What I Learned From Staying in a Meditation Center in Cambodia - This American Girl

lonely beach koh chang


“Gong! Gong!”


The melodic vibration at dawn reminded me of the freedom I had relinquished.


I slid along my sheets with the enthusiasm of a beached whale dreading the day’s impending events.


bangkok temple


I arrived on the rooftop as the sun crept impressively over the rice fields. Smoke from burning garbage filled my lungs.


Inhale. Arms up. Exhale. Bow down. Inhale. Look forward. Exhale. Bow down, kick back, elbows bent, toes flexed, hover. Inhale. Flip toes, open chest, lift gaze. Exhale. Plant hands, lift hips, lower heels. Inhale. Exhale.


I saluted the sun.


“Warrior one. Warrior two. Chaturanga Dandasuna,” he called.


I was so bored I wanted to cry.


lonely beach koh chang


Since leaving my yoga community in Costa Rica four months ago, I transitioned from practicing asana twice daily to nearly never. Hostels rarely have the space or the privacy for a self guided routine and taking yoga classes consistently has been outside my modest Southeast Asia travel budget.


lonely beach koh chang



I missed contorting into strange postures and expanding my ideas about what is possible in the process.

I missed deeply relaxing every muscle in my body until becoming jelly on my mat.

I missed connecting with a community of mentors who encouraged my self growth.


koh rong shrine


“I’m a different person on yoga,” I often tell people as if coordinating movement and breath was akin to Paxil or Prozac.


Experience has shown me that if I ever feel anxious, sad, confused, lost, blocked or simply out of balance, all that I need to do is step onto the mat, sweat it out, lay myself down in surrender, and let my mind go. In ninety minutes I can be born again.


lonely beach koh chang


So I left Koh Rong for a meditation center in Sihanoukville, giddy with excitement. I could not wait to delve back into my yoga practice and be “me” again.

Medicated by yoga.


I thought I was headed to an oasis where I would emotionally evolve on an unprecedented level.

I thought bliss was inevitable.


That was not my experience at all.


temple chiang mai


Instead I felt panicked. I wanted to leave the moment I arrived.


lonely beach koh chang


The center was hardly an open air retreat in the jungle like the studios I practiced at in Costa Rica. It was a tiled, soulless, dusty mansion near a busy road on the outskirts of a polluted Cambodian city. It looked downright depressing after sleeping in a grass hut on Koh Rong.


koh rong sunset


The yoga classes did not speak to me either. They differed from the fun flows, fear conquering inversions, and thought provoking intentions taught in classes I took in the past. Here yoga felt so disciplined, so serious, so stale. I began to forget that I actually enjoyed yoga, that it was fun, and that it made my body feel amazing. It became something to simply get through.





However more difficult than being bored in morning yoga or uninspired by my surroundings was being deprived of my usual freedoms.


My entire day was predetermined from 6am until 8pm. I rushed through my meals, rarely rested, and seldom reflected on what I experienced. There simply was no time. The gong constantly rang, corralling us into another meditation, another lecture, another chant circle, and another meal of cucumbers and bean sprouts.


It was the most structure I have ever endured.


offering thailand


I have struggled to follow convention since birth, so for me, this was exceptionally hard.


My sister hurled me out of my crib when I was a baby because my eyes told her I wanted to be free. As I child I defiantly painted my face with my mother’s scrimshaw ink, cut apart pieces of furniture in the house, and insisted on cooking my own meals. Eventually my mother encouraged this behavior. When I attended university, I rarely attended, yet set the curve on most of my exams. In the workplace I came and went when I pleased. I received praise and promotions. Today I travel alone, work for myself, and live nomadically.


I thrive under these conditions.


temple chiang mai


Being at the meditation center, I recognized immediately that I feel the most free when I feel able to do whatever I want.


balangan beach


But I realized that freedom is more than simply exercising my will.

I considered that perhaps if I truly had internal freedom I could feel free within the confines of this structure.




I realized that freedom is finding joy and gratitude

no matter where you are, no matter what you do.


Freedom is accepting your circumstances

and making the most of them.


temple bangkok


Freedom is having the willingness and the ability

to let your expectations go.


offering bali


Freedom is not defining yourself

by who you were yesterday

one year ago

or who you might be tomorrow

or one year from today.


Freedom is being who you are

where you are

when you are.


balangan bali


So even though I wanted to run

I stretched. I meditated. I adhered to the demands of the gong.

I looked within to find a way to be free.


chiang mai temple


In the process I reflected on what truly entrapped me beyond an imposed schedule or routine.

It was my own self protection that came from a place of fear.


For a moment, in meditation, I imagined myself without those limitations.

My body became weightless.

I felt an incredible release and a deep sense of ease.

I felt freedom within the cement walls of my elected Cambodian prison.


balangan bali


Without the burden of my baggage or the confines of my barriers, I imagined myself fearless.

I saw that in this instance it actually took more courage for me to pursue exactly what I wanted than to stay.


So I left and I flew to Bali. I followed my heart.


I realized that I could practice and grow from yoga no matter where I was.


bangkok temple


Because my yoga is not confined

to a seated meditation

deep breathing

or an asana pose.


My yoga is walking down a dirt road

hopping over potholes

dodging chickens

and waving hello to local kids.


balangan bali


My yoga is watching the change of the coastline

beneath an umbrella of clouds.


My yoga is entering the unknown

with the wonder of a child.


balangan bali


My yoga is feeling the waves

rush over my body

while sinking my feet

into the sand.


My yoga is watching the sunset

from a canyon

a city bridge

the sea.


lonely beach koh chang


No matter where I am

no matter what I do

my yoga is always


with me.


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