“There is no sense of us and them, just a sense of unity”
Holidays in Bali have traditionally been associated with things beginning with the letter ‘S’, such as, Sun, Surf, Sand, Sex, Shopping. But increasing numbers of visitors are being lured to the island for another ‘S’ word and that is Spirit, or as the catchphrase has become Bali Spirit. They have discovered that the island’s subtle energy and deep-rooted spirituality is highly conducive to healing, meditation and yoga, and people are heading to the hills of Ubud, long considered the spiritual and cultural heart of Bali.
Further entrenching Ubud’s reputation for all things holistic is the Bali Spirit festival. The second annual festival, billed as a celebration of yoga, music and dance brought together 20 yogis and teachers, 75 performers and over 1000 festival goers. The festival kicked off with an opening ceremony on the evening of the 28th April, in the gardens of the Purnati Centre for the Arts. It looked like a fairy land, with sparkling lights, white marquees and lush tropical foliage and there was a palpable air of anticipation and excitement as we stretched out on the sloping grass for the evening’s entertainment. There was a traditional Balinese blessing; African reggae music; American folk music and a fire dance fire show, just a small taste of things to come over the next 5 days.
The festival is truly multi faceted, bringing the spirit of yoga and world music to Indonesia and at the same time showcasing the culture, the music and the spirituality of Bali with a global audience. In the spirit of sharing, the Bhinneka Initiative, the charitable arm of the festival raises money for the local community with a focus on education and youth outreach. The zero waste policy was part of the founders desire to create an environmentally conscious event and there were bamboo cups, banana leaf plates, water bottle refilling stations and recycling bins for non organic matter. Amidst the market stalls were information booths on various non profit organizations such as SOS (Sumatran Orangutan Society), Breath of Hope Yoga Foundation, The Pelangi School and Feed Our Earth Society.
Daytimes were about learning, and workshops took place in the elaborate pavilion or the elegant white marquees that sprawled across the expansive lawns. Palm trees created shade; the hum of the rainforest and the sound of the flowing river provided the soundtrack, while verdant tumbling rice paddies created a scenic backdrop. The eclectic mix of workshops on offer included; West African Dance; Mayan Cosmology; Yoga and Pilates; Holistic Hip Hop; Javanese Movement Meditation; Qi Gong; Didgeridoo Workshops; Hatha Yoga; Sacred Middle Eastern Music Traditions. At times I felt a little overwhelmed, there was just so much going on. Did I want to purify my chakras; or join the Sacred Balinese Feminine Dance class; or attend a seminar on Ayurveda; or did I just want to lounge in the infinity pool which perched tantalizingly over the river.
My concerns that it would be full of really earnest hippy types dressed in white and talking about peace and love proved to be unfounded. Certainly there was a small element of that, but in fact the participants were as diverse a mix as the presenters themselves. There were professional women from the US and Australia; European backpackers; Ex pats; Japanese and Koreans and a number of Indonesians ─ predominantly yoga students from Java. I was a little baffled by all the ideological stuff: There is talk of cross-boundaries and cross cultural values of awareness: Of musical collaborations positively impacting consciousness: Of sharing with the collective…… What I do know is that I met really interesting people, learned lots of new things, felt incredibly inspired and empowered, and had a thoroughly good time.
Far from being a serious affair, what really stands out in my mind is the sound of laughter rippling across the grounds, and I am not just talking about Laughter Yoga, although it did have a huge turn out and the peals of laughter emanating from the workshop were so loud and so contagious that everyone in the vicinity was laughing. Sibo Bangoura had us all giggling during his African Drumming workshops as he yelled out “Get the police”, every time someone missed a beat. In Rebecca Pflaum’s Kundalini Yoga class she makes us hold our arms up in the air for four minutes, “When it hurts and you can’t handle it a second longer, laugh and get over it”, she berates us. She then instructs us to lie on our stomachs and make fists with our hands for what she calls the butt beating asana, “This is for every time you have wanted to kick yourself in the ass”, she calls out. In the Ecstatic Dance workshop, Ellen Watson has everyone dancing around being fairies “Spread your fairy dust”, she tells us. I felt kind of silly, in fact it took me five days to pluck up the courage to participate in a dance workshop; but the way I figure it, if a 60 year old guy with a moustache and a beer gut can dance like a fairy, well so can I, and its incredibly liberating to play like a child, to let go of inhibitions and of course we were all falling about laughing.
In the spirit of collaboration there was very little separation between the participants and the presenters. Sibo Bangoura came to Kundalini Yoga; Rocky Dawuni, the African Reggae star brought his young daughter to the Crystal Healing workshop; Movement teacher Sofia Thom joined the Celebration of Women Yoga class. And Rebecca the Kundalini teacher was usually the last one on the dance floor at the nightly concerts. And as we the participants pounded out African rhythms, or grooved to hip hop or learned the kecak monkey chant, we became the performers. Program Director Daphne Tse said that the best part of the festival for her was the “melding of all disciplines, seeing everyone from first time yogis to master teachers so eager to learn from the others, to practice different disciplines. There is absolutely no ego. They are Bali Spirit”.
