EAT, PLAY, LOVE
ONE JOURNALIST GAVE AWAY THE NINE-TO-FIVE TO GO ON A JOURNEY OF SELF-DISCOVERY IN SIEM REAP
‘Sink deep into the mind,” Hariharalaya Yoga and Meditation Retreat founder and director Joel Altman intones, “into the space between thoughts”.
His booming voice fills the open-air room where I sit cross legged on a yoga mat, along with about 20 others, attempting to meditate.
It’s the start of my six-day retreat at Hariharalaya, a yoga and meditation centre nestled in a traditional farming village, about 16km from the city of Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia.
Joel, a wiry 37-year-old American with a full beard and kind eyes, is seated at the front of the room before an enormous golden statue of Buddha and a framed photo of his guru, Mata Amrtanandamayi Devi, a Hindu spiritual leader from India better known as “Amma”.
Wearing loose cotton clothing and a headscarf with prayer beads draped around his neck, he radiates calm and otherworldliness. With Joel’s encouragement, I try to focus my mind “like a laser beam” but my brain is whirring, mundane thoughts skittering across it.
Around me, the village hums with life; cattle lowing, roosters crowing, birds chirping, intertwined with the purr of a passing motorbike, the clatter of the kitchen staff preparing breakfast and the cacophony of a Cambodian wedding getting under way.
The chorus of sounds threatens to break my concentration but I continue to sit with my eyes closed, determined to block out the noise and enter a meditative state. My legs, however, have other ideas. What started as pins and needles has blossomed into a burning sensation and my poor limbs, unused to sitting still for so long, are screaming in protest.
After what seems like an eternity, a gong is struck, signalling the end of practice.
We meditated morning and night during the retreat and to my enormous relief, it did get easier and I even came to enjoy it.
AN OASIS IN SIEM REAP
Hariharalaya’s six-day “Integral Yoga and Conscious Living Retreat” is run by Joel and a small team of international yoga and meditation teachers.
It promotes community, creativity, vegan food, connection with nature, and integral yoga and meditation.
The centre’s approach to yoga is inspired by the works of Sri Aurobindo, an early Indian revolutionary, philosopher, poet and spiritual master; and the teachings of the sages and enlightened masters under whom Joel studied.
He opened Hariharalaya in 2010 after his pursuit of spiritual enlightenment led him to Cambodia, a South-East Asian nation with a population of about 16 million and a turbulent past.
Named for the ancient city that once stood there, the retreat centre is surrounded by jungle and crumbling temple ruins, and feels a world away from the hustle and bustle of Siem Reap.
It features simple structures built using traditional materials such as bamboo and idyllic gardens dotted with mosquito net hammocks.
Retreat-goers are encouraged to observe silent mornings and a digital detox, switching off their devices to reconnect with themselves and nature, and dabble in activities such as massage, vegan baking, and ecstatic dance meditation (which gives new meaning to the saying “dance like no one is watching”).
I first tried yoga when I was about 12 years old in my hometown Proserpine, and remember being lulled to sleep by the darkened room, flickering candles and soothing voice of the teacher.
Yoga has played a bigger role in my life as I have grown older and realised its many physical, mental and spiritual benefits, which include stress relief, improved flexibility and strength building.
It would appear that I’m not alone, with recent statistics showing the number of Australians diving into a downward facing dog has doubled in eight years. According to the research by Roy Morgan, one in 10 Aussies — two million people — practised yoga last year, compared with one in 20 in 2008.
The study also found yoga is the country’s fastest-growing sport or fitness activity and more popular than traditional pastimes such as a cricket, tennis, soccer and golf.
A GLOBAL MOVEMENT
Worldwide, wellness tourism is booming as holiday-makers swap hotel beds for yoga mats, and retreat centres contribute to the multibillion-dollar industry.
Hundreds of people travel from all over the world to Hariharalaya, which hosts more than 40 retreats a year and is ranked No. 1 in specialty lodging in Siem Reap on TripAdvisor. Their reasons for doing so are as varied as their backgrounds.
My group ranged from bright-eyed high school graduates trying to find their place in the world to an eccentric yoga teacher from Denver, Colorado, who was waiting to legally change her surname to “Om”, a mystic syllable considered the most sacred mantra in Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism.
Some retreat-goers had suffered loss or adversity, while others were simply looking for an escape and a chance to learn more about yoga and themselves.
Joel is confident retreats will remain popular amid a perceived need for such spaces.
“Many people are suffering from stress and tension, and what I call seriousness — this incredible seriousness where we take everything so seriously,” he says.
“We’ve lost that softness, the playfulness, that creative flexibility, that childlikeness.”
Retreat centres are often conceived as adult playgrounds, and facilities at Hariharalaya include a lounge pool, outdoor gym, rock climbing wall, open air cinema, library and art studio.
The retreat schedule offers a mix of yoga and meditation classes, community activities, talks on yoga philosophy and awareness known as “Dharma talks”, and free time, during which retreat-goers can indulge in fresh juices and vegan treats at the Jungle Juice Bar, rent a bicycle to explore the nearby villages, or simply lounge around in one of the many hammocks.
Joel has dedicated the past 18 years of his life to living and sharing the teachings of integral yoga, which he describes as the “integration of the body, heart and mind”.
“Most yoga we know is focused on performance and achieving something or being better,” he says.
“This yoga is for being ourselves, for being authentic and real, moment to moment, so the focus is not on the postures, it’s not on the yoga, but it’s on ourselves and discovering ourselves.”
The concept of a digital detox is central to the six-day program, but there is a single desktop computer for retreat-goers to contact the outside world.
Joel believes that in order to “reconnect with ourselves … life and the present moment”, we must switch off our devices to “remove the layers” that technology creates.
“We can do a couple of hours a day but really it takes a few days to get back into the natural flow of life around us and out of our own contrived world of comfort and pleasure,” he says.
“It’s so important that we break out of this habit every now and then in order to know ourselves.”
At first, I struggled with the digital detox, accustomed to checking my phone every hour (OK, every 20 minutes) for messages, emails and social media notifications. But then I came to enjoy the silence. At Hariharalaya, instead of sitting on our phones mindlessly scrolling through our Facebook feeds, we would talk to each other, swapping stories about our families, travelling, yoga, work and life in general.
It was a refreshing experience for this social media junkie and one that is sadly growing increasingly rare in our constantly
Hariharalaya founder and director Joel Altman.