Retreat to Bali

Practising yoga surrounded by the dense beauty of a Balinese jungle, life soon becomes beautifully uncomplicated. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that any woman

Retreat to Bali

Practising yoga surrounded by the dense beauty of a Balinese jungle, life soon becomes beautifully uncomplicated.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that any woman in possession of a good fortune must have done some yoga. That’s the truth in the West anyway. But on the Indian Subcontinent, where the practice originated, the idea that yoga has become ubiquitous still comes as something of a surprise.

“You have done yoga before!” exclaims the mustachioed Indian-born Ayurvedic doctor leading my yoga class in Bali. “I can tell by the way your body moves. How long have you been doing yoga?”

I mumble, “A couple of years.” I’m embarrassed that after more than five years of faltering practice my body is still so heavy, stiff and, well, Western. The tall elegant Australian woman sitting cross-legged beside me smiles knowingly. No doubt she received the same compliment yesterday.

It’s no longer necessary to leave Australia to find a halfway decent yoga teacher. And thanks to the global yoga boom, you needn’t go all the way to India to experience a worthwhile yoga-themed retreat. Everything Eastern is new again, and yoga is the latest drawcard in the competitive health retreat market.

Looking Over The Peninsula

Since its creation in 2000, the international Como Shambhala brand has won numerous luxury hotel and spa awards. The Bali estate, where I’ve come for a three-day program, is the flagship property, with others in the Maldives, the Caribbean and Bhutan, as well as urban escapes in Singapore, Bangkok and London. Each of the Como Shambhala locations promote yoga as their wellness mandate (attracting world renowned teachers such as Australia’s Judy Krupp and US practitioners Elena Brower, Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman to lead workshops), but, in fact, the greater emphasis is on holistic healing through exercise, diet, Ayurvedic cleansing and self-awareness.

The long narrow peninsula of the Como Shambhala Estate is carefully manicured. There are stone paths, infinity pools and day beds under thatched pavilions. On either side, the land falls away to a fast-flowing river. Beyond is thick virgin jungle. It buzzes and sings like the mythical forest of the movie, Avatar. 

I’ve spent the afternoon in my spacious suite. Carved in the Balinese-style, it has a private hot-water jacuzzi, four-poster king-sized bed, two day beds and an enormous square-shaped stone bath. A private deck looks out over the river and beyond to rice paddy fields. The minibar is faintly disappointing. Juices, energy bars, a bag of beetroot, parsnip and carrot chips. No vodka coolers or Kit Kats in sight.

It’s time for dinner, so I pick along the stone pavers, lit at dusk with tiny lamps, and feel the energy of the jungle around me. I order a glass of wine and beef rendang in one of the estate’s two restaurants. But this is not the kind of luxury I’m here to experience. Tomorrow I will make amends.

Seeking Wellness

I arrive bright and early for my yoga class with Dr Dwaraka Raman. Smooth-skinned and bendy, he spent seven years studying Ayurvedic medicine at Mangalore University in India. Two hours each day are dedicated to yoga. His class (a gentle traditional hatha yoga, a style taught specifically to Ayurvedic doctors) is a series of energising poses, with the focus on therapeutic benefits to kidney, liver and mind. This morning the class takes place in the Estate’s open-air yoga balé—I can see the jungle on the horizon and hear the calling of the birds. Tomorrow our class will be in the yoga pavilion, high above the Estate looking to the vanishing point of the peninsula. Today, Dr Dwaraka tells me not to “strive” so much, to simply “be there”. Then, when I relax into the pose, he swats me with his hand. “Lazy girl,” he chides. “Look how much further you can go. There. That’s maximum. Tomorrow I bring a big stick.”

It’s the integrity of Como Shambhala’s wellness consultants that sets it apart from other health retreats and makes their wellness program so renowned (see box on this page for more information on their range of programs). There is an extensive spa menu, where guests can choose anything from deep-tissue massage or colon cleanse to a manicure and pedicure. Among the tight-knit collaborative team is a nutritionist, a counselling psychologist and spa manager, Sally Halstead, is a former acute-care nurse. “Pedicures can be as important as massage and yoga in terms of wellness,” Halstead says, with a cheeky grin. Dr Dwaraka has more than 10 years experience as an Ayurvedic doctor, and the resident yoga and pilates teachers have trained in the US, Europe and Asia. Japanese acupuncture master Satoshi Hashimoto leaves me glowing after just one shiatsu massage.

Early on, I meet with nutritionist Lacey Hall. A Sandra Bullock look-alike, Hall is so sweet that I immediately confess all my dieting sins. She nods and whispers conspiratorially, “I know what you mean, I have the same trouble myself.” I find it hard to believe that this bright-eyed skinny minnie could ever lick the plate clean. But I take her word for it and together we work out a menu that boosts fibre and protein.

My yoga is noticeably better after just two consecutive days. The menu at Como Shambhala emphasises light, organic, vegetarian and raw food. An extensive juice menu replaces the standard hotel wine list and many guests start their stay with a short cleansing juice fast. Australian-born chef Chris Miller has worked to prepare tasty juices based on watermelon, strawberry and coconut milk that still contain the essential, yet potent, herbal preparations.

