EAT, PLAY, LOVE

SWITCH OFF, RECONNECT AND EM­BRACE THE SI­LENCE AT HARIHARALA­YA YOGA RE­TREAT IN NORTH CAM­BO­DIA

Life & Style Weekend - - ESCAPE - WORDS: KIMBERLEY VLASIC

Sink deep into the mind, Hariharala­ya Yoga and Meditation Re­treat founder and di­rec­tor Joel Alt­man says, “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, Joel 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 home town of Proser­pine in north Queens­land, 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. It would ap­pear that I’m not alone, with re­cent sta­tis­tics show­ing that 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 to one in 20 in 2008.

A GLOBAL MOVE­MENT

World­wide, well­ness tourism is boom­ing as hol­i­day-mak­ers swap ho­tel beds for yoga mats, and re­treat cen­tres con­trib­ute to the multi-bil­lion 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.”

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, be­ing 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.

A NEW PER­SPEC­TIVE

I had al­ways wanted to go on a re­treat and had vi­sions of my­self emerg­ing a zen-like yoga god­dess ready to tackle any chal­lenge thrown at me with grace, hu­mil­ity and a per­fectly ex­e­cuted head­stand. De­spite my over­ac­tive imag­i­na­tion, I was to­tally un­pre­pared for the phys­i­cal and men­tal change I would un­dergo in just six days. I ar­rived at Hariharala­ya at a cross­road in my life, hav­ing just quit my sta­ble, full-time job to re­alise a long-held dream of trav­el­ling the world. The past year had been a stress­ful one and I strug­gled with in­som­nia and anx­i­ety while work­ing long hours. Dur­ing the re­treat, I felt as though a weight had been lifted off my shoul­ders as I dis­con­nected from the dig­i­tal world and fi­nally be­gan to re­lax. I had a chance to ex­per­i­ment with dif­fer­ent styles of yoga and meditation, and re­alised there is much more to the dis­ci­pline than con­tort­ing my body into an In­sta­gram-wor­thy pose. I bonded with my fel­low re­treat-go­ers, in­clud­ing my mum who bravely ven­tured out of her com­fort zone and into South-East Asia to join me. My body started to feel strong and sup­ple as it adapted to the new ex­er­cise reg­i­men, and I felt hap­pier, calmer and more clear-headed than I had in years. It was just as Joel had pre­dicted: “By re­lax­ing into our­selves, by ground­ing into our­selves then we dis­cover ev­ery­thing we’re look­ing for is al­ready here.”

RE­TURN TO THE REAL WORLD

Back in Siem Reap, the noises and smells of the chaotic city hit me like an out-of-con­trol tuk tuk. My phone felt for­eign in my hand and my fin­gers fum­bled with the keys as I tried to con­vey the ex­pe­ri­ence to friends and fam­ily ea­ger for news af­ter nearly a week of no con­tact. I re­turned home with grand plans to prac­tise yoga on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, vol­un­teer with a com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tion, be cre­ative for fun and live sim­ply and fully in the present. I em­barked on a 40-day chal­lenge de­signed to in­cor­po­rate yoga and meditation into daily life and no­ticed vast im­prove­ments in my en­ergy lev­els, sleep and mood. I was bet­ter able to han­dle stress – a skill that came in handy as I jug­gled three jobs with prepar­ing to move over­seas – and made a con­certed ef­fort to spend less time hooked up to a screen and more time in na­ture. I started to no­tice and ap­pre­ci­ate the small things in life – the trees danc­ing in the breeze, the pierc­ing call of cock­a­toos out­side my bed­room win­dow and the aroma of my morn­ing cof­fee. In the Cam­bo­dian jun­gle, sur­rounded by strangers and miles away from the com­forts of home, I found con­tent­ment.

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