By Jeninne Lee-St. John
Photographed by Lauryn Ishak
Jun 10, 2021
WHEN I TOLD MY FRIENDS I had been skipping through fields collecting caterpillars, they didn’t believe me. I’m not so into bugs. Or dirt. Or surprise bugs you might find in the dirt. But this particular dusk, I’m super into all of that. I’m like a little kid pretending little swaths of grass are a big jungle, the world is shiny and new, a delight waiting to be explored. I pick up a fuzzy green caterpillar, letting it crawl and flip along the tops and insides of my fingers, up my hand and my arm. The soft fur and tiny legs tickle in the exact way I remember from when I was five, and I wonder why I don’t do this every day.
The most obvious reason is I don’t meet Djik Dewa every day. This man is a marvel. A priest and a healer specializing in Kundalini, or life-force energy, Djik Dewa has spent 90 minutes working on me, trying to unfurl the coiled up snake (the literal definition of Kundalini) that usually lies dormant at the base of my spine. The snake is, of course, a metaphor for what are said to be deep reserves of untapped creative energy that, when activated, can alter your consciousness and in the best of cases work miracles.
Djik Dewa does some reflexology, he scans my body, he activates and balances all of my chakras, clearing the path for the Kundalini to travel up through me and work its purifying, detoxifying magic. He also engages me in what can be most easily described as the world’s most eccentric staring contest. He asks me to open my eyes, and then looks so deeply into them that it feels like he’s looking through them. It is both extremely hokey and not entirely inaccurate to say he’s looking into my soul. When the session is finished, he asks how I’m feeling.
“OK,” I venture unsure. “Better?”
“Look into the mirror,” he says.
My eyes are wide open, glassy and bright, and the whites are clearer than I’ve ever seen them. For some reason this makes me giggle. I glance at Djik Dewa for confirmation and he giggles back. I erupt into a pure, hearty laugh and Djik Dewa laughs too, and then I cannot stop. What is so funny? I have no idea. But I’m filled with joy and incredulity. I’m a laugh machine. Djik Dewa excuses himself while I freshen up. But the short walk from the treatment villa to the reception sala in the Four Seasons Sayan’s Sacred River Spa is rife with sensory distractions—birds, trees swaying in the light breeze, flowing water that is topped by a path I find eminently danceable. This makes me laugh. Djik Dewa is waiting in the sala with the spa receptionist. “How are you feeling now?” I look around, blink, everything is crisp, my head is clear, my body is light. I’m great! This is nuts. I’m laughing again. I hug Djik Dewa maybe four times. Thank him maybe 10. The walk back to my villa is amazing. The world is in Technicolor and surround sound. I make best friends with a caterpillar.
This is all pretty hilariously not me, and I haven’t even gotten to my utter fascination at discovering the bullfrog choir burping the sun down from the pond on the roof of my villa. It’s the most mellifluous symphony I’ve ever heard and I stop to record it to send immediately to everyone I know. I’ve discovered the perfect soundtrack to this shaman-driven wellness journey I’m on in Ubud. The traditional center for healing on the island, the lush central region whose name comes from “ubad,” or medicine, was for more than a millennium the go-to destination for royal and wealthy Balinese in need of the cure. It was kind of like Baden for the Swiss or the Izu Peninsula for the Japanese, and has exploded into a center for alternative medicine, from reiki to colonics.
In Ubud city center, there’s a yoga shop on every block, and loads of people concocting raw or vegan food. But for me, everything in moderation applies to getting healthy as well. So there will be wine and cheese and gastronomy, and coddling in pool villas at resorts with equally well-rounded views on wellness. My back hurts, my soul’s a bit wounded, I’ve got tummy troubles and I bristle when forced to discuss the passage of time. I wanted to flee the hectic city, immerse myself in this culture of comfort, hang out with as many Balians (the local word for healers) as I could and see if it would help me properly exhale. Turns out the most healing exhalation of all is a rib-splitting guffaw.
MY GRANDMOTHER GREW UP IN A VILLAGE in Guangzhou in the 1930’s. Everyone worked the rice paddies. But she fought the odds, and much of her family, to pursue her education in Hong Kong and then the U.S. She loved learning, but she also wanted to ensure that her offspring would not have to toil in knee-deep mud.
