The Journey Within

As I drive my scooter through Bali, singing the Maha Mritunjaya mantra to the top of my lungs, it feels like nothing can hurt me. Small things that would have caused frustration and division in the past, like getting cut in traffic or being yelled at, simply go through me as if I were a sheet of transparent glass. It comes, I notice it, it goes. No holding on, grasping or clenching.

I realise I’m in heaven, as I cruise in the sunshine through the picturesque scenery, roads bordered by well-tended grass, fragrant frangipani trees, ornate temples. And delicate penjor erect against the blue summer sky, skilfully built by Balinese families in front of their houses as an offering to gods and ancestors. These elaborate, ceremonial bamboo poles (read more about it here), so representative Bali’s unique blend of spiritual devotion and artistic sense, mark the celebration of Galungan, the Balinese new year remembering the victory of dharma (the cosmic order) over adharma (evil).

And so just like that, I realise it’s been a year I’m in Bali. I arrived on the island just before the previous Galungan, back in February. More accurately, it’s been a Balinese year – 210 days.

While much of that year was spent exploring the island, the last 2 months, in stark contrast, have been about exploring myself. Internal journey over external one.

Back to school

It started with a life-changing, 200 hour yoga teacher training at The Practice in Canggu. As I mentioned in my previous post, the Universe conspired to have me join this training.

However, it was happening…in Canggu. As I previously wrote, I’d had a fairly poor experience of Canggu throughout my time on the island. So I was really not looking forward to be back.

But life has a great sense of humour it seems. My third stint in “The ‘Goo” as they call it ended up being very different to the previous ones. I even started growing fond of the place. Granted, the vibe had transformed. No more Instagram influencer catwalk. Or drunk teenagers scavenging the streets. All because — or thanks to — the pandemic. And it just happened that the people I met who are left, the expats or travellers who hung on, are all gems.

I found a small guest house for the month of August. No need for anything fancy as I was going to be in class at my yoga teacher training (abbreviated as YTT for the rest of the post) from early mornings to late afternoons. Back to school! I just can’t stress how grounding it was to return to a daily routine. Who thought I’d miss that?!

And then, the YTT started.

On the first day, I arrive at The Practice for the opening ceremony. 10 minutes late, of course 💁‍♂️ A Balinese priest blesses us with sacred water and prayers. We are given the traditional, white-red-black protection band representing the holy Hindu trinity (Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva). Later, we have our first yoga practice followed by a sharing circle, where my fellow mates open up so vulnerably to then-strangers. We’re an eclectic group of seekers. Some in their early 20s, others in their mid-40s. Small business owners, freelancers, students, vagabonds. Some living on the island for nearly a decade, others “stuck” here since the pandemic hit. But the one trait everyone seems to have in common is sincere spiritual aspiration. As we take turns to share, emotions flow freely and already it’s clear the month ahead is going to be transformative.

We then dive right in, our teachers taking us through the map of Samkhya philosophy. It’s the backbone of the course, describing the whole descent of consciousness into matter, from Source to separate self and back from our separate self to Source through the practice of Yoga.

The System: Samkhya philosophy map

What Yoga?

It’s very important to emphasise that what we’re talking about here is not the modern, posture-focused and physically-oriented practice that unfortunately equates to yoga in most people’s mind. No, here we’re talking about traditional, Tantric Hatha Yoga, from the Sri Vidya Tantra lineage. So, what is Tantric Hatha Yoga? My definition: an integrated system of philosophy and practices that aim to quiet the mind (Chitta) and stimulate our life-force (Prāna) in order to reclaim and reunite with our divine nature (Purusha).

In this system, postures (Asana) are only one of many practices that build on top of each other — followed by Prānāyāma (breath), Kriya meditation (active meditation) and Mantra (sacred, numinous utterances). This comprehensive, holistic approach to Yoga is directly in line with the seminal yogic treatise written over two millenia ago, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, in which the Eight Limbs of Yoga, a very precise methodology to attain union, are laid out.

How lucky are we to be studying with teachers steeped in a strong lineage, transmitting undiluted Tradition to us!

As Octavio, the co-founder of the Practice, Principal Yoga Teacher and our spiritual commander-in-chief puts it so eloquently:

Tradition provides an avenue for transmission to take place. It provides a way for us to plug into the energy field of the ancients who birthed this knowledge into being. This mysterious force of energetic transference is called Kavi or ‘whispered wisdom’ which gifts modern yogis access to meditative experiences that would otherwise be in accessible in this day and age.

