Hula Hooping in Ubud, Indonesia

Sacred Circularities is a hula hoop retreat that happens every year in Indonesia. Finn heard about it from someone at Burning Man last summer and since we were going to be in Indonesia anyway it sounded like a fun thing to do. It’s really expensive to attend, so we filled out a long application form and got accepted as volunteers during the 2nd and 3rd weeks of the retreat.

The retreat was held in Ubud, a town in the middle of Bali that westerners flock to for yoga retreats, fancy hippy gear and spiritual living. Indonesian architecture is different from the other places we have visited in Southeast Asia. I liked the use of decorative parasols. The vegetation was taking over every brick, vines crawled through cracks in the walls and trees spilled over the streets. The air was heavy with tropical humidity. We rented a motorbike for the two weeks of the retreat in town and drove it to Ananda Cottages, the retreat venue.IMG_0663

My volunteer job was to write three blog posts per week for the Sacred Circularities website, for which I was given free accommodation and access to all the retreat programming. The general volunteers could only access two workshops per week, plus the yoga and ‘inner alchemy’ sessions. My guess is that they wanted the bloggers to have the full retreat experience so we can write about it and also to keep us happy so we write nice things, but it seemed unfair that the general volunteers were given access to so little.

The resort was on a completely other level from the places Finn and I had been staying on this trip. Our room had a huge four poster bed, air conditioning and a patio with a table and chairs. Right outside our doors was a view of palm trees, rice paddies and a swimming pool. All the buildings at the resort were made of brick and thick wood beams, with detailed decorative carvings.IMG_0628
At the first volunteer meeting in the afternoon before the retreat started we helped prepare the welcome gifts for participants and the volunteer coordinator went over our responsibilities and privileges for the retreat. General volunteers like Finn were only entitled to attend two of the nine workshops each week and at the meeting we learned that food was also not included. We were also told to buy a phone so that we could be contacted, which seemed like an annoying expense to require of volunteers. I told the volunteer coordinator that I was disappointed to learn food wasn’t included and now we were being asked to buy a phone and Finn is only allowed to participate in two workshops per week. It got tense. She said Sacred Circularities is a luxury retreat and we couldn’t expect to access it as general volunteers.

After the volunteer meeting was the opening ceremony. The participants were all female and of diverse ages, from 20 – 65. They were mostly white except for some black and east Asian participants. The majority were from North America, a disproportional number from Alberta, lots from Australia, several from the UK and a smattering of people from other countries such as South Africa and Japan.

I guess I should have been ready for the hokey, new age-y spirituality of a retreat called Sacred Circularities, but it was more than I had prepared myself for. Words such as Intention, Magical, Sacred, Manifest, Spirit, Eternal, and so on, were overused. I was at the retreat to meet fun people, play with toys and get better at hooping, but other people attended because they believe the hula hoop is a ‘sacred’ circle. About ten to fifteen people took advantage of the invitation to place a personal item on the ‘alter’, which was a table at the back of the room. Some special rocks were passed around the circle for each of us to hold as music was played, group singing took place and a local priest blessed each person. Then we danced in a circle and twirled into the middle one by one to say our name and our intention for the week before being showered with flower petals and given a candle to place on the alter.

I went jogging most mornings before the daily schedule at Sacred Circularities started off with yoga or a “spiritual version of Zumba” called African Dance. It felt great to have already gone for a run and yoga class before eating breakfast. A breakfast buffet was included in the price of our room, so it was a daily struggle not to overeat first thing in the morning. I binged out on fresh fruit, yoghurt and granola with peanut butter and honey. I drank a fruit smoothie and coffee too. The problem was that I went back for a second helping of granola. The bigger problem was when I went for a third. When I topped it off with pancakes my mouth was in heaven, but later I felt like a bean bag. I felt like I should be rolled to the first workshop like the greedy blueberry girl in Willy Wonka. I loved the breakfasts so much.Breakfast buffet

There were hula hoop workshops and ‘inner alchemy’ (meditation and spirituality) sessions throughout the day and a hoop jam in the evening where everyone played and danced with their hoops. During free time I sampled delicious restaurants around Ubud, got a few massages and drove past the monkey forest. I didn’t end up actually entering the monkey forest, but there were monkeys all over the parking lot so it was fun to look at the animals from the road.

