Hariharalaya is a yoga/meditation retreat and community about an hour from Siem Reap in the Cambodian countryside. It was founded by a spiritual seeker called Joel Altman about six years ago, and hosts thousands of people every year. I went there to find something. I wanted to get some more clarity and direction in my life and work out what it is I really want. I think people go for lots of different reasons.
I went in to the yoga retreat a bit skeptical, and certainly nervous. I wasn’t sure what the hell to expect, who I’d meet or whether I’d like it. The concept of no coffee for 6 days loomed over me like a black dog. And no wifi either – what the hell was I doing? Anxieties swirled about me. They seem really stupid now, in hindsight.
We all met at a mall in Siem Reap and were shuttled by tuk tuk to a remote rural area. The Earth was red, and dust kicked up in our faces. I immediately felt drawn to the people I was talking to on the ride – and that was a trend set to continue for the whole retreat.
We arrived and were greeted by a number of beaming yoga teachers, who places scarves about our necks in silence. We were given passionfruit juice and sat down in an open dining area. I immediately felt calmer, upon having arrived. Placebo? Maybe – but it worked.
We had an opening circle where we all shared what we wanted to get out of the experience. A lot of people said that they had just quit their jobs and came to find some clarity. That was the reason I gave too. Some people just wanted to relax. Others wanted to get more in tune with themselves. Every reason was valid and different.
It was kind of tough
I’ll admit, having never been to a yoga retreat before, I found the rhythm of daily yoga, meditation and mindfulness a little hard to get into. Up at 6:30am, yoga/meditation for 2 hours, then breakfast. Lunch at 1pm. More yoga/meditation at 6pm, dinner at 7. This routine was interspersed with long periods reading in a hammock, bike rides to the local village, and long conversations with people about life.
It was these conversations, as well as lots of time to reflect and meditate on life, that really got to me and did cause some kind of change within me. Meeting so many inspiring people really does do that. I bonded deeply with a colourful cast of characters. There was the American expat teacher from Cairo who was very kind to me. The wild Californian free spirit with an excellent set of pipes on her. The two yoga teaching twins who just beamed light everywhere they went. The goofy but kind head yoga instructor who was so kind to me when I was overcome with emotion out of a meditation.
It’s amazing how deeply you are able to connect with people when there’s no distractions. No wifi, no sugar, no caffeine, no dairy. Nothing. All you’ve got really is your own personal practice of meditation, and each other, and yourself. I’ll admit I did cheat with the digital detox a couple of times – I was at Hariharalaya on Christmas Day and wanted to be in touch with my family and partner. You can cheat if you need to (and many people did), but I did try to limit it to only when necessary.
The yoga itself was great because it was just about at my level. I’d say it was beginner, verging on intermediate at times. Each day of yoga was themed with an element – Earth, fire, etc. The meditation for me was quite difficult. My brain was often buzzing with thoughts, feelings, plans and worries. I did find that over the course of the week, though, it settled down. By the end I was feeling really calm.
I additionally felt really pissed off with lots of things at the start of the week. There were only two hot showers – how annoying. There was a bug in my bed. The calamity! I couldn’t use my phone – it was the end of the world. But I found as the week wore on and I became more centered, I stopped being so critical and started being more grounded. I started realising what was important, and it certainly wasn’t a shower or a bug.
It was actually quite scary to connect with people so much. We had to do this exercise a couple of times where we had to pair up and just stare into each other’s eyes. It sounds easy, but it really isn’t. At first, you both laugh. That’s the natural reaction to such an intimate activity with a virtual stranger. Then, the instructor tells you not to laugh. So you stop, and just stare. Then it gets really full on, all of a sudden, and you might even start to cry. I sort of realised through doing that that I’d never connected with anyone like that before, not even my partner. Might have to give it a go with her when I’m home. It was pretty freaky but also amazing.
The clean eating combined with coffee and sugar detox and daily exercise also makes for a powerful experience. Combine that with all the emotional stuff and you’ve got a week of rejuvenating and resetting everything about yourself.
Regarding the clean eating – it was probably the most delicious eating of any kind I’ve ever done! Delicious home cooked vegan Cambodian food at every meal, most of it made or grown locally in the village. We had everything from traditional Cambodian soups to curries to coconut dishes to waffles. The food was one of the absolute highlights of Hariharalaya.
At the end we had a closing circle and lots of people got quite emotional. I felt really overwhelmed with how much people had given me and I’d given to people over the course of the week. I had to fly out of Siem Reap the day the retreat ended, which was a total bummer as I had to say goodbye to all these amazing people before I’d have liked to.
If you’re interested in an experience that will allow you to connect with people more than you ever have, Hariharalaya is for you.