“Usually the chefs don’t taste them and you have to drink them like this,” says Dr Dwaraka, pinching his nose with his fingers. He tells me he wanted to put me on a juice fast until he discovered it was my birthday. “Not fair,” he grins. “Not with all this great food around.”

Exploring Bali

Ubud is the closest town to Como Shambhala Estate, a 20-minute drive away. The artists’ town of 8000, in the lush volcanic countryside one hour’s drive north east of Bali’s capital Denpasar, is also something of a yoga Mecca. I eat local curries served on banana leaf, try a local yoga class and explore the town’s boutiques. It’s a vibrant slice of South-East Asian village life, yet after a couple of hours I’m happy to go ‘home’ to Como Shambhala’s exquisite location, which seems to infuse the Estate with healing powers.

On a long narrow peninsula, at the confluences of two rivers known as Campuan, the Begawan Giri Estate is an especially auspicious place for the Balinese. Many of the local staff were born in Begawan village that’s sheltered by coconut palms and surrounded by dense jungle. They’ve seen the Estate grow with them, and enjoyed unrestricted access to the sacred freshwater spring. They come together to celebrate regular full-moon ceremonies, to guests’ delight. They seem genuinely proud to work here.

It’s easy to be healthy when you’re living in a wellbeing bubble. I have fruit salad for breakfast, soups and salads for my lunch, and vegetable curries for dinner. I practise yoga every day, walk through the jungle in the morning and swim in healing spring water in the afternoon. I even watch what I drink.

But as always, it’s the homecoming that’s difficult. And so I’m given a healthy eating plan and an exercise regimen to practise after I leave. Dr Dwaraka even puts together recipes for a three-day juice fast for me. It’s a touching surprise to find farewell notes of encouragement from staff and emails with even more well wishes when I get home.

If you want to spend eight hours a day practising yoga, you’ll be disappointed with Como Shambhala. But if you hope to expand body, mind and spirit, then come prepared to extend your stay. It’s the authenticity of the place that makes it worthwhile.

And even for a woman of good fortune, if not good income, the price tag is most definitely worth it.

Get With the Program

Como Shambhala is well-known for its range of wellness programs. Here’s an overview of each one, with inclusions and rates for three-day stays:

Bespoke Health: Includes wellness consultation and massage. Guests have access to the daily activity schedule, plus the steam room, sauna and lap pool. From $2000.

Ayurvedic: An Ayurvedic doctor assesses the body’s natural prakruti (constitution) then prescribes a therapy plan including juice fasts, diet plans, detox treatments, yoga and meditation. Includes wellness consultation, four Ayurvedic treatments and two private yoga lessons. From $2500.

Cleansing program: Wellness consultants work on the lymphatic system, liver, bowels, kidney and skin, prescribing exercise, good nutrition and treatments. Herbal cleansers and colon hydrotherapy may be used to help digestion. Includes one wellness consultation, two cleansing treatments, one massage and one body treatment (such as Dead Sea mud therapy or warm muscle wrap). From $2500.

Rejuvenation: Combines spa treatments with healthy eating and positive thinking techniques. Consultants work on improving diet, weight and energy levels. Includes one wellness consultation, one facial, one massage, one body treatment and one private yoga class. From $2300.

Get fit: Expert teachers and trainers design a program that focuses on gym, yoga, pilates or outdoor challenges such as hiking and biking. Includes one wellness consultation, two spa treatments, one personal training session and one guided challenge. From $2300.

Stress management: Combat stress with body and mind techniques including yoga, meditation, qi gong and tai chi. Consultants, including a resident counsellor, provide wellbeing coaching to restore inner balance. Includes one wellness consultation, four spa treatments and two private yoga lessons. From $2300.

Fact File

Como Shambhala Estate offers three-, five- and seven-night retreat programs all year, with single and double rates. Three-day programs start from $1800 for two people in a garden room and range up to $9400 for seven-day programs for two people in a one-bedroom suite. All program rates include accommodation, meals, a personal assistant, internet access, daily activities program and airport transfers.  Activities include daily yoga and pilates classes as well as tai chi and pranayama sessions, estate walks, bike rides, aqua therapy and life-coaching sessions.

Getting there: Garuda Indonesia flies regularly to Denpasar from Sydney (from $1035 return), Melbourne (from $1016) and Perth (from $744). Contact Garuda Indonesia on 1300 365 331 or visit A 30-day visa, issued at the airport, costs $28. A departure tax of $18 is payable on departure.

Accommodation: Garden and terrace rooms are the most affordable option, followed by more spacious Estate suites. Three rooms and one suite form a private residence, with a communal open-air living area and swimming pool. There are five residences which can be hired exclusively. One- and two-bedroom villas offer more seclusion, with private living room, deck area and 11m pool. Room rates include breakfast, one consultation, a personal assistant and complimentary daily activities program. Rates start from $300 for a garden room per night and $1350 for a one-bedroom villa.

Erin O’Dwyer is a freelance writer based on the south coast of NSW and a Shadow Yoga student. She travelled as a guest of Como Shambhala Estate.