At the end of every class the teachers did a recap demonstration of the moves they taught so that participants could film it to remember later, but volunteers were told we are not allowed to film the recaps. The founder, Jaguar Mary, said it was because the recaps were a ‘special gift for participants’. That sounded didn’t seem to fit the concept of ‘eternal abundance’ that was brought up throughout the retreat. It’s supposed to mean that there will always be enough for everyone, which is obviously not true. There wasn’t enough space in the workshops for volunteers to participate, for one.

One of Finn’s jobs was to assist in some of the hoop workshops, which sounded like a great job because he would be able to attend more workshops, but then he was tapped on the shoulder and told he wasn’t allowed to participate if he was volunteering. He had to wait behind the teacher just in case the mic volume needed to be turned up of down, but wasn’t allowed to pick up a hoop.

In the middle of the first week there was a holiday called Nyepi. It was explained to us that it is a day of reflection, on which no one is allowed to go into the streets. Religious people fast for the holiday and stay in their homes with the lights off. The resort management wrote on a big chalk board that we were not to leave the property. At breakfast everyone ate together and everything was usual, even the resort staff were talking and laughing without restraint, but after that most of the Sacred Circularities participants I saw throughout the day were silent. A bunch of people hung out by the pool all day without talking. It was boring and too bad that we missed the opportunity to get to know each other better. I was glad Finn was there so we could talk to each other in our room at least. I already did a 10 day silent meditation retreat last year, that was enough for me.

The next morning one of the Sacred Circularities participants complained that disrespectful people were so loud during breakfast on Nyepi. Being spiritual just for the sake of it annoys me, but being holier than thou about it really gets on my nerves. I asked her if she was Hindu and she said she wasn’t, but she thought we should at least talk quietly on this holiday that we all just learned about, even though we were only among foreigners. I told her I didn’t maintain silence because I’m not a practitioner of the local religion. There are lots of holidays I don’t celebrate. We all spent the holiday on an isolated resort so our voices weren’t disturbing local people. I should have pointed out that we weren’t fasting or leaving the lights off either, which are also part of Nyepi.

The equinox, solar eclipse, and new moon were big news around the retreat. The moon cycles and how they affect our bodies and minds was a hot topic. I overheard participants talking about their concern that they were absorbing the dreams of the people who had stayed in their room before them. They would need to clear out the old dreams with a sage smudging session as soon as possible.

I was responsible for writing three blog articles per week and provide a photo to attach, which sounded easy, but I felt at a loss for what to write. I felt alienated by the particular brand of hippiness and didn’t know how to write about it. For my first two articles I took some things that other people said and wrote about them. I wrote about the special, supportive community of Sacred Circularities and the healing power of a movement practice like hooping. I had heard people saying these things, so I thought they would go over well. I was happier with my third blog article, which was an interview with one of the teachers, but when I let her read it over before posting it she wanted me to take out most of the more interesting stuff. I didn’t want her to be unhappy about the way she was portrayed, so I allowed the changes, but I’ve learned my lesson not to give future interview subjects control over their interviews.

I met some great people at the retreat, despite the annoying ones. All the hoop teachers were very down to earth and fun to be around, and I really enjoyed some of the participants and volunteers. I was happy to make friends with people from around the world because now I have a reason to go visit places.

In the second week I was in the swing of blogging and was much happier with my articles. I wrote about the hoop balance class for my first post, which turned out nicely. For my second post I wrote about how the hula hoop community is mostly female and how it feels to be in a female space. I don’t particularly like being in a female-dominated space, I much prefer gender balance, but I didn’t want the article to be negative so I wrote that I like gender balance as well as positive things about a female only space. I also interviewed female and male participants for the article.

