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A Non-Yogi Goes on a Yoga Retreat in Bali — And Survives!

by Penelope Eaton May 08, 2018

I’m definitely not a yogi. In fact, I don’t even really like yoga. It’s not because I lack flexibility or discipline, but because every time I’ve tried it I’ve been distracted by my own inner dialogue.

Downward Dog again? Ugh, I look ridiculous. Am I doing this right? I feel like I’m doing this wrong. Can someone please help?!

Except I actually say that last question out loud more than a few times. You get the idea of how out of place I feel doing yoga.

So why would I travel across the globe more than 8,000 miles to attend a weeklong yoga retreat? Well, I’ve noticed that this negative inner dialogue doesn’t only occur on the yoga mat. In fact, it happens in several different situations throughout my life and prevents me from doing things I want to do. And I’m pretty tired of listening to it. So when I got the call asking if I wanted to go to Bali on a yoga retreat with Eli Walker (photos below) as my instructor, I couldn’t say no.

If you don’t know who Eli Walker is, I’ll give you the lowdown: She’s the brilliant mind behind Drunk Yoga in New York City — a brief happy hour followed by a fun, beginner-friendly yoga class that’s meant to help people who may be intimidated by yoga let go of their inhibitions. Now that’s some yoga I could get behind. In fact, I couldn’t wait for the retreat to start.

Bali?! I Can't Wait to Go! Wait... How Long Does It Take to Get There?

After a 12-hour flight, a three-hour layover, a seven-hour flight and a four-hour taxi ride, I finally arrived at Jeda Villas in northwest Bali (literally two days after I’d departed Los Angeles) in the dark. I was greeted by Jenny, a friendly manager, who showed me to my room. I was excited to start exploring my home for the next week, but it was late and I had my first yoga class at 8 a.m. the next morning. I went to bed and drifted off to sleep to the sound of chirping frogs outside.

When I awoke I discovered that the villa was even more amazing than what I’d seen online. It had a open-air living room furnished with a mix of modern architecture and traditional Balinese decor: polished white cement tiles, wood pillars, woven chairs, hand-carved wood tables and a number of couches both inside and outside. There was also a beautiful outdoor infinity pool I was tempted to dive into.

But first: yoga.

I grabbed a mat, a block and a blanket and found a spot right behind Eli — who wasn’t teaching that day. Instead, Alex, a close friend of Eli’s, guided us through different breathing and movement techniques. His voice was calm and soothing with long pauses in between. The nine other people flowed from one movement to the next, following his instruction.

I, however, flopped around like a fish out of water.

The gentle-sounding music hummed in the background, drowning out my subtle sighs of frustration. Here I was again, judging myself through each pose, looking to Alex for reassurance that I was doing something right. I began to question what I had gotten myself into by embarking on this trip.

Self-conscious, I glanced at the two men and seven women with whom I’d be spending this week. They were clearly more experienced than I was. Later on I would learn that we shared something in common: We all had reasons for disconnecting with our everyday lives and taking some much-needed time for ourselves.

“Namaste,” Alex’s voice softly echoed.

Yoga Is Just a Lot of Stretching, Right?

We quickly settled into a routine of practicing yoga twice a day. We always followed yoga with food — a colorful spread of dragon fruit, papaya, pineapple, cashew yogurt, granola and other more creative vegan dishes like patties or quiche prepared by our genius cook, Tonya. Some days we focused on meditations, other days we did Kundalini breathing — which left me with a head high from exhaling and inhaling so quickly.

Despite my anxiety and self-consciousness, one thing that made me feel seriously badass early in the week was learning how to do a headstand. I used the mirror for support, pressing my legs together and holding my weight on my forearms. I felt a rush of excitement. I did it!

Eli held my leg as I stepped out of the headstand. “I found a niche in teaching yoga to non-yogis,” she said, brushing her hair out of her face. Now that’s what makes Eli unique, her drive to flip yoga on its head (and not just me on mine).

Besides filling our bellies and moving our bodies, we had lots of free time to explore all the things that Bali had to offer: snorkeling, scuba diving, jumping off waterfalls, visiting temples and getting massages, to name a few. On the second night of the retreat I agreed to hike the Kawah Ijen volcano on Java, the next island over, because I was told the view was remarkable. Little did I know what I was getting myself into.

Who Thinks Hiking a Volcano Is a Good Idea?

