Wellness travelers seeking balance have numerous options in Bali, from yoga and meditation programs to rituals and traditional healing sessions. // © 2017 The Ritz-Carlton, Bali
Feature image (above): Balinese luxury hotels embrace local culture and a sense of place. // © 2017 Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan
My healer was not a toothless old man. She wasn’t a wild-haired medicine woman either. She wasn’t even Balinese. I noticed her before she introduced herself to me. Wisely dressed, slender and sporting a fashionable haircut, she looked like another hotel guest.
“Sometimes I wear a miniskirt,” Rini Soe said shortly after she introduced herself to me at Mandapa Spa in Ubud, Bali.
Soe used to work in media like me before she ditched the corporate world to embark on a spiritual journey that eventually led her to become an intuitive healer.
Before she pored over my palm — which was clammy in anticipation — she glanced at her arm and told me she got goosebumps when she first saw me.
I wasn’t sure if that was a fortuitous sign or not, but one thing quickly became clear: It’s not just Balinese medicine men doling out the healing on this Indonesian island anymore. The bearers of well-being come in all shapes and sizes on the so-called Island of the Gods. When I told Soe I suffer from back pain, for example, she recommended I visit her friend, an Australian craniosacral therapist, and his wife, an American with a stellar reputation for reiki (energy) healing.
While the makeup of today’s wellness scene in Bali has been influenced by the contribution of expats like Soe, the island has ancient roots as a wellness capital. This is especially true of the verdant central city of Ubud, whose name comes from obat, the Indonesian word for medicine.
Bali’s wellness culture stems from the Agama Hindu Dharma religion that is observed by about 90 percent of the Balinese — in contrast to the rest of Indonesia, which is considered the most populous Muslim country in the world. It’s believed that Indian traders introduced Hinduism to Indonesia as far back as the fifth century, but Balinese Hinduism is distinct in its assimilation of ancient Balinese beliefs, Buddhist influences, animism and unique festivals and rituals.
Central to the Balinese worldview is the necessity to maintain balance between opposing forces such as the good and bad; the pure and impure; and the gods and demons.
“It’s not a ludicrous hypothesis to say that the Balinese are the global masters of balance, the people for whom the maintenance of perfect equilibrium is an art, a science and a religion,” writes Elizabeth Gilbert, who is perhaps Bali’s most famous wellness seeker and author of the hit memoir Eat, Pray, Love.
Visitors all over the island can observe and even take part in the maintenance of harmony and the expressions of gratitude that occur daily simply by exploring.
“Offerings are a way of life in Bali,” writes Janet De Neefe in Fragrant Rice, her memoir about life as an expat in the country. “A walk into town becomes like a spiritual journey, each step marked by a precious feast of Mother Nature’s bounty and saturated with the perfume of incense, the holy scent that follows you from house to house.”
Thanks to the Balinese spirit of openness and hospitality, clients can also join in these ceremonies as well as other activities that may help them connect with something deeper. This can range from sessions with Balians (Balinese healers) and expat healers to meditation and yoga practice. Eating well, communing with nature, flexing creative muscles, visiting one of Bali’s numerous holy sites and even laying down on a massage table all work, too.
“The Balinese have treatments we look at as a luxury or as ‘treating ourselves,’ but that’s just how they make a good life,” said Linden Schaffer, founder of global wellness tour operator Pravassa, which launched in 2009 with trips to Bali.
While a DIY backpacker on a budget could cobble together a spiritual journey through Bali, it’s no secret that luxury suppliers and hotels excel at delivering unique wellness experiences. Plus, hotels and travel sellers who specialize in wellness have a lot to gain: According to Global Wellness Institute’s 2016 Global Wellness Economy Monitor, the global wellness industry is a $3.7 trillion market, with wellness tourism clocking in at $563 billion. While the global economy shrank 3.6 percent from 2013 to 2015, the wellness industry grew by 10.6 percent.
And the destination-wide wellness found in Bali is on trend. At a roundtable at this year’s Global Wellness Summit, Dr. Franz Linser, founder and CEO of consulting firm Linser Hospitality, suggested that the next phase in wellness travel will be a shift beyond singular properties to entire destinations specializing in authentic, holistic wellness.
And Bali does holistic luxury better than most. But don’t just take my dips in personal hotel plunge pools — complete with floating breakfast — as proof. Rating Bali’s hotels for the first time, the 2017 Forbes Travel Guide Star Awards called the showing impressive, with three Five-Star hotels, 10 Four-Star hotels, three Recommended hotels and five Four-Star spas.
According to the Forbes Travel Guide, Bali hotels “mostly outperformed their global counterparts” in classifications for graciousness, thoughtfulness and sense of personalized service.
“These areas involve intuition, the ability of staff to read guests, think ahead and anticipate their needs,” states the report. “Our incognito inspectors also noted that Bali’s hotels thoroughly embrace a sense of place in all they do.”
Pravassa’s Schaffer says that even though Bali’s main business is tourism, it’s not a put-on.