Nightly concerts took place in the amphitheatre, complete with stunning lighting and excellent acoustics. Cocktails and beer were served and we were treated to some really incredible performances. Saharadja, featuring Javanese Jazz trumpeter Rio Sadik and his Australian wife Sally Jo, a classically trained violinist, played their electrifying jazz fusion: Rocky Dawuni got the crowd swaying to his mix of reggae and African beats: Indonesian, Slamet Gundono entertained us with his modern take on shadow puppetry: Sibo Bangoura and Australian based In Rhythm had everyone bouncing to the booming percussion, Sibo played his drum so hard the skin broke: Hip Hop artist, Akim Funk Buddha was quite simply the funkiest dancer I have ever seen and mesmerized us with his moves: While Australian ensemble, Ganga Giri, provided the most unique and unforgettable musical experience of the festival with a spine tingling blend of traditional didgeridoo with tribal beats and dub.
I met Megan Pappenheim (who founded the festival, along with her husband, Kadek Gunarta, and Musical Director, Robert Weber) for lunch one day. We sat on the grass and ate organic nasi campur from banana leaf plates, a drumming workshop took place behind us and the heavy beat of the djembe resounded. She is incredibly vital and personable, a kind of one woman holistic dynamo and her passion for Bali and her local community is all too evident. This is a woman who really cares. Megan set up the website Balispirit.com in the wake of the 2002 bombing, its mission was to revive the islands stricken industries and to preserve its environment, culture and spirituality. The site, a kind of one-stop shop for all things holistic has proved to be enormously popular and now boasts over 150,000 direct hits a month. Since its inception at least 10 new yoga centers have opened up and around 40 retreat groups are converging each year. Her other ventures include a food café, a yoga shop and the Yoga Barn. She operates all her businesses under fair trade principles and employs over 70 local people, although the number doubles during the lead up to the festival. She tells me, “We are not here patting ourselves on the back saying we have done so much for the community but it’s a start, it gives an example, we want to inspire other people to do something similar.”
We talked about the huge amount of support and encouragement that the festival has gained, including that of the Bali Tourism Board as well as the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. When one of the major sponsors dropped out at the last moment there were fears that the event would be cancelled, but most of the performers offered to waive or greatly reduce their fees. In fact the festival has run at a huge financial loss, but as she says “Its not about the money, its about the message,” and she is already enthusiastically planning next years event in which she is thinking of choosing an AIDS charity as the beneficiary and hoping to get a condom company as a sponsor. She also wants to have more non-profit organizations in attendance, “creating an information warehouse”.
We discuss the Bhinneka Initiative, the charitable arm of the festival. Bhin.n.eka tun.ggal ika translates as Unity in Diversity; its goal is to work with Indonesian youth to inspire new understandings of social awareness and global responsibility. It features various community based projects promoting holistic health and creative collaborations in music and dance. The musical outreach program featured Pre-festival concerts headlining Michael Franti, Rocky Dawuni and Tom Freund and raised over $20,000 for the Pelangi community school. As part of the Yoga Outreach program, Indonesian Muslim yogini, Pujiastuti Sindhu conducted free yoga workshops for the women of the surrounding villages of Ubud. International celebrity yogini Katy Appleton also conducted free pre natal classes at the Yayasan Bumi Sehat natural birthing clinic in Nyuh Kuning. I traveled with Katy to the clinic, a humble establishment, run by a non-profit organization which sees about 50 births a week. It’s a long way from London and her celebrity clients which include Sarah, Duchess of York and Paul McCartney. Eight heavily pregnant local women attended and she led them gently through a series of positions. Afterward Katy was beaming and said doing the class had been “a sweet honour and great fun and that she was looking forward to returning for a longer time next year to help out with another pair of hands and a smiling heart”.
Also under the Bhinneka Umbrella came Hari Cinta Keluarga (family day), the final day of the festival which was free for all and specially devoted to family with a range of family and child oriented workshops. There was a good turnout of Balinese, who joined in the pre-natal classes and the children’s yoga workshops. The local kids played drums with In Rhythm and Sibo Bangoura; danced to the sounds of Kirtan; and learned music with Lebanese artist Khalife, who will also be conducting a series of free workshops with street kids in Jakarta. Tom Fruend from California performed songs from his album ‘Hug the trees’ and had all the children dancing enthusiastically at the front of the stage.
The musical highlight of the festival came on the last night when the festival closed with the Siki Seka Jam which saw at least 15 of the performers up on stage all doing their own thing but somehow bringing it all together in a truly rousing finale that had everyone up and dancing. Seeing performers from so many nations and so many genres on the stage and playing as one captured the spirit of the festival perfectly. I thought about what Festival Director Amsalam Doraisingham said in his opening address, “You are here. This is your space and time. Let your light shine.” And when a thousand people let their light shine they create something that goes far beyond the individual. It has been a journey for all of us, we have learned and shared and created and we all take something away with us, a little bit of Bali Spirit I guess.