Writer Ellie Dyer and photographer Anna Clare Spelman get introduced to yoga and meditation at the Hariharalaya Retreat Centre in Siem Reap.
As the early morning sun lights up emerald paddies and ancient temples, a gong reverberates through a small community centred around a two-storey house in Rolous village, Siem Reap province.
While roosters crow in the distance, the site rustles into life. Peace reigns as people silently pad around the complex before entering the central hall for a two-hour session of yoga and meditation, all within sight of open fields dotted with tall sugar palms.
At 9am, the community moves to the nearby dining room, this time gathering around a table of vegan food, standing in a circle to give thanks for the meal before breaking into quiet conversation and settling into another day of activity.
This is just a taste of life at the tranquil Hariharalaya Retreat Centre in Siem Reap, founded by American Joel Altman around four years ago, which offers integral yoga and conscious living retreats just outside Cambodia’s temple town.
Having never contemplated meditation before, entering Hariharalaya – which recently upgraded its facilities and adapted its format to offer fixed five-day retreats – had been a leap into the unknown.
I couldn’t help but feel nervous when I met up with a diverse group of world citizens in central Siem Reap, before jumping into tuk-tuks and driving off into the countryside. Around 20 minutes later, after rounding past the magnificent ninth-century Prasat Bakong temple, we pulled up outside a peaceful home surrounded by tropical plants and rustic outbuildings.
Soon, my fellow retreat goers and I were sipping herbal tea and learning more about each other. From gap year students to women on a career break, yoga enthusiasts and a few novices like myself, we were to be, for the next few days at least, a community. It’s a concept that is part of the philosophy of Hariharalaya.
“We’ve come so far and it’s a very confusing world and we have lots of responsibility and stresses, but to come back to a very simple, natural way of living – then we can find our joy again, find our energy again,” explains Altman, who was born in the US and journeyed to Cambodia in 2010.
It was meant to be a weeklong trip, but Altman – who had spent many years practising the science of yoga in countries such as India – fell in love with the Kingdom’s traditional music and culture. He made Cambodia his home, and set up Hariharalaya.
“Many people are burnt out in life, for many different reasons,” he says. “Part of it is that we don’t have the support of the community, we don’t have a living connection with our environment, and we don’t have a real connection with ourselves. And that‘s the main thing: to find ways to rediscover ourselves and to nurture ourselves.”
The environment and schedule at Hariharalaya have been set up to offer a space for people to rediscover this “natural way of being”. A programme of compulsory classes, which on my retreat included chanting and body language and communication, introduces visitors to the concept of integral yoga.
“When I say yoga I’m not thinking at all of a gym class and yoga mats,” adds Altman. “I’m thinking of a whole system that leads us into a state of integration and wholeness with ourselves, with our environment, at every level.”
Indeed, the centre is a kind of antidote to the anxieties of modern life. Visitors – around 20 to 25 at a time, staying in both private rooms and the complex’s dorm, all with shared bathrooms – soon fall into a natural rhythm by waking with the sun, taking regular classes and eating at set times, all governed by the Hariharalaya gong.
Cut-off from the constant temptation of social media, due to the lack of WiFi and the use of devices in common areas being frowned upon, our group began to spend more time with nature in both the shady garden, which features an outdoor gym and a cornucopia of wildlife, or by taking a bike ride to the local 150-year-old market or the nearby temples.
Whether stretching into yoga positions under the supervision of the in-house teachers, chatting with fellow visitors around the complex’s small pool, watching nature documentaries in the outdoor cinema or being wowed by a magic show, it soon felt as is life had become simpler. Classes, instead of stress, dictated days.
That’s not to say it was all easy. The centre lacks luxuries such as hot water, while yoga can be physically testing, especially when limbs are sore after days of using previously unknown muscles – though a visit to the centre by blind shiatsu masseuse Liab Chia helped to pummel out any tension.
Meditation sessions, which were built up gradually during the retreat, were also challenging for some. As a newbie, aches and pains developed after sitting up bolt upright for long periods whilst trying, often rather unsuccessfully in my case, to empty the mind.
Yet the challenges were good ones, and it was with a sense of surprise that on the last day I discovered that I could sit in silent meditation without being distracted. It seems that patience, and practise, pays off.
With so many different motivations for visitors to enter the retreat, everyone had a different experience to take home. But personally, I left feeling both mentally and physically invigorated and am continuing to practise yoga regularly. Hariharalaya had given me a well-rounded introduction to the art, as well as some happy memories.
For more information, visit hariharalaya.com.