The other blogger for the second week, Fenixx, and I were responsible for proofreading each other’s work, but it turned out that Fenixx didn’t like my writing. She said my first article was too focused because it was only about one workshop. She said my second article was too general, that it wasn’t the right format and that she wanted to talk to the founder of Sacred Circularities, Jaguar Mary, about it. I told her I would send it to JM myself, and when I did I got an email response from Fenixx saying that Jaguar Mary wanted me to rewrite my article and make it more inclusive. I was sitting at breakfast when I got the email and Jaguar Mary was in the room, so I went over and asked her what was up.

Jaguar Mary told me gently that my blog article may alienate men and make them think they aren’t welcome at Sacred Circularities. She carefully communicated that she wanted me to rewrite the article and make it less man-hate-y (it wasn’t). It’s her event that she’s trying to promote, so I agreed to make some changes.

There was a ‘tribal market and performance showcase,’ every week, but the week before it couldn’t happen because of the holiday, Nyepi. Vendors came to Ananda cottages to sell expensive, beautiful hippy clothing and jewellery in the afternoon and then Sacred Circularities participants, teachers and volunteers performed for everyone. The performances were fantastic. I had no idea that some of the participants were such great performers and the teachers blew everyone away. The show was a big highlight of my time at Sacred Circularities.

Sacred Circularities had enjoyable moments, despite my complaints. I liked to swim in the pool and just be near it. I spent a lot of time practicing hooping, juggling and spinning poi, in and out of the workshops. I worked on doing a handstand and slowly improved. Lots of people gave me tips. I liked the nightly hoop jams where everyone played and practiced together with loud music. It wasn’t until the last two nights that I realized how much my hooping had improved. I was able to do a bunch of moves that I couldn’t before and I felt comfortable flowing with the music.

My favourite moment was the second to last day of the retreat during free time when an impromptu pool party started in the afternoon. The weather was perfect, someone put on music and we had fun together. Helly, one of the participants, made a compilation video of a bunch of us hooping that day. You can see it here:

I was working on this blog post on the last day of the retreat and had been writing down all the things that annoyed me before going to the closing ceremony. I didn’t want to do anymore silly ‘get into your body’ dances, I was sick of metaphorical workshops with little substance and wanted to be out from under the authority of the volunteer program.

In the closing circle I realized that I was the grinch in the group. Sacred Circularities wasn’t for me, but it was exactly what most people wanted. I was the negative one who dislikes silly exercises and hippy spirituality and that was my problem. The mic was passed to each person to share something with the group and most described a feeling of connectedness and love. They described spiritual awakenings and life changing experiences from the week as they broke down into tears of joy. It was such a dichotomy from what I felt. I’m glad that lots of people love Sacred Circularities, but by the end of two weeks I could hardly wait to get away from it.


Pai New Favourite Place in SE Asia

Finn and I boarded a minibus from Chiang Mai in the morning. The driver handed each passenger a bag as we got in and I wondered why, but it was a short lived mystery. The 762 curves along mountain roads made me more ill than any other ride on this trip. At least the scenery was nice, and after a few hours of testing my intestinal fortitude we arrived in the centre of Pai, nothern Thailand.

We had a reservation at Pai Circus School Resort, so we walked along the main road and out of the town centre to find it. Along the way I was excited to see restaurants were selling avocado, brown rice and creative smoothies. We stopped to get some delicious ice cream in waffle cones and after following signs and walking along a path for about 10 minutes found the circus school across the river on a hill.

The view from the circus school was spectacular. Beyond the infinity pool you could see the hilly landscape far into the distance. There was a pool table and a gazebo with hammocks and a wide open space for playing with hula hoops, poi, or whatever toy you prefer. Young people were lounging everywhere, soaking up the sun. Our $15 triangular hut was tiny and contained only the minimum furnishings: a mattress on the ground, a lamp and a mosquito net. The blankets were flimsy and thin so we were freezing at night. There were big holes in the floor, which made be worry I would clumsily fall through one or accidentally drop my valuables out. We wanted to stay there anyway because the circus school and pool were fantastic.

