When we covered the Bali Spirit Festival in March 2017, the event was attended by more than 6,000 yogis and yoginis from around the globe. They came together to practice, meditate, dance and heal spiritually. Grace Lee penned down her experience under the Yoga Journal Singapore banner— from love talks to an earthquake to healing hugs—all of which rejuvenated her mind and lifted her spirits.

As social distancing and lockdowns took over our lives in 2020, the Bali Spirit Festival too was forced to pause. We hope 2021 brings in fresh air, new energies and the return of such festivals.

By Grace Lee

The Preparation 

I am a yoga teacher by profession, and when I first found out that I would be attending the Bali Spirit Festival (BSF), I was over the moon. I had attended several yoga workshops and retreats in the past, but had never been to a “yoga conference”. From what I could see online, there would be loads of yoga classes and seminars by instructors from all over the world. It was hard to conceal my excitement. The night before the trip, I spent hours selecting the yoga outfits to carry along—it was like preparing myself for a wedding party where I had to be properly dressed to show my respect for the occasion.

Sacred Ubud and Questions

The conference was in the cool mountains of Ubud, about an hour’s drive north of the Bali airport in Indonesia. The flight from Singapore to Bali was short and sweet, just 2 hours and 40 minutes. Throughout the journey, I kept thinking about what it could be that attracts so many people from around the world to this festival on a little island in the middle of the Indian Ocean? Why is it called a “spirit” festival, and would it truly live up to its promise of being a “transformative” experience?

On reaching Ubud, I realized that it was a very fitting venue for the BSF as there was something related to yoga and meditation in every corner of the city—be it yoga studios, yoga outfit and accessory stores, meditation spots or organic/vegan cafes. Most of the streets in Ubud are lined with traditional Balinese temples and buildings that locals believe hold magical powers to protect the city from bad luck.

The Balinese architecture is traditional and beautiful, with a marked influence of Hindu traditions. The streets that were originally designed for ox-drawn carts are relatively narrow, making it quite a challenge for two way traffic, pedestrians and stray dogs. There are a lot of motorbikes, aka “taxi services”, along the roadside. Pedestrian sidewalks are almost absent. And yet, there is this air of peace and calmness amidst all the chaos. Animism and ancestral worship can be seen everywhere, so one has to be mindful while walking to avoid stepping on someone’s Godly offerings to a stone or a gate.

My Beginning—All about Love

The day I landed in Ubud was a hot and sunny day with high humidity in the air. The venue for the festival was the Bhanuswari Resort, which was a 10-minute car ride from the town center where I was staying with another YJSG colleague. Once we reached the resort, all cars, other than the festival shuttle services, could go only as far as the parking lot. We were told by the “taxi” drivers at the parking lot that it was a long walk to the resort. I picked up my courage, and for the first time in my life, I sat behind on a scooter-taxi. Not only did I struggle getting on to the bike, I had no clue what to hold on to. Wrapping my arms around a strange man’s waist seemed a bit too intimate. But before I could conclude this mental debate, I found that we had reached the entrance to the festival. This l-o-n-g walk turned out to be a 2-minute ride at 10km/hr. That was a good lesson for a new Bali scooter rider—don’t fall for a taxi driver’s animated talk, and learn to bargain hard.

The Bhanuswari resort is located in a valley, surrounded by beautiful rice paddy fields with mountains and greenery in every direction. Just being there gave one a serene sense of unity with nature. When I arrived at 9.30am, the ground was already filled with people. It felt as though I had travelled back in time to the hippie era. There were “flower people” everywhere—men with long hair and mala beads in loose cotton slacks, and women with tank tops and saree pants. I found that people were super-friendly, and the general greeting among strangers was warm body hugs that lasted more than the standard three seconds.

I spent the first two hours combing the ground. There were more than ten open-air pavilions and numerous huts/tents, as well as a swimming pool dedicated to SUP (Stand-Up Paddling). There were also small booths along the pavement offering all sorts of services from food and drinks to gong therapy, crystal bowl sound healing, body massages, and even “finding love” advisors. As I glanced through the schedule, I came across a seminar called “Single women, attract the love of your life”. To my amazement, the session was already fully subscribed. Apparently love was a key message on the menu of the festival.

I decided to first attend a yoga class by our home-grown Singaporean yoga instructor, Amanda Koh. Amanda teaches the Kalari yoga flow that enables her students to explore yoga in a free and non-linear fashion, thereby encouraging self-love and liberation. There were at least 60-70 people attending Amanda’s class, many of whom were Singaporeans who had followed Amanda to the festival. At the end of the class, Amanda invited all the students to move forward to the stage, and started singing and dancing—reminding me once again of the bygone ‘hippie era’ when everything was a symbol of peace and love.

My second class that day was an acro-yoga session, which was held in a different pavilion with about the same number of attendees. I met people from all over the world, including the US, Israel, China and Turkey. There were relatively more men in this class. As its name would signify, acro yoga is a form of acrobatic yoga that requires strong partner support and trust. For most of the poses, we were supporting another person whose body was somewhere mid-air. It was interesting how no one seemed to care that they were falling on top of strangers, equally smelly and sweaty. Even yours truly, a Type “A” OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) person, was oblivious to all inhibitions. After each challenging pose, people would be embracing and thanking each other—it was an amazing sense of belonging and you could literally feel the love in the air!

Losing Myself to Find Myself

Through the eight-days of this festival, I continued to attend a variety of sessions. One morning, I attended a class taught by Laura Burkhart. I was delighted to be in familiar company as she had conducted a session in Singapore just a week before at an event hosted by YJSG. Laura’s class in the BSF was about “demystifying arm balances”, and two hours breezed by as she guided us through poses such as the Vasisthasana (Side Plank), Bakasana (Crow Pose), Parsva Bakasana (Side Crow), Visvamitrasana and Ashtavakasana (Eight Limbs pose).