So, when I find myself in a paddy, knee-deep in mud, cracking up with head farmer I Nyoman Wirawan over my gardening incompetence, I feel a tinge of betrayal. A large patch of the Four Seasons’ land bordering the river is fertile for planting and convenient for accessing on foot, so locals manage the paddies and keep the harvest, and the hotel gets its own on-site example of a beautiful terraced subak—in which guests may get their hands and feet dirty. There’s a little part of me that feels like a first-world jerk, play-acting an expensive activity on the grounds of a luxury hotel, when so many people have to be serious about it to survive. Here I am, yukking it up, and wearing a conical hat, no less, when three paddies over are two women actually working these fields. But the reason I signed up for this is those women—and my grandmother. I wanted to see what it was like for her and her sister and her mother, to get some fraction of understanding of where and what she came from.
Rare are the hotel experiences that want you to be uncomfortable. That explicitly force you to reckon with your family lore and middle-class guilt. I have to give them props for the many layers of benefits I accrue from this activity. It’s part therapy, part history lesson, agricultural science, of course, and some math. It’s also something of a work out, raking and pounding mud into a semi-consistent level and thickness, then bending over to plant the seedlings, all the while trying not to fall over into the goop, my toes clenching in the slickness for stability. I am instructed by Wirawan to neither stand up nor shuffle over between each plunge of seed into the mud so as not to throw off my focus in creating a straight row. Well, Wirawan may have given me the thumbs up after my dozen rows, but when I send a photo of their distinctly trapezoidal shape to my sister-in-law, who actually grew up planting rice in rural China, I receive a reply of her whole family laughing at my terribleness.
“You’d never survive in a village,” they chuckle. Of all the answers I might be seeking on this trip, that one was already predetermined. Thanks, grandma.
“PLEASE UNDERSTAND, NOTHING IS required,” I Made Warnata tells me when we arrive at Pura Titra Empul, one of the island’s famous sacred sites. “You may follow behind me and do exactly as I do, or you can just observe, or anything in between. Whatever you feel comfortable with.”
We ease our way down the stone stairs into the pool, formed by the spring of immortality said to have been created by the god Indra. The water is icy, the stones below are a bit slimy, and I start when a large koi swims past my thigh. Made asks me if I’m afraid of them; No, I say, just unenthused about their presence. He smiles indulgently then approaches the first fountain to begin a ritual that’s been followed at this site since at least the temple’s founding in 926 A.D. Rinse your head three times. Rinse your face three times. Fully submerge under the spout. Press your palms together and give thanks. He goes first; I follow. After the first spigot, I’m no longer cold. After the third, the fish barely register. By the twelfth, I am in a trance, feeling peaceful and refreshed and clean.
When I’m done (we skip the final two on this row because they are for funeral ceremonies), Made is waiting behind me and only then do I notice—again—the crowds… people weaving around… cutting fountain lines… not praying properly! I wonder if this irks Made, for whom this is clearly a solemn ritual. But he’s looking serene and super chill as we climb up and over from this pool to the next. It’s not for me to judge the other tourists. Nothing is required.
The last fountain is called the Master Cleanse. You rinse your head, your face, you fully submerge, and you drink. It’s supposed to purify you both physically and psychologically, and so I drink as much as I possibly can. I guzzle. I’m like a woman in the desert. Made is amused. We head back to the changing room to peel off our wet kamen (sarongs) and sashes—the dress code for pools—change into dry ones, and then head for a stroll around the temple grounds.
“When a man becomes a priest, it’s very hard,” Made says lamentably, seemingly apropos of nothing after pointing out the modern house on the hill above, which was built by the Dutch and later used by Indonesian President Soekarno. “You stay married, but you give up sex. The husband and wife still live in the same house, but they must separate everything.”
Stop. Back up, please. Priests can be married? I immediately come to terms with my near-total ignorance of Hinduism’s many iterations, and listen carefully. It turns out Made is speaking from experience. Of the main strains of the religion, Sivah, Bhrama and Visnu, most Balinese are Sivah (though Made says most villages have adherents to all three) and his family is of its priesthood. It’s a patrilineal role that passes to the eldest son upon the death of his father.
