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Writing by Lucy Hawkins // photograph by Dingzeyu Li

When I was 31, I moved to New Zealand. I’d spent the past few years teaching English in Mexico, sailing in Bermuda, writing for a magazine in Argentina and hosting a radio show on the Spanish island of Mallorca. I was at this point, running out of steam. I was tired and lonely. I wanted to find peace, security and ‘the one’.

Instead I signed with a modelling agency.

In my experience you would be hard pressed to find a profession less likely to give you peace and security than earning an income from your appearance.

My agent thought I should try TV presenting and so I was sent off to music festivals to interview bands and told to jump off cliffs while someone filmed me. You know the expression, ‘If someone told you to jump off a cliff, would you?’ Well I literally did. If you’re up for a laugh, the showreel still exists on Youtube.

I spent my days going to castings and exercising furiously whilst counting every calorie that passed my lips.

I started going to Bikram Yoga every day. In perhaps my 60th class in a row, I tore my hamstring. I actually heard it pop. A sign of how deeply neurotic I had become was the fact that I tried to finish the class despite being in agony. The teacher had to carry me out. I was in floods of tears, partly from the pain but predominantly through the realisation that I wouldn’t be able to exercise, and that triggered deep panic.

And then bulimia.

The doctor confirmed I’d torn my hamstring and said no exercise for 3 months. I googled alternative remedies frantically and found a reiki practitioner. I went along and when I returned the next day, the tear had repaired itself. It’s medically impossible but it happened though I am not recommending you tear a hamstring to put it to the test. The reiki practitioner told me to take it easy and I hugged her like she was a life raft. I still vividly remember sitting in her office sobbing, not knowing what to do next with my life.

I knew I had to get away from modelling and find some space, some meaning. I found a yoga ashram – a religious retreat – on the South Island and boarded a plane, boat and bus up the mountain to stay there. I arrived at night time and was shown to my dorm by torchlight. Inside were 20 other wonderful women of all ages, from around the world.

We woke before dawn to meditate, eat together and work on the land in silence. The afternoons were our own to read and hike the mountains and exchange stories. Some women had been there for years and had shaved their heads as a sign of their dedication to their spiritual path. It was a simple life, very quiet, surrounded by forests. No media of any type, a vegan diet, no mirrors, no noise, no distractions.

One day a rainbow appeared over our mountain and we all ran giggling to find the pot of gold at the end. It was like being a child again, those simple but spectacular pleasures. I made incredible friendships in the month I was there and I found the experience, for the most part, really beautiful.

The working part of the stay was called Karma Yoga, it was intended to be a service to others and an offering to your higher Self. The jobs were to garden – which I loved – and clean which didn’t initially delight me. But something I learned which I still try to practice today, and which you probably already know, is to really focus on the job at hand, whatever it is, don’t think of anything else. If you’re folding blankets, really pay attention to how you fold them, match up the corners, stack them neatly. It sounds mundane but there’s real contentment in taking pride in your work. And there’s peace when you stop listening to your thoughts and start focusing on something tangible like your breath, or the feel of the fabric between your fingers. I like how the American philosopher Sam Harris compares your thoughts to opening your front door and this person comes in and follows you everywhere and never shuts up. That’s thoughts. We should all take a break from them, shut that relentless person up, if just for a few minutes a day.

Not everything at the ashram appealed to me. There was a Swami – a Hindu male religious teacher – staying there. His head was shaved and he was dressed in orange robes. He sat cross legged and everyone hung on his every word. And so did I until one day my karma yoga was to clean his Range Rover. A seed of doubt was planted in my mind. I was called to the meditation room as he wanted to speak with me. He asked me where I was from and why I was in New Zealand and when I told him about the modelling he concluded that I was materialistic. I was a bit put out given that I didn’t have or want many possessions, but if we’re talking about materialism I had just spent two hours washing his Range Rover. He invited me to come back with him to his ashram in India and I enthusiastically declined.

The next day we were all invited to partake in Kunjal Kriya, a purification technique of hatha yoga. It involves drinking salt water until you vomit. As you can imagine it’s not the best thing to prescribe someone with an eating disorder who already felt as low and impure as is possible to feel. I’d had enough. Despite the temptation to lose whatever food was in my digestive system my sense of reason kicked in and I packed my bag. There was a lot to like about the ashram but this was absolutely not what I needed at the time. I was too fragile.

I had met a beautiful soul there, a Canadian girl who was going through similar issues to me and I pretty much dragged her out of there before the salt water could touch her lips. “We’re off to Bali,” I said, “we’re going to learn reiki.” And off we went.

Over the course of my travels people had suggested I read the book, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. I did and loved it, I felt like Ubud was going to be my place. And it was.

I loved the heat, the narrow roads, the Balinese people and the chatter on the streets, the offerings to the gods, the pure magic of the place. It was packed to the rafters with hippies, which sounds off-putting, but it was precisely what I wanted after the shallowness of modelling. Assail me with your crystals and Tibetan singing bowls, waft your incense in my face, speak to me of chakras, I am in!

I rented a room in a wooden house on stilts in some paddy fields, ate fresh fruit, drank tea and read all the self-help books I could find. My Canadian friend and I found a reiki master who put her hands above us and used the energy to heal us. She knew where we had experienced pain, still held on to it, and she moved the energy on. On a daybed in her lush garden, with her dogs and chickens and wild birds singing in the background, she gave our souls some much needed love. I started studying to become a reiki master.

My friend and I slowly began to recover. One morning we got up at 2am to go on a trip with some local guides hiking to the top of an active volcano. We walked through the night, talking and laughing until we reached the top and then we watched the sun rise over the island. The guides had brought eggs and we cooked them in the steam from the volcano.

We met a community of international travellers and spent our days with them at yoga classes and cafes. I painted with other artists. I learnt how to swing poi balls from a guy who looked just like Legolas from Lord of the Rings. I took a boat over to an island called Nusa Lembongan to surf with some Americans. No one wore shoes and everyone wore tie dye and fisherman pants, you get the picture.

Everyone talked about the universe a lot, how it brings things into your life at the right time and how everything happens for a reason – you get the picture. So when I met an Australian guy and we discovered we had the exact same birthday I was convinced that we were destined to spend the rest of our lives together. I felt like the Universe had brought me around the world, subjected me to all these highs and lows to bring me to this very place and time to meet this man.

He was returning to Australia the next day so we exchanged emails and I could not wait to tell my friend, and the world, how I’d met my future husband. Yep, I indulged this chance encounter with all of my hopes and dreams. So I said, “Thank you Bali, I’m not currently bulimic and I’ve found my future husband, so I’ll move to Australia now, so long!” And I got on a plane.

I’ll say this for the universe, we did get married.

And divorced.

Extract from Lucy’s blog.

Lucy Hawkins

Lucy Hawkins is a writer and artist who lives in Australia’s Yarra Valley with her husband and two young daughters. She studied Journalism at the University of the Arts in London and worked at Cosmopolitan Magazine and The London Paper in the UK as well as newspapers and magazines around the world. Her original artwork, prints and homewares are sold in stores across Australia.

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