As science now affirms, the nature of reality is vibratory. Life is a play of energy posing as matter and as energy never dies, the field of Yoga, through the connective wire of Tradition can be harnessed. Having this kind of support backing our personal and spiritual endeavours is a gift that cannot be expressed in words, not only because English does not provide a sufficient word for it, but also because the magnitude of the gift is profound beyond the scope of everyday gratitude. Only tears can express it, seconded by an indestructible commitment to personal practice.

Octavio salvado

And what teachers. Truly world-class, all very well-versed in the philosophy and practices of yoga, yet each with their own specialty. T-shaped superheroes, if you will. Like the Avengers.

Octavio, the revolutionary sage, leading deep, exciting lectures. Kelly, the fakir, drilling correct postures with us. Ellen, the musician, teaching us Sanskrit and leading kirtan (devotional singing of mantra). Emma, the mother, educating us on Ayurveda and pre-natal yoga. And Adam, the meditator, delighting us with blissful Yoga Nidra (“enlightened sleep” – a meditation technique bringing consciousness at the edge of waking and sleeping states).

Moon, Sun, Fire

The training is structured around Moon, Sun and Fire – each representing an aspect of the yogic practice. First week, we start with Moon practices (forward folds and twists, long exhales) to calm and stabilise the mind. Then we move on to build, contain and sensitize ourselves to Prāna (life-energy also known as qi or chi) with Sun practices (backbends, laterals, bandhas and khumbaka). Finally, we bring the Moon and the Sun together in the navel center to awaken our dormant spiritual power, Kundalini Shakti (extensions, inversions, mudra, mantra).

I don’t think I’ve ever learned and experienced as much in my whole life, which makes it impossible to recount what we went through. What I can do is recommend you experience it for yourself when borders reopen! In the meantime, wherever you are in the world, you can still enroll in their comprehensive, 50 hour online training that packs a lot of their teachings and will allow you to upgrade your personal practice.

Eka Dasi

A key practice of the YTT is Eka Dasi. Which in Sanskrit means “11 days” — for how many consecutive days we spread the practice on. A powerful Prānāyāma which penetrates deeply into the layers of the subconscious mind to clear out energy blockages, it becomes progressively more intense as days go by. And here I am crying out of nowhere on my scooter, driving into town, some past trauma being worked out – which one, God knows. Breath is so powerful!

Once the 11 days are over, we close this practice by chanting 108 rounds of the Gayatri mantra, a supreme mantra praying for release from our lower tendencies. We then complete the process by visiting Tirta Empul, the most sacred water temple in Bali. There, we purify ourselves with holy waters, said to have sprung after Indra, the king of gods, threw a thunderbolt to help his troops hydrate during the war.

I am born again. And that won’t be the last time…

Learning to teach

Eventually, the time comes for our practicums, our final exams in the form of practical teaching tests. Because as much as we learned, that was still a yoga teacher training. Truth be told, I didn’t come to the training with the intention to ever teach yoga – as I shared in the opening circle, I mostly came to deepen my practice, fill the gaps in my knowledge and renew my spiritual fervour. After 7 years of daily meditation and nearly 3 years of a committed yoga practice, I felt like I was plateauing and needing to evolve to the next stage.

Of course, I also wanted to learn to serve others through teaching, but that wasn’t front of mind. Nevertheless, I play the game, and to my amazement, I really enjoy the teaching side of things. A lot of the credit goes to The Practice’s method too. Instead of waiting until the last week to start “teaching teaching”, we had our first teaching class on the first day! That goes a long way in building the skills and confidence to deliver a 30-minute class to 10 students 4 weeks later.

My practicum is a blast — I even surprise myself, discovering a teacher persona I’d never been aware of. He becomes known as “Mr Moon” for the moon-style class (calming, grounding) that he delivers from a very deep, very still place. Always interesting to see which persona pops up when each of us brings out their inner teacher!

All good things have an end, and so, faster than we’d ever thought, the YTT comes to a close. The closing ceremony will remain in my heart as one of my most emotional days ever. A sharing circle peppered with kirtan, devotionally singing mantra with all our hearts. The energy in the shala is electric, people spontaneously bursting into tears of gratitude and love, including myself. One by one, we graduate and receive our diplomas. Looks like I’m a yoga teacher now!

Throw the hats !

Satsang

Looking back, this teacher training exceeded all my expectations by a large margin. What I didn’t expect, however, was to find a tribe, a family, a satsang. After a year (a Balinese year) in Bali, many highs and many lows, I finally felt home.

And so even after the training is over, it isn’t over. It probably never will. Most of us stick to Canggu and keep attending classes, meeting for brunch or going on adventures.