“My father became a priest only five years ago,” Made says, meaning when his grandfather died, at the age of 101. His grandmother is 98. Made, former competitive weightlifter and now recreation supervisor at Mandapa, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, is heir to the cloth, and he already has two sons, but with this hereditary longevity, I’m not too worried about any of them having to forsake carnal pleasures any time soon.
I’M LYING ON A TABLE LISTENING TO THE sound of the river flow outside. Mandapa’s terraced grounds sit in a dramatic valley on a hook in the Ayung River. From our position on a sharp bend, I can hear the rapids hit the near edge of the riverbed, drop about a meter, and carry on rightward off into the distance. I can also hear the occasional “whoop” from whitewater rafters out there thrilling at the turn. There’s a blind woman at my feet conducting reflexology, murmuring to herself quietly. After a while, she, Ni Ketut Mursi, raises her voice slightly and her assistant, who had been hovering by my side, heads to my back, sides, arms, legs to apply pressure at the, apparently—since they’re speaking Balinese—specific instructions of her boss. This push-me/pull-you tag team manages to make both for a gentle, almost loving, four-hand massage, and me feel like a lab subject.
They continue in this way while Ni Ketut Mursi does reflexology in my palms, then she comes up behind me, cradles me between her legs and works on my meridians, trying to clear toxins in these lines between my organs. It is fantastically lulling. Which the makes the next step slightly jarring. She is wiping her hand across my head, my chest, pulling something off and then blowing, even spitting, it away disdainfully. I crack an eye, but don’t see anything in her hand. Yet the mood is contagious, and I also get slightly amped up with disdain for whatever she’s spitting away. Turns out, this is a neutralizing tactic, and she’s removing the excessive energy she’s found in parts of my body in order to balance the positive and the negative inside me.
OK, OK. So, some people might not be down for such mumbo jumbo. But besides the tangible lightness I feel after this session, in the debrief she offers diagnoses—culled from her various examination techniques including tapping my throat, chest and tummy to listen to the echoes—that might have come straight from my medical file. She asks if I’m on antibiotics. Yes, I say, wondering how she could’ve known. “The antibiotics were repressing the good bacteria in your digestive system,” she says via the translator. “I fixed it.” She noticed the slight scoliosis in my lower lumbar and suggests when I get home I get cupping done to that area, and find a tendon-massage specialist. I should fix my lower back first, so that there’s a solid base from which to work on my neck and shoulder strains (true, but those are relatively easy to feel with your hands), and start quelling my persistent headaches and general feeling of unsteadiness (so true, and how in god’s name did she detect that physically?).
As for my chakras, two had been blocked, but, she says, she was able to clear them. The third chakra, in the navel and connected to the organs, especially the stomach, controls the mind and how you form opinions. Decision-making can be a problem for me, so by all means, away with those blockages. The fifth chakra, at the throat, flows down to the chest and the heart. By clearing that one, Ni Ketut Mursi says, “all existing feelings will be able to be expressed easier through words.” (As I type that last sentence, I am overcome with regret at not having written this story immediately after my session.)
Ni Ketut Mursi, whose father was also a healer, sends me away with the reassurance that my gastrointestinal problems are “nothing major” and a prescription to drink ground turmeric mixed with water and honey as a natural antibiotic and digestive aid.
Duh. Google turmeric and you get all kinds of variants on “world’s healthiest herb.” I am reminded how far away from the simplest answer most modern health care has moved. I’m a big believer in alternative therapies for physical pains, like acupuncture, but I always forget that Mother Nature evolved her own medicines that kept the human race going for millennia before big pharma.
“SO, YOU BELIEVE IN…EVERYTHING?” a friend asked me when I gave him a debrief, mid-trip, of my wellness-packed schedule. This is a man who’s been to a hypnotist. Hmm. Not exactly. I believe in trying everything, within reason, at least once. I believe in the sincerity of the people I’ve met and their dedication to their work. I believe in my own experiences, and feeling tangibly altered after each new meeting. I believe you can learn something from everyone and hopefully create your own compendium of personal best practices to a healthier, happier, more purposeful lifestyle.
