Teaching yoga in Bali – An oasis for the soul
I leave our villa on top of the mountain at Gaia Oasis just after sunrise. Accompanied by the morning birdsong, I walk down through the jungle landscape to the yoga shala. My favourite time of day in Bali. Before guests arrive, I light incense, candles and mosquito coils, gather some fallen frangipani blossoms to decorate the Buddha, set out the mats and props, and make time for a short practice. The mixed ability of the guests greets me each day: we may launch ourselves into arm balance if they are capable, or turn inward for meditative asanas on other occasions.
My month-long volunteer position teaching yoga at Gaia Oasis on the north shore of Bali is varied and totally enjoyable. Guests staying at the beach and mountain resorts attend the morning class from 7-8:30am. We look out over a pond filled with lotus flowers and water hyacinths, where noisy coots tiptoe over the floating leaves. Our bronze Buddha statue surveys us with equanimity. The morning temperature is a pleasant 25 degrees, and whips up to about 35 degrees by mid-day. Surprisingly well-equipped, the room has six rope stations, bricks, straps, bolsters, chairs, blankets and meditation cushions. I’m happy to know I am treading in the footsteps of other Iyengar yoga teachers.
Afternoon classes range from teaching elementary school students, young musicians, the resort staff, or local women at the village hall. Interestingly when I instruct the spa therapists, the cooks and the housekeepers, they bring many other issues that they believe yoga can solve. There is an endearing optimism and trust that I do my best to honour.
Gaia Foundation supports these complimentary yoga classes, and many community initiatives, such as reef restoration, recycling, micro-loans, traditional dance for girls, and gamelan (the percussion orchestra that is a Balinese cultural gem). The two resorts are built among the local villages and farms: it is not unusual to find hens wandering through the undergrowth, flocks of pigeons released morning and night, or to snorkel near fishermen mending their nets. This organic, symbiotic approach is the beauty of Gaia Oasis.
Our explorations of Bali have taken us to many new destinations: Lembongan, famous for snorkelling, diving and white sand beaches, where hospitality has taken the place of seaweed harvesting as the mainstay for the islanders (much to their relief I’d say); Canggu (pron. Chengu) where the young and beautiful hang out to surf, chill on the beach and ‘be seen’; and of course, Ubud, where we explored art, walked among the rice terraces, and purified ourselves at the Tirtha Empul holy water temple.
The Balinese approach every aspect of life with a spiritual passion: Balinese Hinduism incorporates animism, ancestor worship and reverence for Buddhist saints. So we weren’t surprised when chickens were sacrificed at a cleansing ceremony we were invited to attend. The Balinese make daily offerings to their gods, and centre their lives on rituals that consume a third of their income. They have much to teach us, such as the mindfulness they demonstrate as they go about the tasks of daily life. Schools and workplaces encourage meditation and yoga to help students and employees remain more present, and to build concentration. If only yoga was on every school child’s curriculum!
My biggest challenge: teaching 120 students, Grade 1-6, in a school courtyard under a 37-degree sun. I divided the group into two, arranged them in rows, and taught a series of ‘jumpings’ and animal-themed poses to capture their attention. Being well disciplined this was great fun for the students; and they can lie in Savasana for five or ten minutes without fidgeting!
My most delightful experience: working with a group of girls at the children’s home that Gaia Oasis supports. They are mindful, focused, supple and most of all, ambitious. After warm-up poses we were back-bending into Urdhva Dhanurasana and Supta Virasana; they asked to learn Sirsasana and more challenging poses next week. These girls and boys have so little, yet are affectionate, curious and hard working. They rise at 5am for chores, and make it to bed at 9pm after a long day of school, then laundry, cleaning, feeding pigs, cows, ducks and hens, and homework. As guests we are encouraged to help expand their horizons, give them suggestions for reaching further in their career ambitions, and share with them our personal experiences.
Theirs is a ‘hand to mouth’ existence, precariously balanced by ‘Papa’, the kindly kindergarten teacher behind this initiative. A donation of $120 CAD buys a uniform, books, lunches and transport for a student for a year, without which they cannot attend school. We plan to sponsor two students again this year. If you would like to offer any support, please contact Gaia Oasis. Interestingly, one in three children from the orphanage achieves a university place. Most schools can only dream about these kinds of statistics. It’s all down to the love, nurturing and discipline that Papa devotes to them.
Bali is a magical place where fireflies dance over rice fields at sunset, where corals sway in the current and tropical fish dazzle you with iridescent colours, where ‘smoothie bowls’ for breakfast taste like nectar, and where a helpful scooter rider leads you to your destination then drives away without waiting for thanks.