Yoga Dress and Culture in Bali

With the Bali Spirit Festival about to hit Ubud this weekend, thousands of people are arriving in town. Many are first-timers to Bali, many are young. Those of us who live here have watched and cringed during past such festivals when disregard for local culture has caused embarrassment to Balinese residents. Yes, yoga poses in temples has been a thing, unfortunately. The post below was written by Shely Ourana, an expat and administrator of the popular Ubud Community Facebook group. It has been reproduced in full, with Shely’s permission, as it has much wisdom to offer any visitor to this island.

Image borrowed with thanks from Melchurruwart blog

YOGA and DRESS and CULTURE in BALI 
Bali Spirit Festival makes this timely! 

This post is a compendium of comments taken from a recent thread about yoga in temples. Thanks to contributors whose comments I’ve copied here. 

Many people made many comments that were disparaging to locals and dismissive of their objection to the recent practice of doing “yoga” and photographing it at holy sites. Many also obviously didn’t bother to read the comments.

This post makes all that great information easily accessible. 

Please read it and maybe learn something new, whatever your personal opinion up until now.

TEMPLE DRESS STANDARDS

Standard Balinese dress for ceremony involves a sarong, kabaya or shirt (for men) and a waist sash.

For foreigners the requirements are a little flexible. Western dress is acceptable if the basics are met.

Legs must be modestly covered by loose garments.

Shoulders and upper arms must be covered.

Sash MUST be worn.

I’ve often been into to a touristic temple where they’ve looked at my longish wide legged pants under a dress and said “You’re fine like that. Is good. You just need sash!” They keep sarongs and sashes on hand at many popular tourist temples. Not so in local temples. You need to bring your own. 

It’s more about the looking modestly covered than it being specifically about sarongs …Legs modestly covered, armpits hidden, sash. You’re good to go. 

Modern fashionable kabaya often have open shoulders but the sleeves cover the armpits.

WHY THE SASH?

You can wear a sash without a sarong into temple but you can’t go into temple without the sash. The sash is the most important bit. 

In the street you can wear a sarong without a sash but not in temple. Men often do.

You wouldn’t wear a sash around in the street unless you were dressed for ceremony. 

Usually you’ll see them together on women because the sash goes with kabaya and helps to secures the sarong. Men often just put the sash on when they’re on the way to ceremony and will take it off to go about their normal business.

Apart from when entering a temple the other time to wear a sarong, or long loose skirt or pants is when watching or joining a ngaben (cremation) procession. Showing the legs shows disrespect. A sash is not nesessary.

SYMBOLISM of SASH

The sash symbolises the divide between the upper world and  the lower world.  It keeps them in their place and you mindful of that and of your place between them.

It’s absolutely necessary to honor this separation and correct placement of energies to maintain balance and order and to keep the various entities in their proper place. 

This separation is highly  relevant to the discussion about yoga poses in temples…

GENERAL DRESS STANDARDS

Ubud is NOT a beach location.

To those who live here it’s NOT a “holiday town”. It’s their home.  Visitors are guests.

Guests are NOT ENTITLED to do as they please. You’re not buying a free pass to disrespect local preferences when you buy a plane ticket or a tourist visa. Guests in YOUR home and visitors in YOUR town are expected to adhere to certain cultural norms and standards of behavior. Same applies here. 

Transparent tops without bras, exposed breasts, bum cheeks and midriffs, bare chests, trousers hanging on the pubic hairline etc are not appreciated by locals.

Dressing scantily, at best, just makes them think you’re stupid and disrespectful of yourself. At worst it can have extremely unpleasant repercussions for the whole community, locals and foreigners alike.

If you don’t care what locals feel perhaps you’re also happy to be perved at by some local men and generally give the impression that you, and western women generally by association, are “easy” and sexually available. 

Maybe you actually have a gender responsibility here. … save scant dressing  for the swimming pool and yoga for the shala.

ANCIENT HISTORY

We often see visitors to Bali talking about how women here were happy to bare their breasts in time past, so why can’t you do that now?

In a nut shell bare breasts here are ancient history. Culturally redundant. Culture is never stagnant. Current requirements for dress do not depend on history. Westerners used to all dress neck to toe. Relevant? Not. 