“The hospitality is probably a little taught, but there are some things you can’t teach,” she said. “Balinese are genuinely happy, and they want to share.”
Indeed, I’ve never seen so many big-brand hotels, from Conrad Hotels & Resorts to The Ritz-Carlton, respect local traditions and customs so wonderfully.
For example, it’s practically doctrine that hotels have their own on-site temple and go-to priest.
“Our priest prays at the hotel’s temple each day,” said Prhativi Dyah, director of public relations for The Ritz-Carlton, Bali. “Among other things, he sometimes prays to stop the rain. He can’t really stop it, though — but he can make the clouds move.”
The prayers are working: I didn’t experience a drop of rain until I pulled out of the driveway at The Ritz-Carlton, Bali (really). And Bali’s popularity continues to soar: In 2016, the island welcomed 5 million tourists, up 1 million from the year before, and this year is pacing ahead.
Nonetheless, there’s a lot of competition on the island, with evermore new hotels in line to open in the near future. This includes luxury tents at Capella Ubud, two properties from Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts, a hotel and residences from Mandarin Oriental, a Langham with a spa specializing in traditional Chinese medicine and more.
As such, the accommodation standards in Bali are high. Besides offering great service and beautiful spas, hotels embrace nature, relaxation and beauty — something a Google image search for “Balinese hotels” can quickly corroborate.
Island of the Healers
You won’t find tepid Swedish massages at Forbes Four-Star Mandapa Spa at Mandapa, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve. The multitiered property faces a seemingly infinite collage of trees and plants and is perched atop Ubud’s famous Ayung River, a transcendent chorus of gushing water.
Mandapa offers twice-daily yoga, hot-river-stone massages, its own signature blend of Balinese and Javanese massage and more — but where it really stands out is in its menu of experts.
Guests looking for Balinese healing can choose from five Balians with different specialties. Wiwin Hakim, public relations manager for Mandapa, recommends Ibu Ketut Mursi, a blind healer who is believed to have extraordinary intuitive awareness and touch. The two once shared a ride on a hotel buggy — each person sitting in a different row of the vehicle — when Mursi told Hakim out of the blue that he might want to get his thyroid checked. It turned out to be a fateful decree.
Mandapa also offers an extensive list of alternative healers who specialize in different modalities. I passed four hours with Soe, my healer, and her blend of aromatherapy, palm reading and card reading, but there’s also a Vedic astrologist, an acupuncturist and more. In addition to its staff of experts, the property invites practitioners from around the world to offer treatments as part of its “Healing Master in Residence” program. In September, for example, Thailand native Khun Noom will be offering crystal sound healing, cupping and more.
Staff at Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan can also offer first-person advice on which Balinese healer to see.
Uday Rao, the property’s general manager, has personally seen two of the four healers the hotel recommends. One healer, high priestess Ida Resi Alit, performed a Balinese melukat (a cleansing water ceremony) on him, which involved her chanting prayers and pouring ice-cold water on his head.
“It’s a shock if you’re not expecting it,” he said. “And if you’re going in with a closed mind, you’re just getting a cold shower.”
Guests interested in a healing session will usually meet with the property’s resident wellness mentor, Ibu Heny Ferawati, a former Buddhist nun. Ferawati consults with guests to ensure that they would benefit from seeing a Balian and that they know the details of the visit. (Sayan does not offer on-property meetings with most of its recommended healers.)
“Meeting a healer is not commercial,” Rao said. “It’s not an ‘activity.’”
Many guests think that the session with a Balian is private when, in fact, it’s often public and at the healer’s home — where he or she may already be busy with a line of locals. The property also lets guests know that the healers are blunt and that their approach is raw and direct. Treatments are not luxurious or necessarily pleasant.
Having a trusted hotel or tour operator vet and suggest a healer is highly advised for the first-time Bali visitor.
There are all kinds of Balians, and they all offer something different, says Schaffer, who has visited and escorted clients to scores of community healers over the course of her 13 visits to the island.
Laura Ball, a travel advisor and owner of Bon Appetit Travels, books Bali frequently but admits that none of her clients have asked to meet a healer — at least in advance — probably because it seems intimidating.
Maybe one out of 100 Four Seasons guests will visit a Balian, general manager Rao says.
Hakim of Mandapa admits that not everyone is a fan. He says, for example, that sometimes Balians don’t have much to suggest to a guest in good health. On the other hand, experiences can be quite emotionally intense.
“Sometimes people cry during my sessions,” Soe told me, something I chuckled at before I found myself tongue-tied, hot-cheeked and in tears as we analyzed a stack of Orchid Healing Cards together.
But worry not — there’s plenty else to complement or replace a healing session.
Schaffer says that massages are the most popular wellness activity among her clients.
Although guests can get daily Balinese massages at affordable local parlors, suggest they splurge at some of the island’s best spas. Like the island’s hotels, Bali’s spas operate at an impressive standard.
