I’m writing this now having been home for a little over a month from my adventure in the beautiful jungle island that is Bali. I still have people coming up to me from time to time, asking me how it was. And I still struggle to answer that question — just like I did when I first got home and I was bombarded with the endless amounts of “how was it?!”
Most people who know me (or follow me on social media) knew that I got really sick over there. They asked me about the whole ordeal, and I could immediately sense the internal cringe when they knew I had been sick for a good chunk of my trip. And my response was always the same, easy quip back: “it didn’t ruin anything for me!” That was the short answer to reassure them that yes, I am aware that being sick halfway across the world, during a yoga training I paid a lot of money for, very much sucks. But the long answer is that it didn’t just not ruin my trip, it made it exactly what I was hoping it would be — a perspective-shifting experience that taught me something extremely important about my Self and my approach to life.
I work with mindfulness every day. I am a therapist who is constantly reminding her clients to let go of their past, not dwell on what is to come, and try to live as completely in the present moment as possible. I meditate and do yoga and practice rituals each day to do the same. I focus a whole lot on trying to be as here as I can be. And yes, all of these practices have served me incredibly well; I don’t know how much of an anxious mess I’d be if I didn’t have these things to ground me. But none if it sinks as deep or hits home as hard as when life throws you a massive curveball, knocking you to the ground before you even knew what hit you. This is when the practice of mindfulness is most essential, but it’s also when it is the most difficult to access.
I arrived in Bali incredibly excited to be set free of my routine, of answering emails and phone calls, knowing I didn’t have to help anyone, or teach a class, or hear someone’s problems. I was ecstatic to be able to set all that down for eighteen days, while I played and did yoga and met interesting people in one of the most beautiful settings on the planet. My sweet driver (who’s name I forgot, but was kind and extremely helpful to a newcomer) picked me up at the airport and off we drove to Ubud, where I would be staying for the rest of my trip. We arrived at my first stop, a secluded villa where I would be staying for the night on my own, before moving on to the retreat grounds. Once there, I unpacked, took off those godforsaken leggings I had been wearing for what felt like close to 48 hours, and went outside to soak it all in. I pretty much had the place to myself and promptly took advantage of the pool, which faced the raw, dense jungle. I spent the whole day in that lounge chair — reading, taking pictures, writing, thinking, swimming. I got so lost in the Bhagavad Gita that I got a sunburn.
The next day, a new driver sped us through the thick afternoon rainstorm (a weather pattern I’d grow familiar and fond of during my stay) towards the Bagus Jati resort grounds. We weaved through tiny roads, past rice fields, zooming by dozens of mopeds, their passengers stacked in two’s and three’s, with babies usually riding shotgun. When we arrived at the main entrance, I couldn’t believe where I was; it felt like a combination of Jurassic Park and a five-star tropical hotel. I was surrounded on every side by jungle and greenery, with big, circular rooms with thatched roofs dotting the horizon. The people there greeted me with such warmth (and with the most delicious ginger virgin mojito ever) that I felt instantly welcomed. As I rode the golf cart over to what would be my room for the next ten days, vibrant colors enveloping me, I couldn’t contain my huge smile. I knew I was meant to be here. I met my soon-to-be friends at dinner that night, everyone clamoring to introduce themselves. Lots of hugging and name-exchanging and repeating of the names since most of us promptly forgot them. Then Janet came in to talk to us about what the next week and a half held. Her warm presence and gentle demeanor instantly made me feel drawn to her, magnetized to that mother-like energy that all of the yogi women who have most inspired me evoke.
Practice began at 6am the next morning, with seated meditation to start. As a widely proclaimed non-morning person, just the wake-up time was hard enough. But looking back now, I miss those long walks in the crisp morning air, as the pink and orange sunrise began to peek through the palm trees. I miss never knowing which winding stone path would take you to the yoga room the fastest, and I miss walking past species of flowers and butterflies I had never seen before. I miss the quiet and contained space of the yoga room that housed what would become my sangha, it’s floor-to-ceiling windows framing the jungle in the horizon. We would sit and meditate, and at the same time keep our ears perked up for the sound of Janet’s soft footsteps entering the room — our signal that asana practice would soon begin.