A fellow yogini I met on the YTT, Diana and I entertain a impassioned, amorous relationship. Sweet as a frangipani, yet deep as the ocean, she’s a true philosopher in the form of the goddess. I’m drunk on love, and it feels great. We escape to Uluwatu for the weekend, in a bamboo house. I decide to stay for longer, enjoying the proximity to nature and the sheer beauty of the Bukit.

I’ve also started my Sādhanā (in this context, meaning my committed, 40-day long daily practice of yoga), that involves Asana (mostly forward-folds, focusing on the grounding force of Apana Vayu), Prānāyāma, Kriya meditation and Mantra Japa (reciting the same mantra internally for 108 rounds or multiple thereof, using a mala, a string of prayer beads).

The Yoga of Spreadsheets

Although it usually takes anywhere from 90 to 150 minutes, making time for practice is a breeze as I feel so much better for it. I am made for the yogic path – deep inside, I always knew it, but now that conviction is unshakable.

Additionally, I decide to share that gift, giving weekly classes on Zoom to Cristian (my brother from another mother) and Aurore (his divine partner), two of the closest friends I have, now living in Lisbon. There’s really nothing like serving the people you love with your gift. From Bali to French Guiana where he recently moved, I end up teaching 3-part yogic breath and Savittri Prānāyāma to my dad — teaching how to breathe to the man how taught me how to walk.

Besides, I realise I’m also driven to bring yoga to the people who need it most — marginalised communities and destitute individuals. Because when it comes to access to these vital spiritual teachings, truth is, there is privilege. Unfortunately, the yoga world is no shining example of diversity (whether of age, gender, skin colour, or body ability) and if our goal is to help as many people awaken, we can’t just ignore this and look the other way. We must acknowledge this reality and work harder to bring yoga to the people who might not naturally come to it, because they are feeling “othered” or simply can’t afford it.

In the seeker’s paradise that is Bali, it feels like the spiritual community sometimes gets lost in its own La La Land, forgetting that we’re here to wake each other up. It’s not about you, it’s not about me — it’s about us. So I make it my sankalpa (my firm resolve and vow) to give free community yoga classes in the months to come.

“If you’re not making the world materially better, if you’re not serving harder done by folks than you then instagram photos of your hashtag #blessedlife you know you can just fuck off with them because that’s never been the point”

Jamie Wheal

Being in the Bukit, I also venture out for a few surf sessions, scoring some of my best rides in Dreamland. I surf the barrel-machine wave of Bingin, but being too greedy to paddle in before low-tide, I end up leaving some skin (and a little flesh) on the reef. Classic.

Plant medicine

To be honest, my mind is not so much on the surf. In addition to my committed yoga practice, I’m also due to attend a 2-day Ayahuasca ceremony. The internal journey to Self must go on!

For those reading this not familiar with the topic, Ayahuasca is a plant medicine used by Amazonian peoples for over a thousand years. Containing DMT (dimethyltryptamine) also known as the “Spirit molecule” (check out this amazing documentary) Ayahuasca has been traditionally used to heal the psyche and open the door to the underlying spiritual reality.

It is my first and I feel ready. People say Ayahuasca finds you when you’re ready and that’s just what it did. After my last class at the Practice, a mate casually tells me: “I was supposed to attend this ceremony, but I can’t go anymore. Wanna take the free spot?”. Just when it had also come into my field from people mentioning it in various conversations over the previous days. If there’s something I learned this year, is that life is always speaking to us if we can listen to its subtle messages.

And the signs were right. The journey over the next 2 nights is blissful beyond measure. Desiring to protect the identity of participants and guides, I will not disclose all.

But this ceremony is truly special and I doubt it could have happened anywhere else than in Bali. Our guides are, once again, superheroes in their own right, each of them larger than life — what is it with this island?

Great care is given to honouring the island, through Balinese offerings and blessing rituals. Moreover, in addition to the powerful icaros sung by the Shipibo lineage holders, we are blessed with Vedic mantra chanted by a local Balinese priest (most of which I’d learned during the yoga teacher training!).

It’s the perfect marriage of Heaven and Hell, of the shamanic and the spiritual, of Matter and Consciousness, of Prakriti and Purusha. This polarity enables me to spiritualise the experience and reach states of consciousness I’d never dreamed of. I understand that from the depth of the Amazonian jungle to the high peaks of the Himalayas, explorers of human consciousness since times immemorial have found different doors to the same underlying reality – ॐ.

After the first cup has settled, I feel I need more. I cautiously approach our guide and ask whether it’s appropriate, not wanting to overdo it on the first night.

“It’s good for you” he says with a knowing grin, as he hands me another cup.

