Ubud may be the holy grail for bourgeois-bohemians, but it serves up an incongruent tangle of traditional culture and wellness worship. By Rachael Mogan McIntosh.

Wellness in Ubud, Bali

A stone monkey stands guard over the Green School mud pit.
Credit: Rachael Mogan McIntosh

I’m in a cafe called Mother, in a village just outside Ubud, and the man seated next to me is gyrating gently and eating from a bag of snacks called Mystic Protein. When the waitress delivers his smoothie bowl, a lush rainbow cornucopia of fruits and grains, he plucks out his AirPods, thanks her with prayer hands and says “terima kasih” in an accent that is not quite placeable. Is he from Los Angeles? Italy? Israel? And what is mystic protein, anyway? Beef jerky? Soy rice bubbles? Probiotic magic dust?

He’s a classic bobo, this one: a “bourgeois-bohemian”. It’s a term used by American writer David Brooks in his 2000 book Bobos in Paradise to describe the subculture born when capitalism meets the world of wellness.

Ubud, in the mountainous centre of Bali, is a sort of bobo holy land, and Mother cafe, just down the road from the Sacred Monkey Forest, hits all the right notes. The coffee is available with a plethora of milks that never knew a teat, and the takeaway fridge holds bone broth, broccoli pesto and vegan butter – each jar costing only four or five Australian bucks. Good food is cheap in Ubud. Massage is cheap, too. Even the outrageously luxurious spa treatments – “Coat me in yoghurt!” “Bathe me with flowers!” – are cheap. In Ubud, you can have your smashed avocado lifestyle without sacrificing the mortgage.

The village my family and I are living in for a month (part work, part holiday) is home to many expat parents sending their children to the Green School, a progressive, “sustainability-focused” and eye-wateringly expensive private school located in the jungle half an hour from Ubud. Here, kids run barefoot to play in the mud pit, take lessons in an epic, soaring bamboo structure, and count the offspring of Silicon Valley tech-royalty as well as actual Balinese royalty among their peers.

I’m just a temporary bobo, but I work every morning at Mother and I embrace Ubud culture with glee. First, yoga, aka bobo church. I start with a Bikram class where the room is heated to 42 degrees and my sinuous, earnest, half-naked classmates fill it with so much perspiration the floor is slick. I find it unbearable. All that matters, I’m told, is that I stay in the room. That leaves me, 20 minutes in, on the horns of a dilemma – which is worse: to leave the room or to vomit in the room? It must be clear to the instructor that I am about to have a stroke because she opens a window briefly above my head, and the breeze that flows in is like the very breath of God. In that moment, I could marry this improbably tiny, muscular sadist. Or, at the very least, I could plight my troth to her in a multifaith hand-fasting ceremony conducted by a visiting slam poet.

I take a gentler class at the Yoga Barn, an Ubud institution that offers IV hydration drips, chakra balancing and ecstatic dance. My mat smells as though it has absorbed the bacteria of a thousand hippies, and the teacher, visiting from Portland, speaks fluent bobo: it sounds like English but it makes no sense. “Take a moment to taste and digest that backbend…” she advises, a task both grammatically and physiologically challenging.

The talk at Yoga Barn is of the inner self, but the activewear is expensive and artificially inflated breasts are everywhere. One woman sports significant pneumatic enhancement but inexplicably mismatched nipples. It feels somehow indicative of the problematic heart of the wellness industry; the exhausting, slightly hysterical search for zen. You do your best, you spend so much, you work so hard and still you end up with one nipple that points to Lombok while the other indicates the way to Yogyakarta.

The dissonance in values jangles, too. The traditional religious culture of Bali, vibrant and robust, exists alongside the secular culture of the wellness industry – a global juggernaut worth $4.2 trillion a year. Bobo values focus largely on the individual – meditation, self-actualisation and the nirvana of glistening, gluten-free intestines. This isn’t always an easy juxtaposition with the collectivist Balinese way of life. The values of Bali and the bobos, like my yogic friend’s nipples, point in wildly different directions. The economic disparity between the traditional culture and the wellness industry also can’t be dismissed: the average minimum wage for a Balinese worker is about $140 a month, while a “digital nomad” expat might easily spend that in a day. Maybe she manifested it, goes the modern joke. Or maybe it’s white privilege. The Venn diagram of the two value systems crosses over in the superstition space – Balinese culture is deeply superstitious, while the wellness industry is prone to woo-woo thinking. You might call them “slightly stitious”. However you frame it, it’s tough to imagine these linen-clad vegans butchering a dog at the entranceway to Slow Vinyasa, no matter how auspicious a moment the calendar says it is for blood sacrifice.

Back at Mother, two scruffy, towheaded kids finish their kimchi scramble and gather their school books while Mum, tanned and attractive in a black linen mini-dress, waits at the door with the motorcycle helmets. She tucks one child in front and one behind on her scooter, stowing backpacks at her feet, and the unwieldy trinity tootle gently up the street. They have that Green School vibe, and it certainly looks as though they are living their best life.

I watch the Green School trio pass another scooter, this one driven by a Balinese man in a batik head-wrap. Behind him a Balinese woman perches side-saddle, erect and dignified in her traditional lace shirt and colourful waist tie. She holds a basket full of blossoms on her lap, ready to make “banten”, the twice-daily offerings of incense, flowers and fruit that are intended to appease the gods. Banten are everywhere in Bali and their smell is intoxicating.

There are downsides to Ubud life, to be sure. The main streets are a mess, a chicken-run of monkeys and scooters and drunk backpackers. Our neighbours burn garbage every evening and we’re forced to breathe the acrid chemicals. The electricity is patchy and cats fight through the night. Perhaps worst of all, one day monkeys overrun my home-school set-up and nibble on my beeswax wraps. I have to throw them away for fear of rabies. Was there ever a more bobo crisis?

I will be home in just a few days and I will miss my early mornings at Mother. This bobo paradise may be flawed but it is so very lovely. The aesthetics of this place are incomparable: the stonework, the verdant greenery, the sounds of gamelan gongs always playing at a distance. In an era that feels to be moving away from navel-gazing and towards activism, from individual to collective objectives, the world of wellness as we know it may be breathing its last gasps of empire. But while Rome burns, in Ubud, the living is easy.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 7, 2020 as "Cognisant dissonance".

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Rachael Mogan McIntosh is a crisis counsellor, ethics teacher, writer and mother of three.