roads I would run on and become familiar with and fond of over the next two weeks.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have lived and traveled pretty extensively on three continents. This prior life and travel experience led me to believe I might know what to expect of my time in Bali—a different place, certainly, but a similar international experience. But this trip would turn out to be unlike any I’ve ever taken. First and foremost, this was a retreat. A yoga retreat. With 15 women, 12 of whom were perfect strangers. For 10 days. On a tiny island in the Indian Ocean.

A yoga retreat is different from other trips in that the travelers are called to push themselves physically, emotionally, intellectually, even spiritually, as we learn about one another, the chakras, the culture of the place we are visiting, the experiences and notions we are each holding on to—and which of these we might considering letting go.

There are so many reasons to go on a yoga retreat. The yoga, yes. The travel, of course. To meet other likeminded people. And then a hidden bonus: Flying halfway around the globe may be just the thing that inspires you to peel away the familiar layers of yourself, so that you can reengage with YOU.

I was surprised to learn that even among 15 women for two weeks, I spent a considerable amount of time with myself, with my own thoughts—even as I was with the group eating breakfast, in the backseat of a 7-passenger van winding through the countryside, and on a beach sending lighted lanterns into the night sky. I found myself thinking seriously about who I have been, who I am, and who I want to be. I reflected on all the things I have been so lucky to have done—including, in just those few days, learning to scale and filet a fish that we would later eat for dinner; cresting a wave on a surfboard; and completing 108 sun salutations to celebrate the summer solstice. Shoulder muscles seizing, chest heaving, this practice was nothing short of sublime. I realized, in the company of my fellow retreaters, the true power we each have to shape our own lives—as well as to make the lives of those we encounter more meaningful, if only for a two-week trip to a tiny island in Southeast Asia.

When I tell people about my recent trip, I describe what it’s like doing yoga under a giant palapa during a morning monsoon and the incredible natural beauty of the island of Bali; I talk about how friendly the Indonesian people are and the spiritual undercurrent that exists there, part of everything they do. It’s more challenging, however, to articulate the things I experienced in my body, mind, and heart during such a short and impactful time away. And this has become my most treasured souvenir: a sort of intimate adventure that only I embarked on, for which I have neither the words—nor the desire—to share with coworkers and family members who saw my Instagram posts and ask to hear the stories behind them.

A yoga retreat, I learned, is not for the faint of heart. In fact, the heart may be the most exercised muscle on this type of excursion. There’s a confetti of emotions each day that leaves you hungry for dinner and exhausted at night, so ready and so happy to pull a blanket up to your chin, feeling fulfilled and satisfied with what you have seen, heard, and tasted, anticipating what the next day has in store.

You will share things about yourself and your life that you may not be comfortable sharing anywhere else, with anyone else. You will cry. You will sweat. You will laugh. You will think often and deeply about your past and your present and all the what-ifs and to-dos that await you after the retreat—and then you will force yourself to come back and be present. You will be challenged to try at least one new thing—the yoga retreat itself counts!—and you’ll be afraid. And then you will be overcome by a sense of accomplishment, by wonder at your own ability, when you do it.

The experience is one that can’t be duplicated for the sheer fact that it occurred in a specific moment in time, with certain people, in a very special place. This is a bittersweet realization, of course—but when you find yourself thinking these thoughts at a temple on the top of a cliff as you watch the sun dip into the Indian Ocean, you are overwhelmed with a sense of “wow.” This moment. This place. These people. And me.

In Bali, I discovered I want more of those moments in my everyday life—and that we each have the power to create and appreciate them. And of the many wonderful things my time in Bali has given me, including breathtaking images that I will hold in my mind and conversations I will keep in my heart for years to come, this trip reintroduced me to myself. Today more than ever, we are terrible at just being alone and comfortable with our own company. I hadn’t in many, many years, afforded myself a solid opportunity to hang out with me. As it turns out, I like her. I believe in her. And I have a lot of getting to know her still to do—a beautiful discovery in and of itself, a lifelong adventure I can take wherever I am, wherever I go.

Written by Brigid Hamilton, photos also taken by Brigid.

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