Waking up

I completely lose my sense of separate self, my ego trying to reassemble itself but there’s nowhere to grasp, nothing to hold onto. My consciousness is rising and falling with the breath of the group around me. I am everything and everything is me. Words can’t grasp what I felt – the feeling escapes as soon as the mind tries to conceptualise it, like a slick fish slipping through the hands of its catcher.

I believed we were all One – now I know it. I believed we were creators of our own reality — now I know it. I believed in the intelligence of life – Prāna – now I surrender to it. I believed everything was waves and vibrations – now I feel it.

All that happens is waves rising and falling, neither inauspicious nor meaningful.

Adi Shankara

By God’s grace, I don’t purge even once — Ayahuasca is famous for the emotionally cleansing mega-hurls it can induce. Maybe due to the strict adherence to the dieta (involving eating nothing but bland oatmeal for a few days) as well as my rigorous yogic practices. As one of our guides later confides: “Plant spirits really appreciate discipline. And devotion. As discipline without devotion is control.”

Instead, my body dances to the music, contorting itself into advanced mudra which I’d never learned. I am channeling something, someone.

After the ceremony closes, I’m still there gleeing and giggling like a newborn, in foetal position. Being fed watermelon by one of our guides who plays with me like I’m a toddler. Light rushes all over me as my companions shower me with love. I am reborn once again and I feel held by life.

As people leave, I decide to remain in the maloka. It’s just me and one of our guides, bonding, conversing and singing mantra until sunrise. More specifically, singing the Maha Mritunjaya mantra for hours. Story goes that it was bestowed by Shiva upon humanity to help conquer our fear of death. So we can truly start living. As I keep chanting it, I feel overwhelmed with devotion and I dissolve further into union. Man, Bhakti makes Samadhi so much sweeter.

What a journey.

Spiritual rubber

As I integrate over the next few days, I feel different. Life feels different. The sense of separation between myself and the world around me has been irreversibly dented. There is a release of my instinctive need to grasp, clench, contract and control. Replaced by a soft surrender, a sweet ease and a loving trust in the flow of life. It’s like everything is glowing around me – but nothing has changed, apart from my vision. Funnily enough, even part my drive has disappeared — plans I’d made earlier don’t seem that interesting anymore. My practice only becomes sweeter in the aftermath of the ceremony. It helps me drop back into and stabilize glimpses of non-dual awareness.

I could stay there for months, years even, but eventually I feel it’s time for me to leave my cocoon.

One of the dangers of awakening— is that one can start to divorce oneself from the grittiness of life and the grittiness of relationship. In relationship, you have to have a willingness to not stay hidden away in a transcendent state. You have to come out of it, as it were, and deal with people and situations.

When we awaken, we are no longer fueling the trance of separation; we are no longer pumping energy into it. But even if you never put your foot back on the accelerator, the car still has momentum — karmic momentum. It doesn’t immediately come to a stop in most cases. It has a diminishing momentum that slows down over time. That said, we can also add energy to the existing momentum. We have to watch and discover when it is that we hop back in and put our foot back on the accelerator. Every time we reidentify with conditioning or karma, every time we believe a thought, we are putting energy back into the dream state, putting our foot back on that accelerator.

So the process after awakening involves learning how to keep your foot off the gas and recognizing what puts your foot back on. Even though it’s not personal—even though reidentification is totally spontaneous and it’s not happening to anybody and it’s not anybody’s fault—we still need to investigate how it happens. In this, life itself is your greatest ally. As I’ve said, life is where the spiritual rubber hits the road. Life will show us where we are not clear. Being in relationship with life and others shows us clearly where we can still get hung up. If we have true sincerity, we are not going to try to hide in the memory of an awakened state; we are not going to hide in the realization of the absolute. We are going to come out of hiding. We are not going to grab on to anything.

Adyashanti

And so, it’s time for the spiritual rubber to hit the road. And adventure East – to the islands of Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores, to infinity and beyond!

Packing essentials only

Before I go though, I need to kiss Bali goodbye. And so Diana and I venture to Sebatu water temple, deep in the heart of Bali, for a last blessing. The temple is tucked in a ridge, over 30 meters below the road, surrounded by lush jungle and giant bamboos. After climbing down the mossy steps, we realise it’s only us here. We deposit meticulously crafted offerings in front of the temple and cleanse ourselves in the holy springs. Elusive sun rays are making the spray of waterfalls sparkle around us. I feel the motherly embrace of the island.

Bali, you broke me down, ripped off who I thought I was and built me up again into a better man. Matur suksma Mama Bali, Mama Kali. I’ll be back soon, I promise.

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  1. I can’t believe English wasn’t your first language. Great writing. Go forth brave man. Go!

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