Ubud has been the spiritual centre of Bali long before Julia Robert’s character in the screen adaptation of Eat Pray Love caused droves of sappy middle-aged women with slightly off-kilter tastes to flock to the island in search of Healing.
Indeed, there’s truly a unique healing energy in Ubud; the very name is derived from the Balinese word ubad, which means medicine.
Its lush green rice terraces, rolling hills and vestiges of migratory Hindu culture serve as a soothing counterpoint to the rampant tourism choking out most of the town.
From yoga classes to ethically-sourced vegan dining options to traditional massages, Ubud is thoroughly equipped to nourish the mind, body and spirit. These days, for approximately $13, one could attempt to rejuvenate one’s weary, downtrodden soul with a bit of Bali magic. Visitors are spoiled for choice, ranging from various sound healing techniques to guided meditation, to tantra workshops, designed to help raise one’s vibration, connect to one’s higher self and expand one’s consciousness.
Figuring that they were all different paths to the same destination, I found myself in a session of Shamanic Breathwork.
Organised by the wildly popular Yoga Barn, the session was held in a spacious hall with elegant wood panelling and a glass façade displaying a landscaped garden with a statue of the Hindu deity, Ganesha, adorned daily with fresh flower garlands.
It was led by one Levi Banner, a spiritual Swiss army knife of sorts. I had previously attended yoga classes and an Astrology lecture by him. He was accompanied by an assistant who, for lack of a better description, looked like a children’s storybook witch – a thick mass of greying hair, a strong, quiet power.
The session kicked off with an invocation to the Great Spirit, with Levi thumping a slow, even cadence on his hand drum, inviting Spirit to be present with us. Attendees were encouraged to settle comfortably upon mats and cushions on the floor; lying flat on our backs, eyes closed, breathing deeply and consciously, as one would in meditation.
Music was played from a MacBook at the front of the room – ranging from tribal beats to ambient psytrance to Sigur Ros – presumably to ease us into a trance state. Levi issued further instructions: No moving or fidgeting allowed for the next hour and a half, no helping your neighbours – no matter what happens. We were going through our individual Shamanic Journeys alone, albeit en masse with something like 50 other people in the room. I briefly wondered about the chaos that would ensue if something were to go wrong, but then again, what’s the worst that could happen?
The initial calm was shattered about 30 minutes into the session when the first person started sobbing, on the verge of hysteria. Shortly afterwards, a dozen or so other people followed suit. Screams were heard, followed by an assortment of choking, coughing and moaning. It sounded like a roomful of people being tortured, which is fair.
I wondered what Levi and his assistant were doing about all this, and lifted my eyelids a crack to try and peek out at them. I found none of this truly alarming, just slightly distracting and detrimental to my own meditative efforts.
I definitely did not expect Spiritual Cleansing to be a walk in the park. Rather, it forces a person to confront the thoughts, memories and emotions they’ve buried in their subconscious, to traverse the shadows of their interior landscape to slay some demons. As cathartic as the session aimed to be, what was truly inspiring was the feeling of coming together, courageously submitting to our own inner darkness, in order to find the Light.
However, most travellers don’t realise that to go onto the Island of the Gods is to submit to a kind of Darkness beyond their comprehension.
The first time I visited Bali, I had met an Australian traveller who told me something creepy she’d heard. According to Balinese folklore, there exists the Leyak, a mythological figure in the form of a flying head with entrails attached.
The Leyak is said to be humans who practice dark magic and are able to channel or control the spirit. Rumour has it that for the right price, tourists or just about anyone with balls big enough could witness a Leyak battle, where these dark magic practitioners would detach their heads from their shoulders and engage in a head-butting contest in the air.
Fascinated by this story, I have since asked many Balinese locals I met if they could confirm the existence of this spirit. Most of them told me what I had already found out on the internet, that the Leyak can be found haunting burial grounds, and have a penchant for eating newborn babies or dead corpses. One Balinese teenager went so far as to give an exact location. “There’s a temple in the Monkey Forest where they cremate the deceased, that’s where you can find the Leyak at night,” he offered helpfully. By day, Monkey Forest is Ubud’s biggest tourist attraction.
Indeed Bali’s inherent spirituality begets much fascination. Popular cultural shows like the Kecak dance and the Barong dance draw large audiences of tourists and feature performers that enter a trance state to channel spiritual entities like the Barong.
Even Nyepi, the day of silence, has become a sort of novelty for expats and visitors alike. On that day, the whole of Bali gives itself into darkness; the day is reserved for self-reflection but involves a myriad of prohibitions which include no lighting fires (and by extension, electric lights), no working, no entertainment or pleasure, and for some, no eating or drinking. Roads, shops, restaurants, beaches and other public amenities are closed on Nyepi, with even the airport shut for 24 hours. Everyone is expected to remain indoors with windows covered to minimise light leakage. The restrictions on this day are strictly enforced, with only the Pecalang – traditional security men – patrolling the streets to ensure the prohibitions are adhered to.
The locals believe that Nyepi is observed to ward off evil spirits; if the streets remain quiet and dark, the spirits will think the island uninhabited and fly over it instead. It is not known what happens when one does not adhere to the restrictions.
For weeks leading up to Nyepi, local youths from every village get busy creating effigies of demons – called Ogoh-ogoh – to be displayed in a ritual procession for the Ngrupuk parade held on the evening before the silent day.
The main purpose of making the Ogoh-ogoh is to purify the natural environment of any spiritual pollutants emitted from the activities of any living beings – especially humans. The Ogoh-ogoh is considered a symbol of modes of nature that form the malicious characters of living beings. It thus essentially represents the community’s collective demons brought out into the open.
The effigies are sometimes politicised figures, exaggerated and demonised, indicating a self-reflexivity of the community that goes beyond mere cultural tradition. At the end of the parade, these effigies are then ritually destroyed by fire, in a symbolic representation of self-purification and the triumph of Light over Darkness.
A few years after that first visit, I met an Indonesian guy who claimed to have seen a Leyak battle. He confirmed the story I’d heard earlier, that witnesses to the event were required to stand around the arena, hold hands and watch silently; they were not to cry out in horror, break the chain to cover their faces or respond in any way under any circumstances. He described both heads as being enveloped with fire, emitting sparks each time they slammed into each other. It was no doubt a freaky experience.
“So what was going through your mind as you watched the show?” I asked. “Were you afraid?”
“No,” he replied. “There was no fear, only an understanding that these things exist. That’s just the way it is.”
And so it is. Although his claims cannot be verified, his sentiment remains legitimate. Once your eyes have been opened to the existence of these entities, your worldview changes. You realise that there are certain forces at play in the universe that are beyond scientific reason and human comprehension. And that’s completely fine.
Perhaps the draw of Bali – an island where the veil is thin between our world and the otherworld – is precisely because the place forces us to confront the demons within and around us, and serves a reminder that the darkness is not impossible to surmount.
Illustration by Alfonsus Wong. To see more of his work, visit his behance page at behance.net/awjx