Ubud, Bali, Indonesia: Navigating a culture within a culture (Pt 2)

400Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All ground is memoranda and signatures – and every object covered over with hints”

Part Two. Ubud, Bali, Indonesia – Spiritual Tourism, Yoga and Eat Pray Love

I wake up in a rice field in a room bigger than my apartment. Its disorienting, but the transition from who I was to the border of becoming has begun. I force myself to leave the room and get a lift from the host on his motorbike into town bursting into the humid hot sun and crazy busyness of the main street.

In Ubud, body, mind and spirit is the main venture, signs advertise the best of Balinese and western massage technique spa retreats in the rice fields, literary festivals and artists and places to stay. I don’t know where I’m going so I just walk, sooner or later I’ll find somewhere to escape the heat – I have no map and feel the first pangs of anxiety of not knowing where to go. Excellent.

As I walked around the streets the mythical creatures and deities that make up the unique Balinese Agama Hindu Dharma religion show their faces on every building, corner and garden. Hanuman and Ganesha, Rangda (demon queen) figures devouring children. Alleyways and doorways reveal lush gardens and formal courtyards or occasionally – a huge expanse of field. The Saggitarius Café seems serendipitous and I drink something cold looking out at the passing crowd on Monkey Forest Road. I wonder where the café owners and servers worked before they got into the tourist trade. The Hindu Dharma caste system, similar to an ancient form in India, means that a person is born into and identifies with the family wangsa or profession, even if they work in the tourist trade.

I’d decided to focus on yoga for this trip – as one of the top yoga destinations in the world I thought that it might be an opportunity to try some new form, to spend time focused on the body instead of the chattering negative mind that had become my miserable second home for the previous 6 months.


Iyengar yoga, kundalini yoga, anusara yoga, vinyasa flow yoga, yin yoga, yoga nidra, Tibetan bowl meditation, anusara meditation – there was so much choice. I settled on the Yoga Barn – the most prolific yoga studio in Ubud. Set in a tropical garden with a vegan café and many talented yogi teachers from the US, UK, India and Australia. Many of the teachers incorporated spiritual discussions in class and asked the question – Why are you in Bali?

I was surprised to find out that yoga is a recent phenomenon to Bali and Ubud. It had been practiced by a few in Bali since 1989, however in 2002, in response to the Bali bombings and Bali’s reputation as a place for drink and drugs, Meghan Papenheim started balispirit.com- a portal for healing practitioners and venues and accommodation to invest in the spiritual side of Bali. This grew quickly and in 2006 a new eco village resort in Ubud offered free yoga classes for the community and in 2006 Meghan opened the Yoga Barn in Ubud. That Agama and Vedic Hindu traditions have been the source of yoga and self realisation concepts in India for thousands of years is perhaps why yoga practices has integrated so successfully with brand Bali as the most peaceful and harmonious destination in the world. Am I merely a yogi consumer, a spiritual tourist – what AM I doing here?


In Ubud to ask this question inevitably leads to a assumptions and a discussion of the film and book Eat Pray Love by Liz Gilbert from the Balinese and fellow travellers. I met many women who were in Ubud inspired by the character in the film of Liz Gilbert’s novel, or just wanting to bask in the aura of the places where the film was made and visit the healers in her story. I was interested in why this was happening and how the book really touched a lot of people on their own spiritual pilgrimage.

Nick Choudrys essay ‘On the Actual Street’ explores how tourist spaces have turned into symbolic places of pilgrimage through media (such as TV or a film) and the search for the authenticity of ‘being there’ where a show was filmed:

Both for individuals and for groups, some form of deliberate travel to a far place intimately associated with the deepest, most cherished axiomatic values of the traveler seems to be a sort of ‘cultural universal’. If it is not religiously sanctioned, counseled or encouraged, it will take other forms. (Turner and Turner, 1978: 241). Such sites of media tourism are, after all, not visits to just any place of work. They are visits to the places where the images are produced through which ‘society’ imagines it sees itself.” (Couldry 2003)”

But I felt there was more going on – something between a pilgrimage representing the deepest values – and media tourism. What I noticed was that the women, the pilgrims, seemed to be looking to recreate the experience in the book – not just visiting the sites where the movie was made – so they visited the same healers, they stayed at the same house, went on the tour, seemingly to attain through osmosis the values and rewards of the hero of the story- without necessarily going through the series of trials and tribulations that the hero had to go through to find her treasure. 385

So what was this Eat Pray Love travel tourism about? – and was I prey to the same consumerist or easy spirituality impulses? Was this the secret reason I was in Bali?

In their essay ‘Eat. Pray, Spend’, authors Saunders and Barnes-Brown identify the marketing and consumerism at work in books like Eat Pray Love as part of the Priv-lit genre “whose expressed goal is one of spiritual, existential, or philosophical enlightenment contingent upon women’s hard work, commitment, and patience, but whose actual barriers to entry are primarily financial. Should its consumers fail, the genre holds them accountable for not being ready to get serious, not “wanting it enough, or not putting themselves first”.

While the spending itself they say, “is justified by its supposedly healthy goals—acceptance, self-love, the ability to heal past psychic wounds and break destructive patterns”, the genre both “masks and promotes the destructive expectations of traditional femininity and consumer culture”.

Building on this theme, Ruth William’s essay on the impact of Eat Pray Love on the tourist industry discusses how EPL’s brand marketing has “produced a subject who feels the need to buy travel as a means for producing the spiritualized consciousness she believes will allow her to share in Gilbert’s enlightened happiness”. Problematically, Williams says, this marketing “downplays the consumerist core at the heart of tourism by ignoring the impact the industry has on a country’s development while also obscuring the laboring bodies upon which the tourist industry is built”.

The spiritual tourist says Williams is “encouraged to adopt a romanticised view of her experience with native cultures and to view her activities as pure in intent (after all, she is simply attempting to better herself rather than rooted in a system of consumption and production”.

Further says Williams, the success of the Bali brand and the Balinisation of the culture, perpetuated first by the Dutch colonization and later by the Indonesian state and the tourist industry has created a hybrid culture “commodified to such an extent that the authenticity of such encounters are brought into question”.

Williams quotes neocolonial critic Sunip Roy who sees the phenomena of “white people discovering themselves in brown places” as a new type of colonialism “where the natives are there as a means for self-discovery” and the journey “is all about what they can get – food, spiritual wisdom,romance…After that is done it’s time to book the next flight” (Roy).

I hadn’t read these essays while I was in Bali, but while thinking about the question of why I was in Bali, I felt a familiar discomfort, a horrible feeling that I was participating in a constructed fantasy, a new colonialism. But what about travel to expand the mind?. To find new connections with the human race! I made it my aim to see through that fog, noticed the people I met behind their smiles, ask questions, be aware, a mindful traveler. Maybe this is why I was in Bali – to become aware of the impact of global consumerism on everyone’s lives, including my own.

My favourite yoga lesson from was Emily, a wonderful hatha teacher from California. In a spacious wooden hut filled with yogis from all over the world, we moved our bodies and breathed in unison and opened our hearts, while Emily said that anyone can start teaching yoga now, even with only a little bit of knowledge. You don’t have to wait until you know it all or wait have a certificate to teach someone she said. Teaching is an act of courage, because everyone fears they don’t know enough. But you know something, and someone wants to learn, so just teach what you know, make a start. This applies to everything, not just yoga.

Tomorrow – Part 3 and final – Ubud – Black Magic, White Magic


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