Juliette Siversten traveled to Bali seeking wellness and relaxation but it didn't come easily
The 3m wingspan of the manta ray above me creates a solar eclipse in the ocean. She drives forward gracefully as if her wings are conducting an orchestra to a largo musical tempo. Her tail is pin-thin and straight - but harmless. Unlike other rays, the manta has no sting.
I float in neutral buoyancy, my breathing matching the maestro's. When my lungs are full, I rise slightly in the water, as I breathe out; I gently sink, staying in time with the manta ray's movements. I am a visitor in her territory. But this is my world too; this ocean is part of the planet I call home. I feel a majestic co-existence of land and ocean, human and marine species.
I arrive in Bali for a wellness retreat carrying two wounds. One physical, from the removal of a small tumour from my breast the previous month; the other is called a "mental injury" on my ACC form. I come to Bali at a time in my recovery where I do not seek to escape the pains of the past but to relax, heal and learn to live alongside my experiences.
I'm excited at the prospect of a few days of daily yoga, fresh juices, a cooking class and a chance to feel reinvigorated. I need a reset. Not an escape but an injection of good health. But no sooner have my feet touched the ground in Bali than I receive a message from work about an unfinished project.
I instantly feel the heaviness of it and the helplessness of knowing there's nothing I can do about it while overseas. My five days of wellness already feel thwarted before I've even had the chance to step foot into my hotel.
However, the retreat setting is spectacular. I begin at the Alila Manggis resort in East Bali, surrounded by jungle, ocean and volcano. The sacred Mt Agung ascends into the sky in the background, the volcano encompassed with dense greenery, while waves crash on to the edge of the resort. A lotus pond frames the dining area and the palm trees create canopies for this sanctuary.
Alila describes its approach as "soft wellness", where guests can choose as much or as little wellness as they like. Nothing is compulsory but there are daily yoga and meditation practices, organic Balinese cooking classes, beachfront spa treatments and massages, a variety of chilled herbal teas and health concoctions on the drinks menu and the intoxicating fragrance of lemongrass on every face cloth, moisturiser and cleanser. Little treats drenched in palm sugar and coconut shavings ensure no sweet tooth is denied.
I'm open to some kind of enlightenment for further healing of body and mind. But my work stress has left a fog over my brain and heaviness in my chest. I enjoy my morning yoga but in some poses I am distracted by the tug of my skin from the site of my operation. The waves in the background are now a bizarre distraction. I usually find calm in the ocean but instead they reflect the wild thoughts inside my mind, the swirling sea foam like all my stresses stuck in a maze desperately trying to find an escape route. The ocean should calm me but it's too noisy.
I practise alternate nostril breathing, where you inhale through one nostril, then close it to exhale out the other and repeat the process. I use the ujjayi breath, an audible breath, a Darth Vader-like sound, that, when done correctly is meant to reflect the sound of the ocean. I have all the tools and space I need to find my spot of calm but there's still some kind of blockage. A 90-minute ocean-side Balinese massage is heavenly on my aching limbs and the crook in my neck is momentarily relieved. But it returns that night, feeding the frustration that I cannot find my nirvana. I'm here for you, wellness and relaxation! Why don't you want to come to me?
I jump at the opportunity to go scuba diving with manta rays, a long-awaited bucket list activity. If I can't find my Zen, maybe I need some cleansing ritual by way of full immersion in the ocean.
It's while I'm underwater, dwarfed by the manta rays, that I finally feel the heaviness slipping away and being replaced with gratitude. At one point I'm surrounded by half a dozen manta rays dancing around me, all the other scuba divers watching with cameras and GoPros from the outside of this exclusive circle. Even though I'm relying on an air tank, I feel like I can breathe again. Floating alongside these magnificent beauties of the ocean, I experience a contentment that sheds my turmoil. The ocean immersion seems to have baptised me with thankfulness and awe. It is not the reset I expected but a reset nonetheless.
My final two nights in Bali are spent at the Alila Seminyak hotel, in a vibrant and hip part of Bali, lined with beach clubs and popular with foreigners. Despite the busyness of the district at Seminyak, I continue to feel alive and grateful. During my morning yoga classes, I flow through my poses with more ease and steadiness in my breath. Somewhere between a downward-facing dog and a tree pose with the sole of my foot tucked against my inner thigh, I feel firm and focused with a clarity that I had been lacking since my arrival.
I had been in search of some kind of inner peace. But it soon becomes clear that what I really needed was a reminder of my resilience. To stand my sacred ground in the face of all the challenges around me. And that resilience can only develop with learning to hold both the good and the bad in different hands but at the same time. Co-existing, gently balanced with gratitude.
Lying down in my final savasana, my inner turmoil has completely eased. It has not disappeared entirely but it is I who has become the master of my thoughts. Relaxation does not have to equal escapism. The waves are still noisy but I enjoy their sound, rather than feeling distracted by them. I'm no longer at the mercy of the elements around me. This is what it means to live in harmony. It turns out that wellness, for me, is not some kind of nirvana as I had been seeking. It's quite the opposite - feeling grounded while gently acknowledging the challenges that sit alongside me. Wellness, for me, is a result of the ultimate co-existence within the mind.
Juliette Sivertsen travelled to Bali courtesy of Air New Zealand and Alila Hotels. aliliahotels.com