There are very good historical reasons why it changed suddenly years ago and continues now. And they all involve exploitation by foreigners. So show some respect NOW. 

YOGA IN TEMPLES.

Simple! DON’T DO IT!! 

Particularly inverted poses. 

There’s strong TABOO around this! 

Save it for yoga shalas and your own home.

Yoga poses are NOT a part of Balinese Hindu. Indian Hindu is very different.

The name for Balinese religion was imposed on them by non Balinese for political reasons. Many Balinese wished their religion to be called “Tirtha Agama”. 

It’s a different religion with different culture and only a small part of it has Hindu roots… and Buddhist,  Javanese Kejewan and animist. It’s a mixture with no connection to “yoga” as it’s practiced in Ubud by Westerners or Indians. It’s a cultural imposition here, brought by westerners to make money.

“UBUD IS NOT A YOGA CENTRE. The yoga culture here is NEW for few years. Brought by some business fellas and now they creating a really big business on it. Sincere, a girl that born a live in ubud.” YOGI ANTARI

“REAL” YOGA

“When the focus of one’s image surpasses the recognition of what is sacred by others whether yours, mine, ours or theirs, then perhaps the experience of yoga for some has become a mere sport with the spot light on ‘me’ rather than ‘we’ as a collective.” Melanie McMurray

“…what these people are doing is not yoga. they are just doing asana. I have to agree though people spiritual place regardless of your belief system should be respected. Yoga is also about self control and not showing off with your ego” Sophia Calado

TABOO!!!

INVERTED YOGA POSES are extremely disturbing and distressing for a Balinese to see in public places, ESPECIALLY in a temple. So are photographs of them at temples on the Internet. 

To invert of the lower part of the body above the upper part in the temple mocks, challenges and disturbs Universal order.

To mix them up is to create energetic disturbance in the world and requires complex cleansing ceremony to restore balance and harmony and to safeguard the upper world from intrusion by the underworld.

When you do poses like this you MOCK the gods and the Balinese people and their culture. Don’t justify it. And just don’t do it.

It’s a very strong taboo. 

It’s not even Ok to hang a bikini bottom on a balcony rail or dry your underwear on the top rack of a dryer. You cannot put a bottom thing in a place it might end up over someone’s head. Or point your feet at someone’s head. It’s also why Balinese traditionally don’t build 2 story houses.

Respecting this taboo is EXPECTED of EVERYONE.

If you’re in Bali you are bound by the same rules of etiquette.

“You don’t have to understand “why” to be respectful. All you need to know is that it is important to others.” Geoff Vivian 

BALINESE PERSPECTIVE

“Be respectful and then others will respected you back! Our moral in live is very simple if you treat us good we definitely will treat you better!!  You have to learn more about balinees (sic) culture what is not allowed to do. Don’t think money always can’t do anything in bali. Respect the way of live principles of balinees (sic) way” Asana Jero

YOGA ASANAS

“You can see that poses with the legs on your head and wide open legs on top. In temple we are not allowed to do that. It’s holly place. You can do yoga by stand up normal or yoga by seating like lotus. 😊🙏🏽 peace” Yante Saustika

“A temple is a holy, sacred place for balinese.

There are lists of what you can and can’t do on the temple area.

Even for us, balinese.

Its called “leteh” – can be translated to “dirty”.

You can’t do something that make our temple leteh.

There was time when stupid tourist did sex in the temple area. What is their punishment? Name and shame. Thats it.

But, we, balinese, who own the temple HAVE TO DO BIG CEREMONY to “clean” our temple. Which is not necessary if there are no any stupid tourists like them.

Balinese can’t even spit out or let our hair fall down in the temple area. That will make our temple leteh.

How will you know this?

ASK.

When you come to new place, you should ask and learn the culture and everything. Its a common thing.

And we are in a era where you can get all information by the internet.

just dont be ignorant.

There was a time when your granparents came to Bali as a tourists, and they dont even have internet. And they act better than some people nowdays.” Yogi Antari 
BALINESE TOLERANCE HAS LIMITS!  

They are offended by people putting their feet and private parts above their heads IN A HOLY PLACE.

They are offended by their holy places being defiled and the actions of those offenders being defended.They are happy if you pray in any way and are among the most religiously tolerant people in the world. BUT doing yoga poses is not prayer.