We practiced on the hard wood floors of the yoga room, mats being discouraged because of the space they took up. This also took some getting used to, but eventually the smell of the earthy planks of wood would become familiar and comforting. One of my favorite poses would end up being full prostration, where we’d lie belly-down on the floor, with our forehead heavy on the wood, our hands stretched out in prayer. This posture, symbolic of complete surrender, would come full circle for me.
I won’t dive into every detail of our day-to-day for two reasons: it would take me one thousand pages to write about every emotion and experience, but also because it was a sacred time that can only really be properly remembered via the vibrant memories in my head. I met some incredible people, who all had stories so deep and interesting that it reminded me of how cohesive this planet is. We all connected through yoga, obviously, but became incredibly close because of the daily moments we shared. We laughed big belly laughs over wine and Bintang at dinner, teasing each other like brothers and sisters. We roamed the city, helping each other find the best deals by haggling with the locals, and tried on $7.00 t-shirts in the back of hot, sticky market shops. We helped each other up Mount Batur, clamoring up unstable pieces of rock in the dark, while checking to make sure our group was always together. We chanted mantra and kirtan, and also danced to Beyoncé together. In the mornings, we discussed how achey our bodies were (and how amazing our massages later that day would be) over slices of fresh, cold fruit and mini-pancakes. We shared stories of our experiences with yoga, and how we all felt equally indebted to this practice that had healed us all, in one way or another. It was the perfect petri dish of people, place, and spirit that turned us from strangers to dear friends in a matter of days.
Then one morning, at about 5am, I woke up to my stomach making noises it had never made before; somewhere along the lines of what a really clogged pipe sounds like when its being drained. You can imagine what came next. I’ll skip the details, but basically I had to be ensured I was near a toilet at all times. I skipped practice that first morning, and by the afternoon felt okay enough to put some clothes on and join my group at the pool. I laid down on the floor as Janet lectured, my sweet friends stroking my hair or giving me squeezes of encouragement as I laid there, useless and bedraggled. Luckily, the Ayurvedic doctor was there that day, and I asked her what could help stop my bowels from turning themselves inside-out. She recommended a spoonful of honey and nutmeg, twice a day. It worked to plug me up, but looking back, my body was trying to rid itself of everything inside of it for a reason, and keeping it contained probably wasn’t the best idea. The trips to the bathroom stopped, but the fevers started. I woke up two nights in a row, drenched in sweat, burning up. I lied in bed wondering if my temperature was high enough to warrant waking up my poor roommates who had a 5:45am wake-up call. I would tiptoe to the mini fridge and take out a Coke can or water bottle, place it against my sternum, and curl back into bed with a wet towel on my forehead, praying that I wouldn’t pass out and hoping that the Advil (the only medicine I brought with me) would work to reduce my fever. The fear of not knowing where the nearest hospital was kept me up most of those nights, but eventually I’d fall asleep again, drenched in a mixture of sweat and water condensing on my shirt.
I don’t know which benevolent entity decided to grant me pardon from my disgusting state, but on the night of our final closing ceremony, I felt pretty good. I showered, put my white dress on, and went out to meet my friends, who gathered in an excited group by the restaurant. Maybe it was that we sang karaoke and danced and ate and drank and did all my favorites things that kept the sickness at bay. Maybe it was the high from the amount of sheer joy I felt being around these people. I don’t know, and probably never will know why that night it was like I was never sick, but I was able to dance the night away with these incredible beings who were now my close friends. And I thank the universe for the chance to enjoy that very special night.
