Going 'wellness lite' in Bali with yoga, healing and massages

You don't have to commit to an intense wellness retreat in Bali - here is a low-touch way to finding wellbeing, without losing life’s little luxuries.

Girl practising yoga on the beach
  • Justine Costigan
  • December 2019

I have a wet wad of chewed up betel and areca nut (the mixture is also known as paan) in the palm of my hand. It looks a little bit like reddish-brown compost. But this leaf is special: it has come straight from the mouth of The Priestess. In the throes of a spirit-channelling trance and supported by two assistants, she has chewed the leaves, rubbing them in and around her stained gums, before weakly spitting them out into a bowl. Now, like the rest of our group seated in a circle before her, I’m going to rub the warm pre-masticated mash onto my neck and forehead. Part of a ritual that is designed to connect us to the spiritual world, this moment follows half an hour of listening to chanting as we sit cross-legged before a flower decorated altar. Later, we’ll each inch towards The Priestess on stiff and sore knees to whisper our worries, hoping she will cure what ails us. Then we’ll rise to dance with our eyes closed while a tropical thunderstorm lashes the garden around us.

A man holding an offering in Bali
There are many healers who offer traditional blessing experiences to travellers.

When she’s not in a trance, the Priestess – dressed traditionally in a white cotton kebaya and sarong and bright yellow sash – seems reassuringly motherly. She doesn’t speak English and we’re not allowed to know her name, take photographs or offer any payment, but I know she’s a balian, one of an estimated 8000 healers on the island, and her speciality is ketakson – the making of a spiritual connection between human and God. While the significance of much of the ritual is a mystery to me, just watching The Priestess at work is a mind-opening cultural experience.

Far from the indulgence of The Mulia, my luxury resort hotel in Bali’s Nusa Dua, this healing ritual is taking place in a typical family compound surrounded by rice paddies in the south-east of Ubud. I’m here to see The Priestess to explore the spiritual side of Bali, part of a wider plan to take in the best of the island’s wellness offerings, while still enjoying a typical Bali break. It’s not an approach a purist might take when it comes to the path to wellbeing but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with mixing spiritual and physical business with a good dose of pleasure.

A woman standing in front of a waterfall
Bali's natural environment is perfectly suited for a wellness getaway.

Finding wellness-themed activities in Bali isn’t difficult (although a meeting with The Priestess requires insider knowledge and local assistance). So if your hotel isn’t offering yoga and massage or a brochure on where to find it, you’re probably not actually in Bali.

At The Mulia, morning yoga is both spiritual and sublime. With mats laid out on the dew-soaked lawn in front of Nusa Dua beach, the ache of holding a tree pose is mitigated by the beauty of the deep bloom of pink on the horizon as the sun slowly rises. A good time to start beachside yoga is 6am – not only is the view spectacular, it’s cool enough to enjoy it. As, 20 minutes after the sun has risen, the dew has disappeared and even the shade of the frangipani trees isn’t enough to protect us from the day’s sticky heat.

Our teacher Kadek is super-fit and as cool as a cucumber in his bright white T-shirt. We follow his “om” as he takes us through a kundalini meditation followed by an intense series of hatha yoga stretches. It’s both challenging and rewarding. Challenging because this is really hard: my balance needs work and my core could do with strengthening. Rewarding because after the meditation I feel centred and peaceful. If I take anything away from this break, it’s the determination to recreate this feeling back at home.

Nusa Dua beach in Bali
Nusa Dua, a peninsula in the south of the island, boasts beautiful beaches.

Wanting more, I look into booking a private one-on-one meditation consultation at the Mirah Delima Institute in Nusa Dua. Truth be told I’m a little nervous when I meet Guru Darmika at the institute’s headquarters in the residential area of town. But I don’t need to worry. Our consultation starts with a reassuring cup of tea and biscuits as Darmika and I chat about what I’m looking for from the session and he takes me through the ideal breathing technique: deeply through my nose with 14 counts to breathe in, hold for 21 and release for seven. It’s much harder than it sounds.

When he’s ready we head out into the small private garden. Sitting cross-legged on a mat opposite Darmika, I’m instructed to breathe through the seven chakras (places of spiritual power in the body) with a different “om” for each, until we have moved through each one. It’s hard work trying to control my breath and ignore the pain of sitting in one place for too long. But through the process I start to notice other things – children playing in the street, a rooster crowing, the roar of the motorcycle. I’m aware of every movement of air and light.

Towards the end of the session Darmika asks me to hold one crossed knee close to my head and rock it and kiss it like it is a baby. “This is you,” he says. “Hold yourself like the baby you once were.” He then recites the mantra: “You are loved, you are special, you are enough.” When we finish I have a feeling of complete physical and mental release. I practically float back to my hotel.

Person practicing yoga at hotel
At The Mulia, morning yoga is both spiritual and sublime.

Wellness isn’t just for the mind and spirit, my body also needs some assistance, thanks to the indulgent buffet options at The Mulia. And there are six pools to choose from, as well as the private pool in my villa, plus beach swimming, walks along the sand and pier and a huge and well-equipped gym. I supplement my laps with some hiking – we head to Ubud for an early morning walk along the Campuhan Ridge, a nine-kilometre hill track passing small guesthouses and homes with views down into the deep valleys and gorges over jungled hills of green.

Later that day, we also hike down to the bottom of Tegenungan Waterfall, about five kilometres south-east of Ubud, to see post-storm rainwater roaring over the ridge and down the cliff as local workers haul rocks from the water to shore up the banks. Too dangerous to swim, we cool ourselves off in the mist then walk back up the steep path, my thighs burning with every step.

The Campuhan Ridge Walk in Bali
Walk your way to wellness on Bali's Campuhan Ridge Walk.

There’s only one cure for muscle ache in Bali and the Mulia Spa takes the traditional massage experience to another level. Before succumbing to the strong arms of my attendant Rina, I slowly make my way through a cool, then warm, outdoor pool with jets of varying pressure before heading to a steam room, sauna and ice room – where a chilled bench and a rub with crushed ice restores my temperature to normal. Ninety minutes of massage later, including a house-made almond oil and red rice scrub, followed by a facial, I’m feeling restored. I’ve indulged, poked, prodded, rocked my knee like a baby and looked after my mind, body and spirit in Bali – but am I truly healed?

Back in the compound near Ubud, we’re taken to another small altar for the culmination of the ceremony with The Priestess. Through a translator, we are warned that participants often scream as their “injury” is healed. I lie in front of the altar with my head in an assistant’s lap as The Priestess steps hard on my legs, applying deep, bone-crushing pressure. I don’t make a sound. When I ask what that means for my spiritual health, The Priestess smiles and says: “It’s a sign that you must be already well.”

In need of some relaxation? Swap screen-time for downward dogs on this magical Thai island.