A swoop-peaked, open-air grandstand known as a bale overlooks the terraced paddies of the Four Seasons. It’s here where you can take meditation class, guided by a gentle, relatable former nun (who is pregnant during my visit). It’s also here where you can test your flexibility, upper-body strength and equilibrium with antigravity yoga. I have exactly one hangover this trip and it occurs on the morning I am scheduled for this flying, upside-down workout. I can only laugh at myself each time the instructor demonstrates yet another crazy circus move with the greatest of ease. I’m an idiot and I’m definitely going to hurt myself. But the hammocks are made of long, strong, silky pieces of bright violet fabric. So besides providing more support than you might expect, they’re also gorgeous. We are like performance artists or synchronized swimmers, unsure caterpillars turning into beautiful purple butterflies. The joy of it tamps down my remaining nausea. Sort of.
As class wraps up and we’re all marveling at how much less impossible aerial yoga was than it seemed, our instructor instructs us to laugh. We hesitate, letting out subdued chuckles. No, I Wayan Suwitra says, “Laugh.” And he erupts into a deep cackle, grinning ear-to-ear, eyes practically crying. It’s a gut-grabbing, foot-stomping laugh and the rest of us have no choice but to laugh along.
“Every day I wake up and the first thing I do is laugh,” he says. “I’ve taught my children all to wake up and laugh. It carries with you throughout the day. Sometimes we hear someone laughing at 5 a.m., it wakes us up and soon everyone in the house is laughing too.”
As far as alarm clocks go, you could do worse.
The next day, I take a jaunt through the woods and to a village with I Made Agus Nova Putra, who goes by Agus. He’s a local twenty-something who’s worked his way up from hawking tours on the side of the road to becoming one of Four Seasons Sayan’s most popular guides. His English is tops, he’s an utter sweetheart, and he’s got all the knowledge. Daun piduh is an antiseptic leaf that you chew then wrap on a wound like a band-aid to stop bleeding; binahong is an herb you mix with water to help cool the body temperature.
We come upon a middle-aged man with a lined face and shoulder-length wavy hair, wearing only a wide, tooth-baring grin and a loincloth. He was about to scale a tree to fetch fronds from the tops that can be made into roofing and fibers. His name is Lonto and he lives in this clearing with his wife in what can most charitably be described as a lean-to. Lonto and I compare curls. We sit on a log together and I ask if we can take a picture, then realize it would be a lot more fun to make a Boomerang, the app that takes a few seconds of video to play on a continuous loop.
When I show him the footage of us shimmying our shoulders and wiggling our hands and butts, he—like everyone who sees their first Boomerang—cracks up. When Agus and I finally pull ourselves away and say farewell, Lonto’s laugh follows through the trees.
Where to stay in Ubud
Four Seasons Sayan This nearly self-contained village is dotted with gardens and on-site paddies. The double-decker main pool, boasting intuitive staff and lovely sundappled afternoon shadows, perches over the Ayung River, drawing out even those guests with luxe pool villas. The Sacred River Spa “ceremonies,” tailored to guest needs, are some of the most comprehensive, healing treatment packages we’ve ever experienced. fourseasons.com; doubles from US$560.
Mandapa, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve For a dramatic entrance the elevated lobby offers a panorama of this new resort in an Ayung River valley. Bamboo nests in Kubu (or, “shelter” in Bahasa) restaurant furnish the ultimate special occasion, especially with chef Maurizio Bombini’s yummy, accessible gastronomic delights. The vast river-front villas have a separate living room salas, and generous pools. ritzcarlton.com; doubles from IDR6,240,000.
Amandari Dedicated to being of and for the community, the resort hosts village kids’ dance classes. Immersed in the rhythms of local prayer and ceremony, guests get daily gifts of artisanal crafts. aman.com; doubles from US$605.
Padma Resort Ubud Up in the hills with a dramatic valley view, this new, mist-shrouded hotel has a bamboo-forest walking trail and a large heated infinity pool. padmaresortubud.com; doubles from IDR2,535,000.
Maya Ubud Tucked between the Petanu river and the Peliatan rice paddies, the resort has an award-winning spa and complimentary activities that include tai chi and pilates. mayaresorts.com; doubles from US$199.
Kamandalu Named for a vessel to hold holy water, the resort focuses its design and energy on, as the namesake legend goes, helping guests break away from the attachments of the physical world. kamadaluresort.com; doubles from IDR2,243,000.
Kayumanis Private Villa & Spa At this all-pool-villa resort, book the all-day sensory surrender for a holistic regimen of exercise, therapy and dining. kayumanis.com; doubles from US$224.