Travel: Eat, play, love
Sink deep into the mind, Hariharalaya Yoga and Meditation Retreat founder and director Joel Altman says, "into the space between thoughts”.
His booming voice fills the open-air room where I sit cross-legged on a yoga mat, along with about 20 others, attempting to meditate.
It's the start of my six-day retreat at Hariharalaya, a yoga and meditation centre nestled in a traditional farming village about 16km from the city of Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia.
Joel, a wiry 37-year-old American with a full beard and kind eyes, is seated at the front of the room before an enormous golden statue of Buddha and a framed photo of his guru, Mātā Amṛtānandamayī Devī, a Hindu spiritual leader from India better known as "Amma”.
Wearing loose cotton clothing and a headscarf with prayer beads draped around his neck, Joel radiates calm and otherworldliness.
With Joel's encouragement, I try to focus my mind "like a laser beam” but my brain is whirring, mundane thoughts skittering across it. Around me, the village hums with life; cattle lowing, roosters crowing, birds chirping, intertwined with the purr of a passing motorbike, the clatter of the kitchen staff preparing breakfast and the cacophony of a Cambodian wedding getting under way.
The chorus of sounds threatens to break my concentration but I continue to sit with my eyes closed, determined to block out the noise and enter a meditative state.
My legs, however, have other ideas.
What started as pins and needles has blossomed into a burning sensation and my poor limbs, unused to sitting still for so long, are screaming in protest.
After what seems like an eternity, a gong is struck, signalling the end of practice.
We meditated morning and night during the retreat and to my enormous relief, it did get easier and I even came to enjoy it.
AN OASIS IN SIEM REAP
Hariharalaya's six-day Integral Yoga and Conscious Living Retreat is run by Joel and a small team of international yoga and meditation teachers.
It promotes community, creativity, vegan food, connection with nature, and integral yoga and meditation.
The centre's approach to yoga is inspired by the works of Sri Aurobindo, an early Indian revolutionary, philosopher, poet and spiritual master; and the teachings of the sages and enlightened masters under whom Joel studied.
He opened Hariharalaya in 2010 after his pursuit of spiritual enlightenment led him to Cambodia, a South-East Asian nation with a population of about 16 million and a turbulent past.
Named for the ancient city that once stood there, the retreat centre is surrounded by jungle and crumbling temple ruins, and feels a world away from the hustle and bustle of Siem Reap. It features simple structures built using traditional materials such as bamboo and idyllic gardens dotted with mosquito net hammocks.
Retreat-goers are encouraged to observe silent mornings and a digital detox, switching off their devices to reconnect with themselves and nature, and dabble in activities such as massage, vegan baking, and ecstatic dance meditation (which gives new meaning to the saying "dance like no one is watching”).
I first tried yoga when I was about 12 years old in my home town of Proserpine in north Queensland, and remember being lulled to sleep by the darkened room, flickering candles and soothing voice of the teacher.
Yoga has played a bigger role in my life as I have grown older.
It would appear that I'm not alone, with recent statistics showing that the number of Australians diving into a downward facing dog has doubled in eight years.
According to the research by Roy Morgan, one in 10 Aussies - two million people - practised yoga last year, compared to one in 20 in 2008.
A GLOBAL MOVEMENT
Worldwide, wellness tourism is booming as holiday-makers swap hotel beds for yoga mats, and retreat centres contribute to the multi-billion dollar industry.
Hundreds of people travel from all over the world to Hariharalaya, which hosts more than 40 retreats a year and is ranked No.1 in specialty lodging in Siem Reap on TripAdvisor.
Their reasons for doing so are as varied as their backgrounds.
My group ranged from bright-eyed high school graduates trying to find their place in the world to an eccentric yoga teacher from Denver, Colorado, who was waiting to legally change her surname to "Om”, a mystic syllable considered the most sacred mantra in Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism.
Some retreat-goers had suffered loss or adversity, while others were simply looking for an escape and a chance to learn more about yoga and themselves.
Joel is confident retreats will remain popular amid a perceived need for such spaces.
"Many people are suffering from stress and tension, and what I call seriousness - this incredible seriousness where we take everything so seriously,” he says.
"We've lost that softness, the playfulness, that creative flexibility, that childlikeness.”
The concept of a digital detox is central to the six-day program, but there is a single desktop computer for retreat-goers to contact the outside world.
Joel believes that in order to "reconnect with ourselves... life and the present moment”, we must switch off our devices to "remove the layers” that technology creates.
"We can do a couple of hours a day but really it takes a few days to get back into the natural flow of life around us and out of our own contrived world of comfort and pleasure,” he says.
"It's so important that we break out of this habit every now and then in order to know ourselves.” At first, I struggled with the digital detox, being accustomed to checking my phone every hour (OK, every 20 minutes) for messages, emails and social media notifications.
But then I came to enjoy the silence.
At Hariharalaya, instead of sitting on our phones mindlessly scrolling through our Facebook feeds, we would talk to each other, swapping stories about our families, travelling, yoga, work and life in general.
A NEW PERSPECTIVE
I had always wanted to go on a retreat and had visions of myself emerging a zen-like yoga goddess ready to tackle any challenge thrown at me with grace, humility and a perfectly executed headstand.
Despite my overactive imagination, I was totally unprepared for the physical and mental change I would undergo in just six days.
I arrived at Hariharalaya at a crossroad in my life, having just quit my stable, full-time job to realise a long-held dream of travelling the world. The past year had been a stressful one and I struggled with insomnia and anxiety while working long hours.
During the retreat, I felt as though a weight had been lifted off my shoulders as I disconnected from the digital world and finally began to relax.
I had a chance to experiment with different styles of yoga and meditation, and realised there is much more to the discipline than contorting my body into an Instagram-worthy pose.
I bonded with my fellow retreat-goers, including my mum who bravely ventured out of her comfort zone and into South-East Asia to join me.
My body started to feel strong and supple as it adapted to the new exercise regimen, and I felt happier, calmer and more clear-headed than I had in years.
It was just as Joel had predicted: "By relaxing into ourselves, by grounding into ourselves then we discover everything we're looking for is already here.”
RETURN TO THE REAL WORLD
Back in Siem Reap, the noises and smells of the chaotic city hit me like an out-of-control tuk tuk. My phone felt foreign in my hand and my fingers fumbled with the keys as I tried to convey the experience to friends and family eager for news after nearly a week of no contact.
I returned home with grand plans to practice yoga on a regular basis, volunteer with a community organisation, be creative for fun and live simply and fully in the present. I embarked on a 40-day challenge designed to incorporate yoga and meditation into daily life and noticed vast improvements in my energy levels, sleep and mood.
I was better able to handle stress - a skill that came in handy as I juggled three jobs with preparing to move overseas - and made a concerted effort to spend less time hooked up to a screen and more time in nature.
I started to notice and appreciate the small things in life - the trees dancing in the breeze, the piercing call of cockatoos outside my bedroom window and the aroma of my morning coffee.
In the Cambodian jungle, surrounded by strangers and miles away from the comforts of home, I found contentment.
Hariharalaya Yoga and Meditation Retreat offers a variety of accommodation options starting from US$270 (A$339) including all meals and the six-day retreat program. Visit hariharalaya.com for more information.
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