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Unraveling Alternative Healing in Ubud, Bali

Stroll the streets of Ubud, and it may seem like the entire town is one big new age healing center. Flowing white clothes abound, ecstatic dance sessions pack out, and it seems as though ‘traditional’ and ‘alternative’ healers are more ubiquitous than the motorbikes and cars that plague the streets during high season.

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Whether deserved or not, Ubud has earned a reputation as a center of spirituality, and the numbers of people who travel here looking for spiritual enlightenment and self-transformation are increasing at a rapid pace. There’s no denying that there is something special about Ubud, but is it really the magical and spiritual place that so many claim it is? And are all these healers and gurus all they’re cracked up to be?

The name Ubud actually comes from the Balinese word ubad, which means medicine. Once a small village renowned for its medicinal plants and herbs, Ubud soon began to attract the attention of foreigners for its incredible arts, culture and temples. As far back as the 1930s, foreign artists and musicians would visit the town, become entranced by its ‘magic’ and set up camp along river gorges, amid the jungles and perched on the edge of rice fields.

Skip ahead to present day, and Ubud is a rapidly developing international tourist destination, with visitors from all corners of the globe booking into hotels and luxurious villas, frequenting the hundreds of cafes and restaurants that line the main (and not-so-main) streets, and signing up for detoxifying retreats, yoga teacher training courses and raw food classes.

Dig a little deeper and you will find self-proclaimed clairvoyants, aura readers, tantric and sacred sex gurus and past life interpreters. In fact, take a quick flip through one of the local free mags here and you might find that every second article or advertisement contains phrases like ‘harmony transformation process’, ‘absorb shamanic energies of holy volcanoes’, ‘intuitive channel counseling’, or ‘transformative global energy’. And no, I’m not making that up, all of those phrases actually appeared in one issue of one magazine.

Authentic Balinese healers are now outnumbered by global gurus that hail from exotic climes such as California, Melbourne, Manchester and Ohio. Judging from the price tags attached to the spiritual tours, healing sessions, soulmate readings and life transformation workshops, business seems to be booming.

The truth is, Ubud has had its fair share of people seeking and teaching alternative lifestyles and self-improvement for decades. For example, the Anand Ashram opened its doors in 1991, AsiaWorks has been giving its 12-step program of self-discovery here since 1993, and the Ubud Bodyworks healing center has been offering holistic therapies to travelers and locals alike for a staggering 26 years.

There is no disputing that certain holistic therapies and practices are good for the body and the mind. Yoga is a highly beneficial form of exercise, meditation has been proven to lower stress levels, and lets face it—massage just feels damn good. While some may scoff at energy healing like reiki and light therapy, practices like aligning the chakras or re-balancing the body with sacred crystals, or courses designed to ‘Discover the Goddess Within’, others swear by them; and if it makes you feel good, why not do it?

The problem lies not with the practices themselves, but with the simple fact that where there are people willing to part with their cash, there will always be others willing to take it. That’s not to say that all healers or gurus are scammers. In fact, many of them are quite good at what they do and can considerably help people, whether it be with with physical health issues or mental or emotional damage. However, when you visit a traditional Balinese healer with a compound packed with tourists and not a Balinese person in sight, or come across young Australian women claiming to be Balinese shamans offering healing sessions for upwards of $300 AUD a pop, you have to wonder.

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Then there are the stories of starry-eyed travelers falling head over heals for that deep, oh-so ‘in tune with the universe’ guy or gal (local and foreign), only to go home at the end their trip with half their life savings gone and nothing to show for it.

The bottom line is—yes, Ubud is a spiritual place and it can feel like magical at times. And yes, there are people out there who truly are healers and people who can improve the lives of others through counseling, holistic therapies and good old psychology. If you really, truly believe that alternative healing may be for you, then by all means, seek out a tarot reader, take some life transformation sessions or get some crystal therapy if that’s what you want. But be sure you know what you’re getting into before you part with your money.

Ask around to find out who the trusted healers are, do some research and read reviews from past clients. Know what to look for when you’re on the search. For example, most Reiki Masters train for at least a year or more before they gain certification, and a massage therapist in the United States must have anywhere from 330 to 1,000 contact hours in addition to classroom training in anatomy, physiology and kinesiology before they can obtain a license to legally practice massage therapy. Even an entry-level psychotherapist must study for at least six to seven years before they can practice – four years for a BA and two or three more for an MA.

Be wary of people who claim to have a great deal of experience but no certifications, or ‘healers’ who take a four-week course and call themselves a ‘master’. Would you take your broken computer to a self-taught, self-proclaimed computer fix-it guy or would you want to go to a trained and qualified professional? The same should be true for your body and mind.

When it comes down to it, you don’t have to be paranoid, suspicious or uptight when it comes to healers, therapists and self-help experts. But at the same time, just because you’re on holiday doesn’t mean your common sense should be too.