Altar of Love
12 – 19 March 2014
We might still be in Munduk, up in the the cool volcanic ridges, wandering through the jungles of central Bali, if, a couple months prior to all of this, we hadn’t typed “yoga kirtan ecstatic dance Bali” into Google. A week-long retreat that fit with our timeline popped up, and it offered kundalini yoga, kirtan, ecstatic dance…and a cacao ceremony! This is how we found ourselves at the Altar of Love retreat held at Shangri-La resort.
Shangri-La, on Bali’s north shore, was originally simply the house of the owners and visionaries, Don and Ilona, but eventually a small retreat center was born, with a handful of wooden houses and small rooms by the sea, a beautiful octagonal yoga temple, blissful spa and sweet dining terrace. Everything was decorated in Ilona’s impeccable style that felt lush like the jungle, full of color, life, and inspired decorations: Balinese carved wooden furniture, and paintings and statues of Buddha and the familiar Hindu deities. The grounds overflowed with tropical plants and included hidden cabanas with cushions for lounging plus an enormous stone archway reminiscent of a Balinese temple. When we arrived, walking down a modest dirt path through the jungle to the entrance with enormous wooden gates, the staff greeted us by showering us with flowers.
We had an entire two-story house to ourselves overlooking the ocean, one large room on each floor and each our own bathroom. The best thing about Shangri-La was that it didn’t feel like a hotel; it felt like home. We lit the provided jasmine incense, connected the iPod to the speaker, said hello to the Buddha statue, and did an extra happy dance to find two water-refill stations right in the house. I could have spent the whole week on our second floor balcony, listening to the waves, or on the daybed downstairs reading.
We found Jaya Lakshmi and Ananda Yogiji, the leaders of our retreat, in the restaurant, along with a sprite with long blue hair named Cara Maria Genovese. While sipping our complimentary giant fresh coconuts, we were told it would be just the five of us together for the week. Of course Lakshmi and Ananda were hoping for more participants, but it turned out perfectly to have a small, intimate group.
Lakshmi and Ananda were clearly dedicated and experienced practitioners on their paths (kundalini combined with Lakshmi’s background with the Hare Krishnas), but they were also playful and relatable. We ate nearly every meal together, and many nights we had such a good time that Don and Ilona would wander over from their house to find us dissolved in fits of laughter. We settled in well together, and soon it was hard to believe that we had only just met. We were impressed how easily everything flowed, considering Cara knew nothing about kundalini, I had not really liked my previous experiences with it, and Jacob wasn’t really into kirtan. Lakshmi and Ananda’s humble and approachable teaching style made it easy to engage with a practice that is often seen as esoteric in the West. These wise practitioners really came from the heart while guiding us, so it was focused without being serious. Once we all started doing two hours of kundalini practice with live music every morning and kirtan every evening, in a healthy, beautiful environment, it was like we were all living on another plane where it was easy to be present and content in each moment. It was, “the Altar of SO much Love,” as Cara put it, beautifully.
Lakshmi and Ananda are gifted musicians, and kirtan with them was always a gorgeous and deep experience. And Jessica says this even though she had just come from experiencing tons of great kirtan in India. The best part was that Jacob liked it, too! Actually, part of what converted him was that the music was just so darn good, particularly when Ananda played his flute. Jessica had to pinch herself whenever she opened her eyes and saw Jacob singing away. She felt like the luckiest girl to have a partner who would do yoga and chant with her.
On top of all this, we discovered that Lakshmi was the singer of Lost at Last, an ethno-trance group formed in the 90’s that was a pioneer in combining electronic music with devotional singing and classical Indian instruments. Jacob was a fan of theirs while living in Boulder. Lakshmi now collaborates with Ananda on a new version of that style, which they call Kirtronica. It was like their extra-special secret spiritual musical power. And Kirtonica was on the retreat schedule. Friday night, while many of our friends back home were dancing all night at one of our communities’ celebrations, we danced in the temple-turned-sacred-club under blacklights and lasers while Lakshmi sang bhajans and Ananda worked the beats on the laptop and alternated between singing along and playing live flute. Their sweet, pure voices combined like two serpents coiling together toward heaven, while the progression of songs were themed to take us on a journey through the chakras up the spine – a very fitting dance practice for a kundalini retreat.
In addition to Kirtronica, one night we had a session overlooking the ocean while the full moon was rising, and another that included all the amazing Balinese staff from Shangri-la singing along with us.
(They are on tour on the west coast of the US right now (summer 2014)…go check them out!)
Another unexpected treasure of spending a week at Shangri-La was getting to know Don and Ilona (the owners). Mystics, musicians, writers and teachers who always dress all in white, love dolphins, and successfully run a few businesses, they were not typical homo sapiens. Whenever they spoke, we found ourselves suspending judgment and disbelief and just appreciating an entirely different plane of existence. Our dinner conversations with them ranged from the alien origin story of humanity to distance healing and remote viewing.
We also loved their dedication to the local community. When we mentioned to Don our desire to do something about all the plastic trash in SE Asia and India, he told me about his efforts to institute trash collection in the village near the Shangri-La: he had orchestrated getting a plan drafted and talked to community and religious leaders, who reached out to the villagers about the setup. In the end the villagers had voted no, but we were impressed and also humbled at how difficult it was to get plastic out of the river and ocean near one small village on one island. We thank Don and Ilona for their light-filled service in the world; it’s a more magical place with them around.
Outside of Shangri-La was still the paradise of Bali, and our little group spent a couple days on outings to hot springs, snorkel spots, waterfalls, temples and a cacao farm. There are a few “water” temples in Bali, but none compare to nature’s altar of water. The power of this waterfall, which we all got under, was literally a blast. The sensations from the pounding water and the resulting wind made us yell in ecstasy. The difficulty breathing made the experience feel like a sacred water-boarding, forcing us to completely open up and surrender. See the pics below – would you prefer the intense or gentle method?
Chocolate and ritual? We were excited for our first cacao ceremony! Lakshmi and Ananda set up a beautiful space and then led us through a ritual using this anahata (heart chakra) opening medicine – pure cacao collected by a cacao shaman in Guatemala. We shared like close friends as we reflected on the past week, and Lakshmi played one of her best songs. For an immediate heart opening, please listen:
The morning of our last day, we all rose before sunrise, waded into the ocean, and climbed into narrow wooden fishermen’s boats. We were headed out to sea to look for dolphins. Just as dawn broke, we got in the dark water and noticed the phosphorescent phytoplankton. Thousands of these tiny star-like bioluminescent creatures filled the sea, equally spaced out, motionless, in all directions, making being in the ocean that morning like swimming through space. This, along with the sunrise would have been enough even if the dolphins hadn’t shown up.
But oh, how the dolphins did show up. Pod after pod, everywhere. We were surrounded. They swam and leaped all around, but sadly always kept a distance from the boats. When they jumped together, breaking out of the water in smooth arcs, it was like the heavens were opening up and raining dolphin rainbows. Jacob was close enough to see three swim by underwater, and one looked over at him, but none of them wanted to play that morning. After breakfast, we said goodbye to Shangri-La and rode to Ubud together, the cultural center of Bali. Before splitting up we went where the animals are less shy – the sacred monkey forest!
A deep and heartful bow to our new friends. We are grateful for one of the all-around best weeks of our trip.