Set in Bali’s lush mountain village of Ubud, Kumara’s Escape the World yoga retreat nurtures guests to ultimate relaxation.
Every morning the hills of Ubud are alive with bells. Well, at least the corner of Ubud where I’m staying. It’s how the staff at Kumara wake us for our yoga class. It starts with a peal of hand-held bells and progresses to a series of mighty gongs. Anyone walking by at 6.30am could be forgiven for thinking this is an austere place of worship. In fact, those morning bells are one of the few formalities of Kumara. The rest of the retreat is pure Bali: relaxed, generous and spiritual.
I’ve come to Kumara for its five-night Escape the World yoga retreat. The host is Indonesian-born yoga teacher Iyan Yaspriyana, who is also co-owner of the business. The retreat includes two daily classes, all meals, spa treatments and several excursions around Ubud—a pleasing mix of physical exertion and mental relaxation.
Kumara has run this retreat every second week for a couple of years now, so it’s not surprising that it has got their service down pat. I see evidence of this upon arrival at 10pm on a Sunday night. There’s a team of staff patiently waiting to greet new guests with sweet lemon juice and our personalised printed schedule. They’ve also kept us “some dinner”, which turns out to be a three-course meal served by candlelight in our rooms.
The resort is cosy: just 10 guest rooms, two pools and several communal areas, all built against the side of a small valley. The rooms are spacious and tastefully decorated with ornate wooden furniture and modern art. Outdoors, however, the jungle is irrepressible. Ferns and moss creep out of every nook and cranny and coconut palms spring up where they can.
The air outside is heavy with incense and frangipani. Both are a reminder of the importance of rituals to the Balinese religion, which is a blend of animism and Hinduism. Incense is burnt to call the gods’ attention to prayers, and frangipani is placed on paths, along walls and ledges in offerings to the spirits.
Kindness on the Mat
Kumara’s jewel is its yoga pavilion, which is open on three sides and offers a 180-degree view of the surrounding jungle and rice paddies. It’s kitted out with yoga mats and accessories; everyone has access to a chair, bolster, blankets, cushions, straps and blocks. Completing the scene are several shrines with Hindu statues and musical instruments, including the gong from our morning wake-up call. It’s here that we spend four hours a day practising asana, pranayama and meditation.
While Yaspriyana has practised meditation for 15 years, yoga was a more recent discovery for him. Nine years ago, he was working as an Indonesian language teacher in Bali when he was introduced to asana by a local healer, who suggested it would help with an injury. He became so passionate about yoga that the next year he did teacher training at a Bali-based course run by Australia’s Yoga Arts.
Yaspriyana teaches a gentle combination of Ashtanga and Iyengar yoga, which suits our group of beginner and intermediate students. He’s a kind, considerate teacher—even his voice is soft and lilting. One of his teaching mantras is “be kind to yourself”, and he’s quick to remind us to use a prop or rest if our body needs it. Our morning sessions are two hours long, but the hardest part is when we’re still. For 30 minutes we sit in a cross-legged position and learn pranayama such as Ujjayi breath and some simple breath-focused meditations. Most of us haven’t meditated seriously before, so sitting still for this long is a big ask. The first day is agony on my back, but it gets easier as the week progresses and eventually I’m able to concentrate on the mental task at hand.
Yaspriyana likens meditating to crossing over stepping stones in a deep river. “You want to get to your destination, but in order to do that you need to focus on one stepping stone at a time, otherwise you’ll fall in,” he says. I do the mental equivalent of getting soaked several times a session, but I feel calmer and happier by the end.
Our asana practice goes for more than an hour, beginning with a dozen or so rounds of Sun Salutations. We start slowly, then build up speed. After that it’s some standing poses: the trio of Virabhadrasana (Warrior) poses, then some twists and wide-legged forward bends. Yaspriyana discerns each student’s problem area quickly. For me, it’s my torque. He gently opens my chest as I’m in Seated Twist Pose, and I easily move several inches further to the side. Each day he takes us a step closer to more challenging poses, such as Natarajasana (Lord of the Dance Pose) or Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III). Yaspriyana spends at least 15 minutes each class on balancing poses, before ending with seated bends and a well-deserved 15-minute Savasana.
Yoga in the afternoon is restorative and a more laid-back and playful session. The first classes work on opening our hips and chest with gentle lunges and backbends. “Gentle poses can become deep if you surrender to them,” reminds Yaspriyana.
As the week progresses and the bonds between the guests strengthen, we start to have fun in class. We explore headstand and handstand and cheer on each other’s attempts. I usually go as far as Supported Shoulderstand, but in this safe atmosphere I delve into the tougher inversions and feel elated for hours. Our final afternoon class is partner yoga, which starts off with two-person Paripurna Navasana (Full Boat Pose) and seated twists, then moves to a raucous attempt at getting a line of people into right-angle handstands.