The next day however was a different story. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I began getting a fever as soon as I woke up that morning, and refusing to miss our final practice, I laid out my mat in the back of the room, hoping I could trudge through a few Surya A’s. Ten seconds into my downward dog, my arms began to shake and I dropped to my shins and into child’s pose, where I stayed for a good ten minutes. I then dragged myself to the back of the room and made myself a comfy nest with bolsters and pillows and blankets, careful not to burn my hair on the candles that lined the outside rim of the room. Did I mention that actually happened to me earlier that week? Filling the room with the smell of your burnt hair, all while being grossly sick, was pretty miserable. Although now looking back, it was pretty hilarious too.
In my prop nest is where I sat and watched these amazing souls flow to the gentle cuing of Janet’s voice. When time came for the on-the-ground stuff, I made my way back to my mat. We were in some type of forward fold, my forehead pressed onto the ground. That’s when it all came flooding out. A song that Janet had played most mornings came on — one that has a sad, but beautiful melody. I began to cry and cry, my tears pooling underneath me on my mat. I stayed in the fold, letting my tears drain into the ground. I was sad my body was betraying me, but I was even more upset about it all being over. These new friends of mine would now part ways, jumping on planes that would take them back to their respective homes on different continents. Our unified energy would soon begin to dissipate, and this broke my heart more than anything. As we sat singing and chanting in our final morning circle, we all welled up with tears. We all knew that magic had taken place over those ten days. We knew this wasn’t something that just happened — the connections that we had created held a very special meaning to them. We all had a collective knowledge that this group was unique, that the energy we had created was something to be reckoned with. We all knew that the love we had created within this circle was something that only came from pure love, joy, and raw vulnerability. As we parted ways, we promised to keep in touch, taking pictures and giving deep, long-held hugs. I thanked Janet for all she had given us, for the knowledge she had imparted, the space she had held, and for bringing us all together in a place so incredibly beautiful that pictures will never do it justice. She joked that my sickness was a “natural cleanse” and even though she said it light-heartedly, I knew she meant it with some truth — that this was more than just me being sick at a bad time. And slowly, I began to catch glimpses of understanding as to why this was part of my journey.
By this point in time, I was doing pretty badly. I was out of Advil and everyone was leaving to their respective rentals in Ubud or back home. I caught a ride with some friends to my rental house, and was lucky enough to have very kind hosts who told me about a good clinic to visit. Everyone kept telling me I should go see someone, so I caved and went that day to talk to the doctor. They took blood and stool samples, and promised me results by the end of the day. I asked the doctor, a well-dressed, young Balinese woman, what she suspected it was. Without pausing, she said, “I think it’s dengue, but hopefully not.” That was all it took to take me into a tailspin of worry. I called my parents, knowing I would freak them out, but not being able to keep it a secret anymore. Also, I just wanted my mom and dad to tell me it would be okay. They comforted me, telling me they would be there in a heartbeat if it got worse, and to try to not jump to conclusions until the tests came back.
That night, waiting for the results, I cried again. But this time, it was out of anger. How dare the universe do this to me now? Why did I have to get this sick? What did I do to deserve this? Why me? I asked all of the desperate questions one asks in times like this. I was so angry at fate for sending me this sickness. I didn’t get why this needed to happen, or why now I had to suffer alone through the worst of it. I sat by myself, in this room in a house in the middle of a village in Bali, thousands of miles from everyone I loved, and I cried hot, angry tears. I cursed the universe for making me miss out on nights on the town with my new yogi friends, for condemning me to this bed, with no one to even FaceTime with because the time difference was so big. And to top things off, the clinic never emailed me back. I was pissed. I emailed my host, asking him to please call them and ask what the results were so I could get on the proper meds. He got back to me almost immediately, and when I read the header of his email, I breathed a giant sigh of relief. “Luckily it’s not dengue. Just a bacterial infection in your GI tract. They said they will give you antibiotics tomorrow, which should take care of it.” He made it sound so minor. Laughable, even. I sat there, imagining what this bacteria that had taken hold of my body looked liked. I pictured a giant, green worm with pointy teeth, munching away at my intestines, eating up my insides. I fell asleep feeling slightly more at ease, knowing that at least there would be a cure for all this mess. And that maybe I could get back to normal, and not spend my last days in Bali bedridden under tear-soaked sheets.
