Can Meditation in Bali Cure Anxiety-Ridden Americans?


Can some meditation and a few blessings chill out this anxious New Yorker? (Photo: Annemarie Dooling)

Nine years ago, Elizabeth Gilbert shared her version of Bali in her epic novel “Eat, Pray, Love,” putting the country on the solo female travel map forever. In the book, Gilbert talks of tall treetops, wandering monkeys, and a collection of classy, single female tourists looking for a break.

I arrived in Bali in 2015 under different circumstances than Gilbert, but nonetheless in need of some infamous Balinese hospitality and peace.

Spirituality is big business here. I had barely entered my room at the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan before coming face to face with my first offering, a little bowl of colorful flowers, rice, and candies. While much of Indonesia is Muslim, the Balinese practice Hindu, and the religion is woven into every aspect of their daily lives.

On my first complete day in Indonesia, I dove right in and opted for a chakra rebalancing, called Muladhara, at the resort spa, a trio of villas surrounded by a lily pad pond and dense forest. Like most treatments here, this started with a footbath in a gorgeous bowl of vetiver and jatamansi oils and flower petals, and then quickly escalated into an intense massage.


A meditative view. (Photo: Annemarie Dooling)

My therapist worked several pressure points on my body in the open air massage room, but it wasn’t until she reached my lower back that my body began to tense up. Apparently my body was having difficulty resting my root chakra, the one sitting at the base of the spine, which balances and adds stability to life. In Balinese culture, the root chakra is so integral that it should be ritually cleansed twice a month. As this was my first ever, I was way behind. I pushed the unease out of mind and enjoyed the rest of the treatment, listening to birds in the trees and allowing the sweet patchouli scents to fill my nostrils.

For phase two of my soul-cleansing vacation, I took a 40-minute trip to Ashram Purwa Agung to meet Ida Resi Alit, the youngest and only priestess in Bali. In her girlhood, Ida Resi was overwhelmed with depression and threw herself into philosophy and religion to overcome it. She was ordained a high priestess of Hindu Dharma at 21 years old, and now, at age 29, she runs her ashram to provide guidance for the entire village.

The wait to meet with Ida Resi was about an hour long and filled with Western women. Finally, we took off our shoes and pulled on mandatory colorful sarongs; you can’t enter a temple without one. We sat on jewel-toned cushions piled high on the tiled floor and the priestess began a prayer sequence and short meditation. Immediately, my body was in agony. I was itchy. My hungry stomach began rumbling. My leg was aching where it had fallen asleep. I was fighting my own willpower to meditate when we were marched to the other end of the temple to stand at the base of a tall altar wrapped in gold velvet.


Within a moment, the prayers and torture begin. (Photo: Annemarie Dooling)

We flanked Ida Resi as she sang a beautiful prayer and then reached for a dozen silver buckets of cold water, which she poured over our heads relentlessly, one by one. I immediately gasped involuntarily, grabbing a mouthful of water and choking on it while a new bucket began its assault. I cleared my face just long enough to see my nearest companion standing calmly as water was poured over her. Between gasps and nervous laughter, Ida Resi proclaimed, “Let it out, whatever is inside, let it all out. Stomp your feet and let out a scream!”

When a holy priestess asks you to do something, you do it, so I used the stomping and screaming as an outlet for my gasping breaths during those last few buckets of water.

When it ended, we changed and promptly left, everyone else at peace and me still wrestling with my thoughts until bedtime. Why couldn’t I relax like everyone else? Eventually I fell into a peaceful slumber, iPhone in hand, sending emails back to the States.


A view of the jungle in Sayan. (Photo: Four Seasons)

I was up before dawn the next morning, on the roof of my resort overlooking a large lily pad pond, for sunrise yoga, something I occasionally do back home. I was thrilled to be within my comfort zone. Between chanting and breathing, I was preparing to fling my body into more challenging poses, something more physically difficult.

Related: Eat, Pray, Wait: The Impatient Person’s Guide to Bali

But that wasn’t the plan. We calmly and slowly moved into a familiar sun salutation, taking every opportunity to grasp lengthy breaths and stare at the sunrise. We transitioned from cobra to warriors one, two, and three seamlessly, and then, with more meditation and a cucumber water, class was over. Having a Balinese yogi at my disposal, I asked him to double-check some of my poses. Before I could move into anything challenging, he repositioned me in downward dog, pigeon, and other basic poses I had been doing for years. My tailbone was crooked, my legs were too straight.

