Deep down in my heart I always knew I was going to love it here. Long before I’d ever left Canada, while I was training in Nepal, and all throughout my southeast Asian adventure Hariharalaya Yoga and Meditation Centre seemed to be finding me. Making a subtle appearance on my iPad screen during Internet searches and coming up in conversation after conversation with past guests who would relive their transformative experiences with such rawness that it gave me goosebumps.
So yes, I suppose I knew I was going to love it here. In fact, I knew it with such certainty that being a guest on a six-day yoga and meditation retreat at Hariharalaya was the only thing I had planned for my time in Cambodia (and Asia in general). What I didn’t know, was that this retreat experience would gracefully morph into a full-time living yoga internship. An internship that would allow me to teach alongside a family of inspirational yoga teachers to over four hundred guests from around the world on thirteen retreats. A three-month program that gave me an infinite number of skills to recognize my potential and encourage the most powerful transformation of my life.
My Hariharalaya journey started amongst a group of twenty-something strangers sitting in silence awkwardly awaiting the tuk-tuks at 7:45am one crisp January morning. We were all headed to the same place and not one of us knew what to expect. Siem Reap to the retreat centre in Bakong village, a rural community about 30 minutes outside the city, was a beautiful (bumpy) ride past papaya fields on a narrow red dirt road.
I somehow managed to climb into a carriage with one of the most hilarious girls I’ve ever met, a sarcastic ginger from L.A., California. The next half hour was filled with gut-wrenching laughter, light-hearted travel talk, and moments of awe as we realized so many of our life experiences had mirrored the others. The more we spoke, the more comforted I felt in knowing I was not alone in so many of the (somewhat painful) memories of my past. A handful of experiences that at one time, felt like the most isolating moments of my existence.
As our driver entered the front gates to the retreat center I had this overwhelming feeling of coming home; there was something so beautiful, so simple, so nurturing about this place. Surrounded by lush gardens of tropical flowers, elegant butterflies and golden mango trees, I could immediately feel myself relaxing into a different (more peaceful) world. The Cambodian staff greeted us with big, beautiful smiles and a welcome offering of a woven scarf around our necks. I removed my shoes (not to return them back to my bare feet for the next three and a half months!) and stepped inside the main house completely open to whatever may come my way.
The next six days of retreat were just that; a much-needed withdrawal from the somewhat exhausting woes of a constant travel lifestyle. All my electronic devices were turned off and put away, I unpacked my bag for the first time in months, and found a hammock in the shade with a book from the retreat’s inspiring library titles.
I must admit it did take some time for me to completely ‘arrive’. Even in this tranquil space; with the warm breeze on my skin, floral aroma filling my nostrils, birds chirping in the otherwise silent grounds … my monkey mind was relentless. I wonder who I will I meet over the next week? (All angels) Will I lose weight from the strict vegan diet? (Haha absolutely not!). What if something happens to my family and nobody can contact me? (Trust me, their fine). I wonder what time the first bus is out of here on the last day? (Actually you’re not going to be leaving!). I mean it’s crazy really, it was my first hour of arrival in this paradise and I was already directing my energy into thinking about what will happen next. Completely missing the beauty of the moment by consuming my thoughts with scenarios of things that had not yet happened and likely never would!
The absence of digital devices encouraged some very real and present conversations amongst the group and within a day I had blossoming connections with most everyone on the retreat. In a world where so many of us are judged based on how much money we make, what we look like, what kind of job we have, it was so refreshing to be amongst souls that truly appreciated each other for Who We Really Are. An amazing thing begins to happen when you peel back the layers and live with openness and authenticity; space is created for everyone else around you to do the same. And so for the next six days we were unguarded and vulnerable… we were plain and simply Us.
As silly as it may sound, I recall writing about his concept in my journal and describing an overwhelming sense of freedom. It’s unbelievable to me that at 29-years old I was experiencing this ‘realness’ for the very first time and suddenly life became a whole lot lighter. There was need to constantly protect holes in storeys with patches, no facades to impress anyone, just endless space for me to be Me.
On the retreat all basic needs are met (and exceeded); delicious vegan dishes get prepared with love three times daily by Cambodian chefs with locally grown ingredients, yoga and meditation practices are led twice daily, and fabulous nightly activities are organized. I was provided a comfortable bed, a shower and a pool to cool off in. Silent time is scheduled every day, a music room is filled with every instrument you can imagine, and a wide array of local holistic healers drop in to provide their services. The program is seamless and complete; really giving me the space to realize some things about myself that I had long forgotten.