The next day, I woke up feeling the worst I had the entire time I’d been sick. I hadn’t eaten more than a few spoonfuls of rice in about 36 hours, and it was all I could do to muster up the energy to put a dress over my head and call my driver. When I arrived at the doctor, they took me to the back and asked how I was, expecting to hear I had had some type of recovery. I shook my head and said I felt worse, that I could barely stand up and hadn’t eaten in almost two days. The doctor’s face fell and he said I likely needed to get an IV drip because from the looks of things, I was severely dehydrated. I agreed, knowing this would probably help me regain some strength and hopefully my appetite. They took me to another room, clean and simply decorated, with a small bed and blanket, and readied my hand for the IV. I am not scared of needles, and I give blood like a champ, but at that point my body was in so much pain, and so incredibly weak and tired of hurting, that when the nurse inserted the needle, I yelped in pain and immediately started crying. I was so over my body hurting, I just wanted this to be over. They left me there with a call button, and the promise that in a few hours I’d feel much better. I called my parents again, but not before calling my boyfriend to weep about how miserable this all was. I reassured my family that the IV would surely help, even though I myself was beginning to doubt I’d ever feel well again.
I drifted in and out of sleep, glancing periodically at the drip to see how much was left as I wrapped myself in the wooly, yellow blanket. After about three hours, the IV was almost done. The nurse came in, and asked me how I was doing. I told her I felt better, still weak, but slightly hungry (obviously, a good sign). I had some strength back, and was beginning to see the light at the end of this tunnel. They sent me off with a pack of antibiotics, recommendations to drink a ton of water, and a surprisingly small bill (side note: America, please get your health care costs in order, for God’s sake). I asked the driver to take me to a supermarket, where I loaded up on bread, peanut butter, juice, bananas, and some chocolate cookies. I went home and snacked a little, careful to not eat too much. I went out to the pool and swam around quietly, thinking about the whole thing. I showered and messaged my friends, letting them know I was alive and excitedly made plans to meet up with them that night. We had dinner and caught up over what I had missed, and as I sipped my Sprite, I felt overjoyed that I was almost back to normal.
My final day in Ubud was spent shopping, of course. I hurried around town, popping in and out of shops, trying to remember everyone who I was supposed to bring back a souvenir for. Towards the end of the day, I felt myself getting weak again, and rather than risking it, went home and rested. I was leaving the next day and did not want to push my luck before getting on three flights back around the world. Luckily, the following morning I woke up feeling great and like I was back to my normal self. I got picked up early by my driver, and we stopped at a big garment shop on the way to the airport. I told him I had time to kill, and he said he did too. So, we shopped and walked around. When it was time to go, we got back on the road to the airport, my driver blasting American pop songs on the way. As I stared out the window at the stone sculptures lining the streets and the moped families racing by, I mentally said my goodbyes to this magical island, knowing I probably wouldn’t be back for a long time.
