EAT, PLAY, LOVE

ONE JOUR­NAL­IST GAVE AWAY THE NINE-TO-FIVE TO GO ON A JOUR­NEY OF SELF-DIS­COV­ERY IN SIEM REAP

Townsville Bulletin - Townsville Eye - - Escape - WORDS: KIM­BER­LEY V LA SIC

‘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.”

SWITCH­ING OFF

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.

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