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Yoga In The Wild: A Sarawak Rainforest Retreat


By Carolyn Oei, 17 July 2018

Cover image: Rainforest Fringe Festival

I’d always imagined a yoga retreat to involve a lot of sleeping, meditating and vegetarian meals. But as I packed my mats, tights and books for Yoga In The Wild, I hadn’t factored in that I was on assignment and that there might not be anything exclusively vegetarian on the food menu.

With the second Rainforest Fringe Festival successfully drawn to a close on 15 July in Kuching, Sarawak, I sensed a growth in audience awareness and traffic, and breadth of programming from last year’s inaugural showing.

Yoga In The Wild was one such novel piece of programming for the festival. The venue was Cove 55, a family-owned resort just under an hour’s drive outside of the city. And, as I found out, not too far away from the Sarawak Cultural Village and the Rainforest World Music Festival.

I didn’t get much sleeping or meditating done because there were conversations to be had and crosswords to be completed. The vibe among the 15 or so guests was extremely convivial, which made me feel like I was attending a friend’s private post-wedding party. “Oh, just a couple of nights at my parents’ beach house,” that sort of thing.

In addition to one’s being able to blissfully float in a salt-water pool and use the #yogaeverydamnday hashtag, yogis and yoginis on the retreat had the pleasure of practice sessions led by Denise Keller and Hendri Take.

Denise Keller and Hendri Take against a beautiful Mount Santubong backdrop . Photo: Mackerel

Denise Keller encouraging yogis to hold hands and keep the peace. Photo: Rainforest Fringe Festival

Hendri Take and yogis channelling their inner warriors. Photo: Rainforest Fringe Festival


Keller is a familiar face on magazine covers and TV screens and quite aptly embodies a lifestyle of healthy living and wellness; good skin and toned abs arms don’t lie.

Denise Keller leading a sunrise practice. Every yoga session starts with breath work. Photo: Mackerel

But physicality aside, Keller takes her yoga practice off the mat as well - into the realm of animals and books; things that Mackerel absolutely adores.

On “The Glass Castle” by Jeanette Walls, Keller said, “I wouldn’t say that this is my favourite book of all time (the movie didn’t do it justice either) but it’s the story that really grabs me.  The children in the book really appeal to me - resilient and tenacious to survive a crazy dysfunctional family upbringing and find their way out of the chaos. Perhaps it is not said a lot in Asia, but most families endure different levels of co-dependency and this book highlights some of the dismay in life being raised with a certain ideology.

“But, if I were to choose my favourite book: ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll. It’s a book that never left me.”

And who could argue with that choice?

"'Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

‘I do,’ Alice hastily replied; ‘at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’

‘Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. ‘You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

‘You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, ‘that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!”


– Chapter VII: A Mad Tea Party, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll

On the subject of wonderful stories, I’m glad Keller agreed to tell me hers about a pig-nosed turtle she named, Kang Kong.

Keller recalled, “I’d finished filming “Passage to Malaysia” in Sarawak. That river episode inspired me to create a pond of my own in my home. But it was an epic fail. So, I asked a guy from Sarawak to help me and when I was purchasing fish at the fishery in Singapore, I saw this turtle…”

The story of Kang Kong reads like a romantic novella, replete with how Kang Kong might have been smuggled into Singapore, and how pig-nosed turtles are high-maintenance pets, requiring exact water alkalinity, fresh insects and, I’m guessing, lots of cuddles. 

“But, he’s still growing and he needs space. He’s about the size of a dinner plate now,” Keller said, rather sadly. “So, I’m talking with Gardens by the Bay about taking him in. There are several of his kind there.”

This is a random pig-nosed turtle, not Kang Kong. Photo: Junkyardsparkle (CCO), Wikimedia Commons


“Yoga isn’t just for women; men can benefit a lot from it,” emphasised Hendri Take (pronounced “tah-kay”). We’d just had a morning yoga session with Denise Keller – Take and I were side by side - and finished a scrumptious breakfast of brown barrio rice congee and half-boiled eggs.

“But many men are afraid to come into the studio because there are too many women in there. So, they think it’s a girl thing. But my advice to men would be, ‘Don’t be shy!’”

Take is a Jakarta-based fitness instructor who went into his first yoga class quite by accident.

“I was in college at the time and went into the studio not really knowing what to expect. I only knew that I wanted to try out this new exercise. I wasn’t even wearing proper clothes. I had trousers on!”

That was 14 years ago.

What started out as a bungling exercise class is now a business that incorporates yoga and jamu, traditional Indonesian medicine. As Take explained, “Ja’He (jah-hay) is a traditional tonic in contemporary packaging geared for the millennial.”

And, if all goes according to plan, there could be an addition to the Take enterprise come September 2018 – a coffeeshop downstairs featuring toast (done the Southeast Asian way, grilled bread with butter and kaya) and a yoga studio upstairs.

“Entrepreneurship is in my blood. I help to run my family’s wholesale clothing business as well as my own ventures. It’s tough but I like the challenge.”

Which might explain Take’s choice of favourite yoga pose, the hollow back forearm-stand, “It’s a pose that needs a lot of work; a combination of strength, chest opening, integrated with breathing. There’s a lot going on in the pose.”

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"Yoga bukan hanya untuk wanita."

Hendri Take in his favourite yoga pose, the hollow back forearm-stand. Photo: @hendritake


I took the opportunity in between yoga sessions to do a jungle trail through the Permai Rainforest Resort. Not as wild as the Santubong National Park trail perhaps, but good enough under the circumstances. A walk in the woods always soothes and it’s one of the more perfect ways of emptying my head of thoughts that don’t matter. It is both dynamic and restorative.

Nature restores. Permai Rainforest Resort. Photo: Mackerel

But the one discomforting thought that I cannot jettison is that of Borneo and the world’s dwindling rainforests.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature's (WWF) 2015 Living Forests Report, deforestation is severe in Borneo, one of the 11 places in the world projected to have the most deforestation in the next 15 years.

This is a cheerless prospect and one that ought to remind us to ask:

Surely we could all do our part to encourage and support more ethical trade practices, reduce the use of disposable single-use items, push for stricter enforcement of wildlife and habitat protection?

Surely we could all learn to treasure Nature’s resources rather than pillage and plunder?

Surely we could practice the fundamental tenets of yoga, which include practicing non-violence and not taking anything that hasn’t been freely given?

In addition to waxing lyrical about her turtle, Keller also described herself as the savasana, or corpse pose, if she were a yoga pose. “It’s a difficult one to do because you have to let go of the energetics. It’s a resetting.”

As the forests restore us, so, too, should we restore them. Perhaps it is indeed high time for a resetting.



1.     World Resources Institute

2.     National Geographic

3.     The Borneo Project