The food served at Kumara doesn’t disappoint health buffs or gourmets, for that matter. It’s 80-per-cent organic and there’s a raw food component to each meal, too. You can even get daily wheatgrass shots delivered to your room for an extra dose of nutrients. Breakfast is a smorgasbord of Western and local dishes. There’s muesli, fruit, yoghurt and toast alongside black rice pudding with coconut milk. Caffeine is allowed here—there’s coffee or a black tea infused with ginger and honey, which is delicious. Juices vary each day; the banana and young coconut juice becomes my favourite. After two hours of yoga, we devour what’s laid out in front of us. Lunches are often generous salads or curries with tempeh, fish or chicken. Dinners are three-course affairs: rice paper rolls or noodle broths to start, followed by a combination of chicken curry, rice, tempeh or beans. The tempeh is the best I’ve had. Dessert is usually a fruit sorbet, but my favourite is a creamy chocolate mousse that I later discover includes avocado.
While it should be noted that a handful of guests come down with Bali belly over the course of the week, I’d still rate Kumara’s food as some of best I’ve had at a health retreat.
The retreat package includes three meals a day. Most meals are served in the communal dining area and a few are hosted by local warungs (restaurants). The best of these is the inimitable Sari Organic, a restaurant located in the middle of a rice paddy, only accessible by a 30-minute walk. We eat like kings here, feasting on curries, grilled chicken and tempeh, salads and rice, which would have cost normal diners just AU$5.
There are a few free hours each day to explore Ubud, with regular free shuttle buses from the resort. An hour north of Denpasar airport and the throngs of Kuta, Ubud was once a quiet artistic community. However, the past decade of increased tourism has had its impact—the town centre is now gridlocked and charmless. Thankfully, once you leave the main street, it’s not hard to find a quiet, attractive strip of shops, galleries and cafes to while away an afternoon. You can spend a pleasant few hours getting lost among the network of cobblestone paths connecting the town to surrounding villas and hotels. Beyond that begins the real beauty of Ubud: its green patchwork-quilt of rice paddies and jungle.
We get to see this countryside up close when we venture to nearby Batur Volcano for a dawn yoga session, which turns out to be the highlight of the week for me, despite the 4.30am start. It’s still dark as we assemble our makeshift yoga studio in the corner of a glass-walled restaurant. The sky gradually lightens as we practise Sun Salutations, so every time we stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) we see more of the view: a shimmering lake, volcanic peaks and plenty of atmospheric mist. The session is easy today, but I’m surprisingly unsteady in all my balance postures. Other students note this in their practice too, and Yaspriyana explains that it’s probably due to the increased altitude—we are at 1700 metres altitude, after all.
After breakfast we start a 23-kilometre bike ride home, with only 700 metres of the path uphill. What looks easy on paper proves a little more difficult on the road, which is, of course, uneven and potholed. The view of the countryside more than makes up for our muscle strain. For the next few hours we cycle by lush rice paddies flanked by mountains and jungle, and stop at villages with ancient temples and kids wanting to practise their English.
We also experience local religious rituals firsthand when we visit Pura Tirta Empul, a sacred spring that the locals believe will purify and heal those who swim in it. Visitors are welcome to take part in the ceremony, but I feel a bit foolish at first, like I’m play-acting at another culture’s religion, dressed in a sarong and whiteshirt and clutching a handful of flower offerings. Any self-consciousness is washed away, literally, once we get into the water. The water from the underground spring is icy cold, clean and refreshing, and our white shirts billow into ghostly shapes. It is a deeply moving experience.
It’s these cultural exchanges that distinguish Kumara from other yoga retreats, and which help to form a close bond between the guests. By the end of the week, we’ve not only escaped our own world, but we’ve entered another.
Liz Graham is the former editor of AYJ. She stayed as a guest of OneWorld Retreats.
A little pampering
The on-site spa at Kumara is a simple affair, however the therapists are polite and well trained. Treatment rooms look out onto neighbouring rice paddies, which is peaceful although you feel a bit of an exhibitionist when there are workers out there! While the massages are good, the stand-out treatment is the two-and-a-half hour Ayurvedic Chakra Dhara massage, in which warm oil is poured over each of your chakras (energy points) and massaged into the skin. It’s deeply relaxing and energising.
OneWorld Retreats operates five-night Escape the World retreats at Kumara all year. Prices start at US$1150 twin-share and include accommodation, transfers, yoga classes, meals, two spa treatments and cultural activities. Kumara also hosts yoga and wellness retreats with guest teachers from Australia, the US and UK. www.oneworldretreats.com
Major airlines fly several times a day to Denpasar from Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. A 30-day visa, issued at the airport, costs US$25. A departure tax of US$18 (cash only) applies. Kumara offers free shuttles from the resort to Ubud. To get around Ubud, you can rent a scooter from AU$4 a day or a bicycle for AU$2 a day. Car and driver hire can be arranged from AU$15 a day.