“It’s dangerous to leave your knees like that!” he cautioned. “Be more conscious of bending at the hip, not within the legs. Pull your back up!” I had been doing simple poses wrong for years. “Western yoga is very different,” he laughed. “You can hurt yourself if you’re not careful. Be careful of what classes you are taking. And bend those legs!” And with one last chuckle over the price of American yoga pants, we said our goodbyes.

Ibu Fera is the Four Seasons Sayan’s resident wellness mentor — a dream job, if there ever was one. I met with her just as the sun was beginning to set, and we chatted like old girlfriends about TV. (She’s a big “Sex and the City” fan.) Fera studied Dharma as a Buddhist nun in monasteries in Thailand and Myanmar, and I had a lot of questions about life and love and fortune. But most importantly, I wanted to know why I had so much trouble with meditating.

“Well, let’s try it,” she said. “Can you meditate for only 15 minutes?”

No. I could not.

I instead opted for a beginner’s 10. As I sat cross-legged and closed my eyes, listening to an idyllic river rambling away just feet away from me, the sensations returned. The itching, the aching, the impatience. I had emails to get to. Would there be more fresh fried rice at dinner? It was the best fried rice I had ever had. What if they didn’t have any more?

“Deep breaths,” Fera instructed as my agony became apparent. The meditation session ended, I unraveled my tired legs, and Fera got real with me.

Related: 5 Beautiful Bali Hotels for Under $100

“You don’t live a life that allows you to stop and breathe,” she said. “We fill our days with things that don’t matter, and we push down our real feelings.”

“But what if we’re keeping busy doing things that help other people?” I asked, always the selfless, humble journalist.

“If you only worry about the outside, you never work on the inside. It has nothing to do with being busy or other people. You need to look at what is bothering you, yourself.”

I took those sobering words to heart as I gorged on traditional bebek betutu for dinner and spent the following day at a forest with a gaggle of sassy monkeys. I was feeling pretty good about my wellness coaching when I transferred to the Four Seasons’ other Balinese resort, Jimbaran Bay, taking cooking classes, meeting surfers, and learning about local businesses.


A cliffside blessing and meditation. (Photo: Four Seasons)

The resort at Jimbaran Bay has its own temple. It’s a bright, colorful masterpiece, directly in the center of the grounds, away from the chic pool club and the gift shop, with views of the Indian Ocean. Here, I dressed in my sari and met Ajik Ngurah, the priest of the temple, who lovingly explained how the daily offerings were made by employees, each giving a piece of their own meals before eating their food. He lit a stick of pungent, smoky incense, and we said a prayer together, my hands clasped together across my chest and eyes tightly closed. He prepared my offering while explaining the usual rituals and color representations.


This does look like an easy place to let it all go. (Photo: Four Seasons)

He completed our session with another meditation — easier on the legs this time because I was standing — and then looked at me quizzically: “You have a lot to work on inside.”

I didn’t have time to protest this basic statement before the session ended, but I had the chance to meet with the priest just an hour later, after my final chakra checkup at the spa. (I was doing much better with my “vibrating” root chakra.) He performed one final blessing, waving smoke in the air, gently pouring water over my head, and blessing a red, black, and white striped bracelet before placing it on my wrist. “You’ll work on it,” he said as I ran off to find my luggage and head to the airport.

Related: How a Bali Retreat Helps People Deal With Huge Life Changes

I was relaxed, absolutely, even in my mad rush to attack the duty-free shop. But it’s much easier to relax in paradise than on the crowded subway heading to Times Square at 9 a.m. on Monday. What my wellness team in Bali was desperately trying to show me was that outside factors shouldn’t force me to determine my inside values. The challenge, of course, is to have a strong center, strong enough to stay still when the outside world is spinning, so that, eventually, the stillness rubs off on others.

Is the world a less chaotic place because of a blessed bracelet and a week in Indonesia? Not at all. But I am working toward becoming more aware of myself and less aware of the chaos — the greatest souvenir I’ve ever taken home.

Let Yahoo Travel inspire you every day. Hang out with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. Check out our original adventure travel series, “A Broad Abroad.”

Learn more about our travel policy.