A person doing yoga in front of the altar in a Cathedral and photographing for instagram would upset and offend the parishioners… but they wouldn’t need to do a series of high masses to purify it again! 

The Balinese do need to! It very expensive. It’s very complicated. And it’s very time consuming.


WHY THEY DON’T TELL YOU

Visitors often say Balinese don’t care or that they don’t have enough “courage” to tell you that they’re offended.  

WRONG! They are saving you from shame by NOT telling you and they are carrying your shame for you! 

The Balinese /Javanese culture prohibits them from pointing out the mistakes of others. To do this would cause shame and embarrassment to them and to you. Only children need to be corrected. Adults should know better. 

If adults act in a way that shames others, the shame is compounded by telling them so. Better to only have one lot of shame (your own) and your unspoken embarrassment for them, than to feel the shame of the disrespectful behaviour as well as the shame to yourself of speaking (and by doing so putting yourself above them) and the shame caused to them by humiliating them (in pointing out their bad behaviour).

So less damage is done by remaining silent. Cultural “good manners”, what denotes respect and how is shown and social taboos against rudeness run deep in all cultures.

But we all have different “rules”  and express them differently. 
For Balinese (and Javanese) by NOT telling you your being offensive, the fewest amounts of shame are generated.
The worst and most complex shame of all, putting yourself above others, is avoided. It’s just not done to appear to know more or better… it inflates you and belittles others!

Standing out is not allowed.

Telling others they’re out of line is not appropriate. 

Having to be told is shameful.

There’s 3 shames right there just in the act of telling someone!
If a visitor tells someone in their own culture off, it’s better than a Balinese doing it. At least all you shameless, uncivilised foreign ones are dealing with your own mess yourselves, while they can pretend it’s not happening and so avoid shaming you further! 
I’m sorry if I’m not being very clear but this is a very deeply empathetic collective culture with strict rules and guidelines to maintain harmony. 

Try not to make assumptions about why they do as they do…

WHY SO ANGRY?

Many Balinese are fed up with disrespectful behaviour because it affronts their dignity and happens so often! Information about appropriate cultural behaviour is readily available and the Balinese are sick to death of being insulted in oh so many ways in their own country, by people who keep saying “I’m free to do whatever I like wherever I like and if you don’t like it,  suck it up”. 

And by being told by “visitors” (usually with no real insight or understanding of culture or political or local difficulties) what they should be doing, and how…. how YOUR ways are better than theirs and they’d better listen up and learn…
How YOUR preferences are more important than theirs and their own cultural wellbeing or economic reality. 

Fed up with being treated like they’re either stupid or ignorant or both. … when that’s actually how you’re being, bringing your cultural assumptions and conditioning here and expecting Indonesians to conform to YOUR standards! 

And it needs to be realised that this country was still occupied Western territory just two generations ago. … and many Balinese remember living under a western apartheid system and war and invasion and reoccupation and finally the war for independence. They are understandably still sensitive to being treated like non people or as being inferior to westerners.

They were all horrendously treated during the occupation during the war. Especially the women, who were targeted as sexual spoils of war… raped, kidnapped, killled, stolen and seized as “comfort women”.  

Before and after that were tourists…. ogling them, photographing, exploiting, harassing, treating them like exotic playthings…. 

And now visitors want to justify their own undress by calling locals “hypocrites and prudes”. REALLY??? SERIOUSLY??
So….perhaps their sensitivity and reactivity is understandable from that perspective? Perhaps visitors need to develop their own sensitivity and look at what “freedom” actually means here? You can be “free” on your terms at home. … here “freedom” is up to the locals to define. They prefer to be “free” of your interfere and exploitation and disregard.

ACTION
It’s up to the “yoga” community, not the Balinese, to address the issues of inappropriate yoga poses and public dress standards.

“Perhaps appropriate signage in all of the YOGA STUDIOS (my caps) as well as  guidance by the teachers as to correct behaviour in and around temples might help  modify the bad manners of yoga devotees if only just a little.” Patricia Morley Brown.

PLEASE promote goodwill while you are here. RESPECT the Balinese people and their wishes, culture and concerns.

Remember that we are all GUESTS in THEIR  home!

BALI BASICS… Social and Cultural Etiquette. A Handbook. © Shely Ourana under creative commons 2017.

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