“So the yoga studio is taking part in the Complaint-Free World challenge,” explains our yoga instructor, Erica, while I’m trying to ignore how uncomfortable I’m feeling. Just thirty seconds previously, she had asked us to sit with our knees touching, and our butts in between our feet. I’m finding that this a lot easier than it sounds, and the muscles in my thighs are starting to throb.
She continues. “You’re supposed to vow not to complain for 21 days, as every time we complain, we release negative energy into the world. You can collect a bracelet from reception if you’d like to take part, and each time you find yourself complaining, you have to switch the bracelet from one hand to the other and start again from day one. It takes some people six months to complete 21 complaint-free days.”
As she finishes her sentence I wonder how long it would take me to complete the challenge – after all, I complain so much that I have transformed it into an art form. And just as I’m about to start complaining about how much my legs hurt (if I complain in my head, I’ve decided it doesn’t count, as I’m not releasing any of the negativity into the cosmos), she tells us to release the pose, and I feel instantly relieved.
A yoga-lover’s dream come true
We’ve been in Ubud – a town of yogis and spiritually-awakened ones – for almost a week now. From the outset we both decided that we’d use this time to get fitter and healthier – both in body and spirit. For me, that meant finding a yoga studio in which to practise everyday and trying to read as many books as humanly possible. For Ankit that meant finding a gym and clicking away on his camera until he gets carpal tunnel in his fingers. I aim to attend class at least once a day, and on the days when twenty downward dogs haven’t made my hands feel like they’re about to fall apart I go twice.
I was ridiculously excited about our final encore in Ubud. I’ve read and heard a lot about this town, how it’s very yoga-centric and spiritual, and it seemed like my kind of place. I’ve been practising yoga on and off since I was 18, and for years now I’ve wanted to further my practice, but have never got round to it. In fact, I’ve barely done yoga for the last few years, and yet the minute I got back on the mat a week ago, it felt as familiar and welcoming as the thick, wooly socks that I love to wear whenever I’m cold.
For those of you who may not be very familiar with Ubud, it was brought to ‘fame’ when Elizabeth Gilbert wrote the God awful Eat, Pray, Love, which became a bestselling memoir, and was subsequently turned into a movie staring Julia Roberts. I only managed to read a couple of chapters of the book before flinging it against the wall in annoyance (and I NEVER want to hurt books!); to me, Gilbert comes across as self involved and self obsessed, and I have no idea what so many women found likeable about her. But I digress (and no, I didn’t see the movie – I was too annoyed with the book to go any further).
The book made Gilbert a lot of money, and transformed the town into a tourist hotspot. I was a bit sceptical about how this increase in footfall since 2010 (when the movie came out) would have impacted the place. Unfortunately, my fears weren’t completely unfounded. There’s a distinct air of commercialism everywhere you go. For example, the other day I stopped somewhere to have a mid-afternoon smoothie. I ended up sipping on an organic watermelon juice, while the Harre Krishna chant was playing and Goddess Lakshmi was looking down at me from a massive print on the wall.
The whole thing felt very contrived, and unfortunately there’s a lot of ‘commercialised’ spirituality here. But then, there’s always someone trying to make money off of religion; that’s nothing new. It’s sad to think that this place was once untouched by all this, but then people like us came along and changed everything. For better or for worst? I’m still undecided.
The polished yogis of Ubud
While I’m at it, I’m going to rant a bit about the yogis here (who are all expats or tourists – I have yet to see a single Balinese person in my yoga class). They are more polished than the ones I saw in Rishikesh – think designer flip flops, manicured toes, amazing tans, freshly coloured hair. But, on the whole, they’re not very friendly.
During our first few days here I struggled with how standoffish everyone seemed. When I went to my first yoga classes, I tried to smile at a few people when I got to the studio, only to be met with blank stares, which was hurtful (I’m sensitive, I take these things to heart). I felt like the new kid at school. Ankit told me not to pay any attention, and I’ve made peace with the fact that hey, not everyone is going to be nice!
Saying all this, however, I do really love this town. Getting to deepen my yoga practise is turning out to be a truly life-transforming experience. Every day I feel myself getting stronger, more flexible and more focused. I feel energised by the end of each class, and the meditations at the start and finish are helping me to feel more at peace. In fact, I’m so at peace that I’ve been neglecting my work, and I don’t even feel bad about it, which is a first. Usually I’m always berating myself for taking days off or being unproductive. Right now I see it as part of a process that I’m going through – yes, you can go ahead and berate me for that last sentence. What is happening to me?!
Ingredients for a great town: tasty food, friendly locals
We’ve both been eating ridiculously healthily, as there are so many raw food and vegan/vegetarian restaurants. In fact, neither of us have eaten meat since we got here – the veggie food is that good. I’ve also been converted into a massive raw cacao fan, as it’s everywhere here. I love the raw cacao slices with cashews and raisins from a café called Atman that’s a few minutes from our homestay, and I make Ankit drive me there every evening so that I can get us one. Who said healthy food has to be unappetising?
Now, the next thing I’m about to say is making me cringe, as I usually hate it when travel writers only talk about how friendly the locals are in any given place – reality check: many locals are also rude, let’s hear about them, too! However, I’m going to have to say it here: Ubud locals are so lovely and warm and welcoming. If you flash a smile at someone, they’ll flash it straight back, say hello and ask you how you’re doing.
My only regret thus far is that we haven’t managed to learn much about the local culture yet, but that’s something we plan to rectify in the coming weeks. And what a beautiful culture it is! Although we don’t know the ins and outs yet, what we do know is that Bali is home to the majority of Indonesia’s Hindu population, and Ubud is the island’s cultural and arts centre. In the 8th Century, legend has it that a Javanese priest came and meditated at the confluence of two rivers near Ubud, and founded a temple on the valley floor – this site is still a pilgrim destination. Ubud was also an important source of medicinal plants and herbs – the name ‘Ubud’ comes from the Balinese word ubad, which means medicine. Religion is everywhere here, from the temples that you find within most people’s homes, to the colourful offerings that you see scattered across the pavements around town.
As Ankit is Hindu, it’s very interesting for both of us to see the differences in the practice of the religion between here and India. Our guesthouse owner was very excited when he heard that Ankit was from India, and told us that every year big groups of Balinese go together on pilgrimage there.
Within less than a week we’ve established that Ubud is very much in the grips of rampant tourist development, but at least party revellers stay way away in places like Kuta; Ubud still only mainly draws in those interested in artistic expression, yoga, and meditation. There are so many opportunities here to relax, meditate, practise yoga, eat healthily – there really isn’t much to dislike, apart from the occasional ignorant tourist/expat. So for the next three weeks, I’ll continue to ignore the unfriendly yogis and commercialised spirituality, and most importantly, I vow not to complain about it – well, not openly, anyway.
A few blog posts on Ubud that we love:
Eight Reasons Why Ubud Is Still Awesome – Mostly Amélie
15 Delicious Vegan Restaurants To Try in Ubud – Mostly Amélie
Digital Nomad Life Ubud – Bridges and Balloons
Yoga Nomads Guide To Ubud – The Yoga Nomads
Have you ever been to Ubud? What were your impressions?