Four lessons from an entrepreneur’s experience at an ashram, to practice yoga, meditation and fight burnout

I suppose it’s weird to wake up one day, casually google “ashrams in Indonesia” and 30 minutes later, have plane tickets and a room booked at a spiritual refuge you’ve never heard of before.

That’s what happened last summer and it was the best impromptu decision I’ve ever made.

As a gen-Y entrepreneur, giving ‘everything I’ve got’ 24/7 was part of the startup mindset I was in when I launched my business in 2013. Taking time off for myself and saying no to unattractive projects felt self-indulgent, and a luxury I didn’t think I could afford.

But after the most difficult time of my life, when my dear dad passed away unexpectedly on the other side of globe, I had no option but to stop. Life as I knew it started to crumble, and trying to be a powerhouse business woman became extremely hard.

Overwhelmed and exhausted, I set myself new questions on a personal search for balance:

How could I nourish my mind, body and spirit as I face intense grief? How could I be gentle but still show up with passion in my recently launched business?

On this hard but necessary quest I discovered that...

Lesson #1 – Balance is not something you find. It’s something you create.

Back in my corporate cubicle days, I had a quote on my little wall that said "Remember to breathe". At the time, I thought of that quote as a peaceful translation to soldier on, there’s life after 5pm.

Now, nearly three years into my business doing what I love everyday, when I think about “Remember to breathe”, I think about surrender. Releasing stress, fear, anxiety, pain… everything we all go through in our busy modern lives – and letting go, one breath at a time.

Letting go? Much easier said than done.

When I first arrived at the ashram I was greeted by softly-spoken people who emanated peace through their eyes (I’m sure you get the picture). My urban energy felt out of place in that environment.

I was directed to my bedroom which was not much bigger than the old corporate cubicle, and my immediate plan was to catch the next bus back to civilisation!

The room was moldy, the mattress uncomfortable, the heat ridiculous, and the amount of wild-life quite disturbing. Also there was no sign of a shower, just a sink with cold running water and a bucket.

There's no doubt that with one single click you can find a variety of retreats that offer resort style rooms, with spas and piña coladas by the pool. But this was an ashram and although I welcome a bit of luxury every now and then, that wasn’t the purpose of this trip.

The ashram is located in a beautiful property between the ocean and a lake, with cows grazing, kids running around and elder Balinese women in their pretty sarongs, gathering outside, preparing food for the guests.

Alone and frustrated, I walked down a pier that extended like a finger into the ocean. Even amongst the beautiful and quite poetic landscape, my only thoughts were: “What the f* am I doing here?”.

Standing on that pier I cried what felt like more than a drop in the ocean. I thought about dad, about the unfairness of life, about my family back in Brazil and the amount of hard work I wasn’t putting into my business back in Australia.

After the tears dried and the sun started to set, the answer came to me in the form of a big breaking wave that splashed truth on my face: “You came here to surrender”.

How could a perfectionist entrepreneur surrender, in a world where in order to be successful you’ve got be giving 100% all the time?

Lesson #2 – Your 100% capacity varies from time to time.

The routine at the retreat involved meditating at sunrise, practicing yoga twice a day, meditating more, eating small vegetarian meals and going to bed at sunset. No internet of course. Lights off at 7pm.

After the third night things started to feel easier. I had adapted to the giant geckos and spiders that I shared the room with. I’d washed the moldy mosquito net and managed to fix an old fan, both vital elements to surviving the fierce Indonesian summer.

On day four I woke up with my heart full. Those cold bucket showers were more enjoyable than I would ever anticipate! I felt light and nourished by the whole foods cooked by the happy Balinese ladies who live in the ashram. My yoga practice had deepened and by day five I was meditating easily, smiling all the time and savouring each hour of my day.

View from the top of Mount Batur, an active volcano in Bali, 2014.

View from the top of Mount Batur, an active volcano in Bali, 2014.

Lesson #3 – Sustainable joy comes from simplicity, not luxury.

Of course the pain of grief didn’t go away. I don’t think anyone ever ‘gets over’ the loss of a parent. But during those days – when I finally surrendered – I was reminded of a very natural state of being that is available to everyone, something so simple that makes us feel so full.

As a result, I felt strongly connected with dad and instead of lost and angry, I felt privileged. I had 30 years of life with him, how lucky was I to have been raised by a man like my dad Carlos? How lucky was I to live in a country filled with opportunities, where a woman can independently run her own business, do whatever pleases her and be fully supported by her husband, friends and community?

Awareness of your blessings can take you a long way.

Those two weeks in Bali taught me the importance of creating space and taking time out. And it doesn't have to be sought after only in the face of tragedy or major crises. I realised that for my business to grow and flourish, I have to take care of myself first.

Lesson #4 – Healthy mind and body = healthy business.

The reason I’m sharing this story is because I know many fellow entrepreneurs face burnout and sometimes guilt around taking time off. We tend to think that in order to be successful we need to be present for our business at all times, forgetting that in the process we may be absent for ourselves and those we care about. We forget that life is what happens in the process, that it is the road that counts and not the destination. And in this country, at this day and age, we have the option to take the scenic route...

Yoga and meditation retreats are obviously not for everyone, finding whatever it is that works for you is the key. I’m always interested in discovering new strategies for a balanced life, and I try to stay open to whatever they may be. I have a client who takes a long weekend off every six weeks (all dates are marked in advance on her calendar), and there’s a famous NYC based designer who every seven years, takes a full sabbatical year to travel and recharge.

How about you? I’d love to hear about your experiences in your own search for balance. Please get in touch!

Carolina x