Once I had been back home for a few days, and started to tell my story to family and friends, I began to gain a different perspective. When I was sick, I obviously didn’t see the lesson. I was angry and sad and hated the whole world for turning against me. I was trapped behind my lens of resentment towards fate. But then, as I started to integrate the experience more and more, I remembered a very special experience I had in Bali, and all the pieces began to make sense. One day (before I got sick) we were taken to a water temple, which is a sacred place with multiple fountains spurting water out of the side of a wall. Our guide explained to us that this temple was used for a very special cleansing ritual: people asked the gods to let the water cleanse them of what they no longer wanted to have burdening them. We entered the cold water, fully dressed in our clothes and traditional sarongs, and shivered as we waited in line to go under the fountains. As I approached the first of about twelve fountains, I repeated in my head what I wanted to let go of. I created a mantra that basically strung together all of the parts of my personality that I wanted to be released from: my anger, my need for approval, my unsureness in my abilities, etc. And as I dunked my head under the first rushing stream of water, I was completely caught off guard by how cold it was. Shivering and unsure, I cupped and splashed the water over my head seven times, like we were taught, bowed in reverence, and moved to the next one. Again, repeating my mantra, I dunked my head a second time, this one less surprising, but just as cold. By the time I approached the third fountain, I was already soaking wet. At this point, I stopped caring and went into a repetitive state: dunk head, splash seven times, repeat mantra, bow, move on. Repeat 10 or so more times. As I neared the final fountain, I had been completely taken over by the rhythm of the process. When I emerged from the pool, my friends helping me to step out, I started to tear up. Something in me had shifted. I wasn’t sure what, but I felt different. I felt raw, like a layer of skin had been peeled off. One of my friends hugged me and as I silently cried in her arms, I’ll never forget her saying to me, “It’s okay. You are fully supported.”
Looking back. I realized I had asked to be purged clean. Not just asked, but I had basically pleaded, multiple times in a row, to be cleansed of all of the internal muck I was holding. I had asked the gods to help rid me of the unwanted, the parts of me that no longer served my purpose in life. And looking back now, I think I got exactly what I asked for. To put it a bit further into perspective, I have a notoriously bad relationship with my stomach. My guts used to always be upset over one thing or another, and it is only until recently (and through the help of a lot of probiotics and a better diet) that I have some semblance of a normal digestive system. But that was always my “problem area,” and I had even jokingly told one of my yogi friends earlier in the trip that, upon my return to Austin, I was going to sign up for a colonic. Well, you can see how that wasn’t going to be necessary anymore after my experience. But not only was the purging/cleansing connection there, I also gained another incredibly important lesson from all of it. I learned how truly fleeting our health can be, and how one moment we can be climbing the top of an active volcano at sunrise, and the next be unable to pull your pajamas over your head. Or be able to eat anything other than white rice. I realized how incredibly precious life is, and everything that I had ever learned about mindfulness made actual, concrete sense thanks to this in-vivo experience with the non-permeance of life. Not only did I learn the value of being present with what I have now, but I also felt an inexplicable amount of gratitude for the fact that I only felt this pain for maybe five days. I cannot fathom the experience of those who are dealing with an illness everyday of their lives. I began to empathize ten thousand times more with those who cannot eat a solid meal, or put their shoes on by themselves, or have the energy to lift themselves up in bed. My heart burst open when I thought of all of those people who have to live this struggle 100% of the time, and I was able to touch into a type of gratitude and compassion I never had before. I wasn’t just thankful for the obvious things anymore, like a nice place to live or money to buy expensive yoga leggings with. I was thankful to be able to put food in my mouth and swallow it. I was thankful that the water I drank on a daily basis was clean. I was thankful that my legs could take me across the street. I was thankful to go to the bathroom normally! The gratitude rushed through me like a monsoon, and I was able to see all of the unseen things that surrounded and blessed me on a daily basis. And for that, I wouldn’t trade my experience for the world. I wouldn’t change a damn thing.
No one learns from the easy stuff. No one gains a life lesson from living comfortably. We have to be lifted up and then, when we least expect it, be knocked down and shattered. Only knowing the depths of pain can we appreciate the immense light of happiness. So thank you Bali, for all of it. For the highs and the lows, and for stretching my heart in ways I couldn't have imagined. You taught me more than I expected, and I got way more than I bargained for from your magical island. My ability to see the gifts wrapped beneath really ugly wrapping paper has been broadened. I understand now much more than ever before that it is all supposed to happen, that it is all meant to be placed in your path. Because if it is your rightful path, then it all happens for a good reason. All the pain, the tears, the wounds, the bloodshed — it is all a part of your story. And as long as we can trust that the tribulations are just a chapter in your book that supplements the overall story, then the road forward can be a little less scary.
Om Namah Shivaya