We set out at 2 a.m. so we could see the blue sulfur flames inside the crater. I was not prepared for how incredibly difficult the hike was: The incline progressively got steeper and steeper and it rained on and off. At one point I couldn’t tell whether sweat or rain was running down my face. Once I reached the top of the volcano, the air gradually felt thicker. Our guide told us to put our gas masks on for the remainder of the hike down into the crater. Apparently, this hike wasn’t getting easier. In fact, it was about to get much harder.

We began climbing down into the crater, gripping rocks for support. I could see the faint electric-blue sulfur flames below. My eyes burned more and more the further we went. I could barely see. When we reached the bottom I saw the sulfur flames up close — bright yellow in color, dripping down like candle wax.

On our way back up we could finally make out what was around us. I could see the outline of a milky, turquoise lake — the largest acidic lake in the world — and slowly but surely everything surrounding us appeared in full daylight.

We made it back down the volcano by about 8 a.m., and I only fell on my ass once. The journey home was full of exhausted, hungry people covered in a thin layer of dirt, yet who were laughing at everything.

In the back seat I was smiling, proud of what I had accomplished. It was then that I knew if I could hike the Kawah Ijen volcano and make it back alive, then surely I could make it through this experience.

A Setback

Fast-forward to the fifth day of the retreat: That’s when I felt myself slipping back into my old habits. I was tired of the routine. Thankfully, that day Eli introduced something she calls “Divine Your Story,” a workshop that’s centered around using yoga as a way of deconstructing the negative stories you tell yourself.

According to Eli, “Divine Your Story” is supposed to help people ask difficult questions of themselves. For example, “How much control do I have over my life, and how much [is] the universe driving the ship?” “It’s about empowering people to take charge of their life by teaching them how to write their own stories so that they don’t feel trapped in a narrative that they didn’t even realize they wrote,” she explained.

I was all too familiar with that feeling of allowing my thoughts to control my life. I was intrigued that there might be a different way to be in the world.

Before we began the workshop, Eli met with us individually to read our astrology charts. I’m not typically a firm believer in astrology, but, damn, my reading was shockingly accurate. She told me about my need for validation from others; how decisions don’t come easily to me; how I constantly question myself and need someone to tell me what I’m doing or where I’m going is the right path. She also offered really helpful insight into why she thought I might need so desperately to get that stamp of approval and encouraged me to believe in myself and know that I was strong enough to change my story and, ultimately, my perspective.

It was just the confidence boost I needed to begin working on the “Divine Your Story” exercise.

My Story

We began the workshop with Eli asking each of us to focus on a personal story that we knew to be true at face value, but that we suspected had a deeper meaning. Mine went something like this: I need validation from others to know that I’m doing well.

We went around in a circle, sharing our stories and helping each other work through the emotions attached to the stories in an effort to understand them on a deeper level. Because of these intense discussions, my story started to take on a new shape: I seek validation because I’m scared to look stupid in front of others. I struggle with trusting myself enough to know that my actions are good enough.

We continued to work on our stories for the remainder of the retreat, both on the mat and off. On our last day, Eli asked us to share the most recent version. It was emotionally charged, to be sure, but it felt good to witness how the stories had evolved over time. For me, I noticed that the story I was telling myself had taken on more complexity and nuance, and, most importantly, was a lot more compassionate to myself. Here’s what I shared:

Dear Penelope,

I feel like you don’t trust yourself enough to know that the person you are and the decisions you make are good enough to stand on their own without question. I know you are scared to fail and to embarrass yourself, but without those moments you may never truly let yourself feel vulnerable enough to grow and experience your life beyond the boundaries you’ve created for yourself. I am here to tell you that this need for someone else to tell you you’re OK or you’re right or give you a gold star isn’t working for me. It isn’t working because it’s preventing you from being yourself and doing what you want and need.

When you were young and played with dolls and listened to rock music, I envisioned a life in which you continued to surprise people and continued to have that confidence of a carefree child. I need you to release this idea that approval is a life well lived, that pressure to do right isn’t always right. But before you let go of this feeling, know that it’s there because without failure you may never learn or understand what’s true to you. Thank you for looking backward in order to look forward.

With love, Penelope

So am I happy I was able to cross “yoga retreat in Bali” off my bucket list? I went in as a skeptic but came out really happy with the experience. Of course, just being in Bali was the trip of a lifetime. But even more valuable was bringing home tools to help me grow as a person.

I wouldn’t say I’m a yogi just yet, but I am more in touch — more in touch with my body, my mind, my stress and my own stories.

About the Author:

Penelope Eaton is a journalist, writer, designer and photographer.

About the Photographer:

Chloe Millar is a Senior Photo Editor for Leaf Group. She has worked as a photo journalist for over 15 years. She loves dogs!

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