Take my couples massage at Sacred River Spa at Four Seasons Sayan: During the Batu Kali Riverstone Bathing Ritual, my partner and I were given a multiroom spa villa bigger than most Los Angeles apartments, complete with a frangipani-and-lime-filled bath, a plunge pool and a lily pond. The massage — which entailed getting exfoliated with stones, then massaged with ginger paste and other essential oils — was not something we could ever get at home.
The Ritz-Carlton Spa at The Ritz-Carlton, Bali, meanwhile, is unique in that it’s one of the brand’s only spas crafting its own products. Inspired by its location on the Indian Ocean, The Ritz uses local pearl and seaweed (as opposed to the Espa brand that most other Ritz-Carlton spas use).
“We had to have something different,” said Sofyan Kadarisman, director of spa at The Ritz-Carlton, Bali, and Wellness & Spa Hotelier of the Year for Southeast Asia in the 2016 Hotelier Awards. “I said, ‘Come on, we’re in Bali. Why don’t we bring something natural to the top level?’”
In addition to massages, Pravassa group tours always include a cooking class that looks at food as medicine, drawing from Balinese traditions.
“We make jamu, a tea-like tonic that can be served cold or hot,” Schaffer said. “It’s made with different spices depending on your particular ailment. Balinese usually go outside, pick what they need, then have their grandmother make it for them.”
Ball suggests that visitors take advantage of the many vegan restaurants in Ubud — such as Sage and Alchemy — and walk the city’s streets early in the morning to soak up the spirit of devotion on display as locals carry out morning rituals.
Guests also have numerous options for connecting with nature, whether it’s an easy stroll through Tegallalang Rice Terrace; the hourlong Campuhan Ridge Walk; a sunrise hike to one of Ubud’s sacred volcanoes, Mount Batur or Mount Agung (for serious climbers); river rafting in the Ayung River; or surfing along the coast.
And the only thing more plentiful than temples are displays of Balinese art. Nearly everyone in Ubud is either proficient or professional in their village’s specific craft, whether that be meticulous Batuan drawing or metalworking. Creating art — like revering nature, eating and praying — is also a spiritual practice.
I learned this while in Garuda Village under the spell of I Made Ada, a third-generation master woodcarver internationally known for his towering sculptures of garuda, a mythical bird and symbol of Indonesia. I wondered what kept the older man — whose Ada Garuda Gallery is a bustling museum, working studio and classroom — so jovial, energetic and relaxed.
“Making art is similar to practicing yoga,” he said. “In Bali, yoga means meditation. Art is basically a meditation because you have to concentrate. And in Bali, before we do a carving, we make a blessing for taksu.”
According to Ada, taksu means charisma — of which he has plenty — but it’s also a spiritual concept, referring to the divine inspiration that fuels artistic talent.
Of course, there are also many opportunities to practice yoga asanas (physical poses) in classes offered at hotels and in studios throughout Bali. Advisor Ball loves Mandapa’s yoga studio, which overlooks the Ayung River, as well as the classes at Ubud’s Yoga Barn, a yoga compound that is credited with putting Bali on the map as a yogi mecca.
The couple who founded Yoga Barn, New Yorker Meghan Pappenheim and Balinese I Kadek Gunarta, also created Bali Spirit Festival. The event aims to immerse participants in the Balinese Hindu concept of Tri Hita Karana — living in harmony with god, nature and humans — via yoga, breathwork, dance, personal development seminars, live music and general good vibes.
In addition to Bali Spirit, which takes place next year from April 2-8, Schaffer recommends visiting during Nyepi (Balinese New Year), which occurs in March.
“During Nyepi, Bali is the only place in the world that observes a full day of silence and meditation,” she said. “As legend goes, if you’re quiet, the spirits don’t think there’s anything on the island, so they’ll leave, and the island will be cleansed for one more year.”
Cleansing, With Soul
Fortunately, guests seeking a spiritual cleanse can visit Bali whenever they want.
At Pura Tirta Empul, a holy Ubud water temple recently visited by former President Obama, visitors don sarongs, receive blessings from a priest and make offerings before entering a koi-filled pool that consists of a series of fountains fed by a sacred spring.
I had received my own holy water melukat (soul purification) a few days before at the beachfront of The Ritz-Carlton, Bali.
For the experience, I joined Jero Mangku Nada, the official priest of the town and the hotel, and Wayan Seplog Tresna, his wife.
A hotel staffer wrapped me in a sarong and instructed me to kneel on a mat in the sand, before the priest began a mesmerizing sequence of Sanskrit prayers that began with an offering of devotion to Sang Hyang Baruna (the God of the Ocean). I doused my hands, feet, face and mouth with holy water and brought my closed palms together to my forehead five separate times — sometimes holding flowers and sometimes holding nothing, depending on which god was the recipient of the prayer.
After the chanting stopped and I had swallowed uncooked grains of rice and holy water, the priest tied a red-, black- and white-colored string around my wrist, symbolizing Hindu gods and the quest for harmony.
The string, which is said to protect against bad energy, is supposed to fall off on its own accord. I have a sneaking suspicion that it will hang on — at least until my next trip.