Most of the people who stayed at the circus school weren’t interested in circus, but stayed at the school because of the beautiful view and chilled out atmosphere. Most days there was a beginner poi lesson from 3pm – 6pm for $20, but I didn’t take one because I’m not particularly interested in poi. The best thing about the circus school was making friends over the course of the week. A small group of us who were passionate about hula hooping, poi, other hippy props and circus found each other and become good friends quickly. Three new Americans friends told me about a flow toy festival called Pacific Fire that happens in Oregon in September. I definitely want to go to that. It was great to be around passionate people because it reawakened my and Finn’s interest in hula hooping. I also learned to juggle a bit and Finn learned some contact staff.

Every morning in Pai I went for a run and then to breakfast with Finn and our new circus friends. A place called The Good Life served delicious, healthy, natural foods, so we ate there every morning until we found a place that was even better called Om Café. All the food was healthy, affordable and unbelievably delicious. They had lots of vegetarian options like quesadillas, hummus, poached eggs, avocado and grain salad. They had a smoothie that was nothing but blended avocado and coconut milk for $2. It was hard to choose between getting a cappuccino or a smoothie, so sometimes I got both. It felt indulgent, but necessary, to top the meal off with fresh carrot cake with perfect cream cheese icing.

In the evenings we usually walked into town and strolled through the night market. The stores stayed open after dark and stands selling food, jewellery or clothing popped up. A stand called Juice Queen had fantastic healthy smoothies with generous helpings of fresh fruits and vegetables, real cocoa, avocado, homemade peanut butter and no added sugar. I was floored by the healthy deliciousness. All of it was amazingly cheap too. A high protein vegetable smoothie cost $2 and a strawberry banana smoothie cost $1.

After a few days we forgot to extend our room reservation at the circus school so it was sold to someone else. Initially we were disappointed to move out, but then we found a place called Family Huts that was nearby, which was half the price of circus school and the bungalows were a lot nicer, so it turned out that our eviction from the circus school was actually a good thing. We still spent a lot of time hanging out at the circus school and they were happy to have us because we contributed to the circus atmosphere.

Pai is surrounded by lovely wilderness, but aside from my morning runs I only went out to visit it once. Finn, our new friend Melissa and I rented motorbikes for a few dollars for the day and went to relax by a waterfall. The water was cold but refreshing when I jumped in for a short swim. We met a few people at the waterfall and chatted a while before moving on to another tourist attraction called the Land Split, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a tourist attraction created around a split in the ground that I would barely have noted if I walked by it on a nature hike. I was glad we went anyway because at the entrance is a little stand with snacks and drinks by donation. We sat down on hammocks and juice, wine, peanuts, chips and fruit, all made on the property, were brought over to us. We relaxed and then dropped a few dollars in the donation bin on our way out.

After that we rode the windy road up to a huge canyon. I walked and climbed along the dusty, narrow path that would never be open to people walking in Canada. It was extremely high and looked dangerous, but it provided a beautiful view and fun negotiating the way along the uneven terrain. I ventured out on my own and met some lovely Americans who invited me to hang out with them along the path. It was the perfect way to end the day.

Another afternoon Finn and I went to a fermentation and kombucha making workshop that was advertised all over town by the Good Life restaurant, which is also the primary kombucha producer and distributer in Pai. The workshop was a short walk out of town on a small farm. We were offered bottles of kombucha to drink as soon as we got there and were told to help ourselves to more whenever we wanted. I wasn’t the biggest fan of kombucha but I wanted to give it a chance because it supposedly has wonderful health benefits. Also, I can’t resist things that are free. I drank a bottle and didn’t mind it. Throughout the workshop I drank more and more of it, largely because it was something to entertain myself with.
A man named Lance, a large aging hippy from northern Saskatchewan, ran the first part of the workshop about fermentation. “The only things that don’t ferment are our spirits, our souls,” he said. He went on about the magic of fermentation for over half an hour before getting into the process of it. He talked about people’s misguided fear of bacteria, “If you step into the flow of nature at the appropriate point, you have nothing to fear. Fermentation is observing that part of nature.” Lance told us that processed food is ‘dead’ because all the bacteria is killed, so it doesn’t give our digestive systems necessary bacteria, which is why we should eat fermented foods, yoghurts and foods with active bacteria.
Lance pickles and ferments anything and everything. He showed us the freezer bags of random vegetables that he threw together to ferment the night before. He had also packed a bag of kimchi vegetables and fermented it for a day for our class to work with. We wrapped the freshly fermented, spiced kimchi in bok choi and into freezer bags to ferment further and kept some fresh for our class to eat at the end of the day.