For one, I really love singing. Over the years I suppose I had been reluctant to sing in public because I wasn’t so good at it; but now, in this environment, my skill level didn’t matter one bit and I began to find my voice. I would wake up looking forward to mantra practice and sing the loudest during our community jam nights (from which emerged a whole host of talented souls who created such beautiful music that tears would almost always flood my eyes and roll down my cheeks).
I discovered I don’t need a drop of alcohol or any endorphin-releasing drugs to have the time of my life at a dance party. Week after week I would shimmy, shake and sweat for hours alongside my coworkers and guests to the absolute best playlist without ever once worrying what I looked like. I truly danced like nobody was watching and would wake up the next morning sore from discovering muscles I never knew existed! Although it’s hard to pinpoint any one ‘favourite memory’ from the whole experience, I will hold very dear to my heart the recollection of me and my ‘yoga family’ sprawled out on the floor after those dance parties; feeling so alive, and completely full of life and laughter.
My daily yoga practice transformed. I had been consistently practicing for at least two hours a day since my training in September, developing a strong core sequence and maintaining a flexibility I never imagined I was capable of. But suddenly it became less about the pose, less about being able to touch my toes or stand on my head. I began to use my time on the mat to create space where I once was stuck, and unveil the layers of protection that I had spent years building up in and around my heart. I started (really) appreciating my body and all the wonderful things it does for me. Through challenging meditation sessions, I became aware of my mind and all the noise and stories it likes to create. But perhaps most importantly, I learned through yoga to make peace with Who I Am. I fell head-over-heels in love with myself and the life I am living.
I am so much stronger than I think I am, and I would be lying if I said that life at the retreat was all flower headbands and peace signs. For six days of every week I would awake to 5am mantras blasting from a loud speaker in the village and begin sweeping the yoga shala; my head would not touch back down to my pillow until well after 10pm. The eighteen hours in between were filled with retreat set-up duties, guest relations, instructing yoga classes, and at least four hours of my own personal practice. The nightly screech of Asian techno music (sometimes until 4am!) from giant speakers at the surrounding family homes during wedding season rarely allowed me to wake feeling rested. I cannot think of one solitary moment that I was not completely covered in sweat as the temperature consistently crept to 40+ degrees by mid morning. My skin developed a permanent caked-on layer of dirt from the dust-filled air as the area saw rain only one time in all those weeks (everyone flooded the streets and cheered!). I often came face-to-face with fist-sized spiders at night, the cat left me dead lizard ‘presents’ in my room, and scorpions literally fell from the ceiling. Even in that heat, there were definitely times I longed for something other than the freezing cold showers that the retreat center provided. I dearly missed cheese and eggs from my vegan diet. My armpits became died white from the bleach-filled deodorant that lines Asian supermarket shelves. And there likely wasn’t one day that went by without some kind of language barrier with the Khmer staff. However, like I’ve said before, without the challenge there is no change. And somehow I feel that this experience made me not only realize that I had A LOT to be grateful for in Canada, but that there really is not much in this world that I am not capable of enduring.
I have no idea what I did right to deserve the opportunity to call Hariharalaya my home, but regardless, I feel truly blessed. Joel, the retreat founder who effortlessly balances countless hats (boss, teacher, musician, interpretive dance artist, confidant, friend, superhero), presented me with an internship but what he really gave me was the gift of me rediscovering my heart with the promise to never let it go again. A richer and more fulfilled way of living. A life that included a big, loving family of both western and Cambodian coworkers,
inspiring international guests,
blissful blind shiatsu massages, sunset treehouse meditation sessions,
poolside hangouts, purifying fire ceremonies,
bike rides through the countryside,
morning market visits for sticky rice pancakes,
tours to hidden temples,
coconut ice-cream breaks on plastic patio chairs,
tooth-brushing lessons to local village children,
and the sweetest baby snuggles.
Best of all, I was given the opportunity to become the yoga teacher I’d always dreamt I could be; preparing classes and teaching to hundreds of eager students from all around the globe. I stopped needing to research quotes about peace and just became peace. I started to believe so much in this whole process that everything I said and taught was an authentic reflection of me and my life. I am so proud to say that for the first time in a long time, I led by my shining (sparkly) example.
An amazing thing happens when you get honest with yourself and start doing what you love, what makes your heart the happiest. Your life literally slows down. You stop wishing for the weekend. You stop merely looking forward to special events and start seeing the gift of the present moment. You begin to live (really LIVE) in each moment and you start to feel like the blissful human-being you were destined to be. You jump atop your surfboard and just ride the wave that is life, with this feeling of contentment and joy. You move fluidly, steadily, calmly and with gratefulness. A veil is lifted and with it, a whole new beautiful perspective is born.