I find that yoga practice in Singapore is still very much viewed as a form of physical exercise rather than a lifestyle. As a yoga instructor in Singapore, I too am guilty of the same. But the more I immersed myself into the essence of the festival, the more I felt the need to free my mind and tune in to my inner self—a constant challenge for me.

I began to step out of my comfort zone and attended an “embodied dance” class by Daniel “Sonic” Rojas. Daniel first led us to move our bodies, muscle by muscle. It was here that I got a glimpse of the beauty of break dancing! He then asked us to explore feelings through movement and to dance to different elements of nature (earth, water, fire, air and space). Rolling on the floor, standing, sitting, jumping, and touching ourselves were all part of the equation. This powerful practice combines yoga, conditioning, break dancing and martial art techniques. You really need to be willing to let your hair down and break all barriers to dive into the rhythm of music and connect with your mind and body. I have to admit that I am still seeking spirituality and don’t have much hair to let down, metaphorically and physically. My academic training had always been very binary and black and white (I was a computer specialist before I became a yoga instructor). However, for the brief moment that I managed to break free, I could honestly appreciate the power of “embodied dance” and how it could take one through a dynamic journey of lightness and emotional healing. By now, I was beginning to get some insight into my questions around why this was a spirit festival, and not just a yoga conference.

Earthshaking and Healing

I was staying at a resort called Honeymoon Guesthouse, a Balinese style bungalow in Ubud owned by an Australian lady, Janet De Neefe, an author and also the director of the U bud Writers & Readers Festival, and her Balinese husband. The couple also owned the Casa Luna Bali resort down the street, some cafes and restaurants, as well as a popular cooking school.

My unit was simple, yet tastefully done. It opened directly into a courtyard decorated with guardian statues and a small fountain. There were carvings and statues of Gods and Goddesses everywhere—along the windows, on the doors and on the porch outside my unit. It felt like a sacred and quiet temple.

At 7 am on the third day, an earthquake of 6.4 magnitude shook and rattled the guesthouse. Fear gripped me at first as I thought it was the spirits doing a number on me, but then I heard the other residents walk out and realized that
the ground was shaking for a reason. Luckily, there were no damages reported. My local taxi driver assured me later that Bali’s safety was synonymous with sanctity, and the city was blessed and protected because of the daily prayers and offerings by the locals.

Meanwhile, at the festival I dedicated one whole day to learning about healing since there were all sorts of healing presenters at the festival—Ayurveda, sound healing, energy healing, reiki, you name it. The one that I found most fascinating was related to aboriginal ceremonial traditions; and their indigenous dance, instruments and songs seemed to have some magical powers. Jose Calarco, a ceremonial leader from Australia, and his partner, Ana Forrest, a well-known yoga teacher from the US, put their hands over the affected area of a person, transmitting energies, while the participant was told to breathe in and “let go”. Another healer then used a 2-meter long cylindrical wind instrument, the Didgeridoo, to blow into the affected area. Jose and Ana claim that they have cured cancer and other diseases through this healing. From what I understood, vibration therapy is based on the idea that all illness in our body is a result of blockages, and sound vibrations help to break up these blockages.

To me, it sounded like a holistic ultrasound machine. While that theory satisfied my curiosity, I wondered what energies these healers tap into themselves, and what makes them believe they can heal. Jose explained that one needs to be connected with nature—the sky, the earth and the air. While I was beginning to get many of my questions answered, I secretly knew that I could never be a healer.

Finding my Center

By the last day of this eight-day festival, I was desperate to learn more about being connected with myself—I needed it for my own sanity and for the benefit of my students. I felt the festival was a calling for me to work on something I had never been able to do well in years—meditation.

I attended a dance meditation class by Amber Sawyer, an American yoga and meditation teacher who lives in Singapore. In a seated position, we were all asked to put our hands at our “centers”. I had no idea what that meant. I figured that my center wouldn’t be my heart, otherwise Amber would have said so. Since we are what we eat, I thought it would be best to put my hands on my stomach. Amber explained in a sweet, almost bewitching, voice that the center is like the eye of a cyclone. I tried hard to focus my mind and stay present, but my eyes got distracted by the beautiful rice paddy fields surrounding the pavilion and I started listening to the birds and the crickets along the fields instead. The meditation dance involved a simple 6-step movement each of which ended with a swish sound, almost simulating the sound of an email sent on the phone. We danced exactly for 20 minutes and then whirled for another 10 minutes, and to my amazement, I started enjoying myself. Unaware of what was happening, I started picking up speed and whirling to a point where everything became a blur and I had to stop only because I was afraid of falling hard.

Maybe I need to think less with my head and feel more with my heart. I heard this song repeated often at the festival:
“I release, I let go I let my spirit run my life My heart is open wide And I am only here for love.”

The Answers

I returned home to Singapore feeling lighter—somewhat enchanted and re-inspired. I felt a connection with the people I had met, and in turn, with the universe. I had thought my journey would help me learn some amazing yoga practice—but it turned out to be a personal passage of discovery. It reminded me of how little I know about being a true yogi, and it certainly opened my mind to the energies in this vast cosmos and the importance of being connected with nature. For someone as non-spiritual as I am, I truly believe that there is a higher power above us.

While my questions about this trip were answered, a plethora of new questions have now popped up on a personal level. How does one seek truth? How can I tap into all the energies I heard of at the festival? How do I know my purpose, and what do I do to feel the love enter the inner chambers of my heart? I guess all these questions are good enough reason for me to go back to the festival next year!

Photographs by @rachelkayephotography
This article was first published in the print edition of Yoga Journal Singapore, which is now Yogahood Online.