Konstantin, who goes by Kay or Mr K, a small, good-natured Ukrainian man with a goatee, ran the second part of the workshop. Before getting into kombucha, he showed us that you can put certain little mushrooms in milk, soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk or any kind of milk-like product and turn it into yoghurt or kefir overnight. He told us about bacteria with a long winded metaphor about good people stopping bad people in human communities. I was amazed to learn that the process of making yoghurt is so simple. I found the prospect of making my own granola and yoghurt once I have a stable living situation again exciting.

Kay taught us about the history, health benefits and process of kombucha in long-winded, if passionate, explanations. I could hardly believe these men ran this workshop daily with this much enthusiasm. I was drinking bottle after bottle of kombucha the whole time and developing a taste for it.

Kay brought us into the cellar and showed us big jars of kombucha at various stages of fermentation and had us taste some. Along the wall were shelves of mysterious looking-jars with liquids of different dark colours. We were told that one jar contacted a pickled tiger penis. Kay passed around a bottle for us to smell, but Finn and I weren’t listening when he told us what it was. I thought it was for tasting, but I didn’t want any. Finn put a little in his glass and drank it, but it tasted terrible. He asked what it was and Kay said it was fermented beaver kidney. We weren’t supposed to drink it.

I was getting really hungry by 430, but the workshop was supposed to end at 5 with a communal meal. Kay wasn’t finished at 5 and kept up the tangential ramblings and silly jokes for what felt to my rumbling stomach like forever. I had enjoyed the workshop, but had completely lost my ability to concentrate. Kay slowly handed out starter mushrooms to participants who wanted to make kombucha at home or on the road and made them name each one. “I’ll call mine Clementine,” said one participant. When it was my turn to receive my mushroom I almost wanted to refuse to name the silly little thing, but I didn’t want to ruin the mood with my hunger-induced grumpiness, so I said it’s name was Comet. I don’t know why I would name it Comet, but it’s all that came to mind.

At 5:30 Kay asked if we had discussed everything and I couldn’t resist but answer, “yep!” which I hoped didn’t come off as rude. Still he talked for another fifteen minutes and then we were free to go to the table where a spread of kimchi, bagels, cream cheese and pickled vegetables, all produced on the property, was laid out for us. I impatiently waited for others to sit down at the table before I started hungrily shovelling lots of food in my mouth.

After the workshop, Finn and I went to the circus school where we could watch and participate in a fire show most nights. Finn had tried the fire hoop for the first time that week and was hooked on it. The circus school had already asked him to perform for one of their parties.

That night after the workshop I was trying to have fun, but my stomach started to turn and I was nauseated. That afternoon I had drank about five bottles of fermented tea and then ate a huge spread of pickled vegetables for dinner. It was far too much for my bacteria-unaccustomed stomach to handle, so it suddenly emptied itself onto the grass of the circus school before I could make it to the toilet. I read later that you’re supposed to introduce kombucha to your diet slowly, starting with half a bottle. It was unfortunate, because I had finally developed a taste for the healthy, hippy drink, but now just the thought of it makes my stomach turn.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia Finn and hadn’t met many people who we really connected with. The party scene in most tourist areas attracts a lot of superficial people, but in Pai there was a community of people who were into having fun, but not only getting wasted and shopping. Pai isn’t very exotic since it’s built for tourism and full of westerners, but it was great to be around open-minded people who enjoy the same things as us.