Even spiritual guidance cannot lift the spirits of the people of Temple Town, trapped in a city that Khmer time reported this week, as it “falters under the double whammy of Covid 19, with many parts, especially the city center, being turned into a ghost town due to road works”.
Even Siem Reap spiritual master Joel Altman, the proud founder of Hariharalaya Yoga Meditation and Retreat Center on the outskirts of town near Bakong Temple, has to make big changes in his life to adapt and survive the fallout from the plague.
Despite being an academic linguist who can speak seven languages and read several more, Joel is highly silent, so he can sink deep “into the space between thoughts.”
To achieve this, the retreat avoided the incessant chatter of cyberspace and introduced the notion of “digital detox”.
“The essence of what we’ve done over the past 11 years is to create a safe space for people to come and rediscover themselves,” says Joel.
“To conserve that space, we’ve introduced digital detox – when people come for a retreat for the first week, no phones or computers are allowed in public spaces.”
But now, with many guests unable to come to him due to travel restrictions, he zaps into cyberspace to reach them, launching the Hariharalaya online retreat space via Patreon, allowing followers to stay connected with the retreat in the comfort of their own home. A host of other changes have also been introduced, including extended retirements for clients, with some clients now staying in place for a few months.
“We took over seventy people for retreats of three to six months, and we built a base,” says Joel.
The retreat is also turning into a sort of campus to accommodate digital nomads, who are encouraged to live in special workplaces and adopt a healthy lifestyle.
“Digital nomads have access to meals served three times a day,” explains Joel. “We will also have daily practices such as yoga, breathing and meditation in the morning and evening, and during the day we will have an adult playground with different things, like meditation lectures, classes in food of creative expression, and recently we had boxing and martial arts lessons. In addition, we have excellent library books of over 2000 books collected from all over the world.
During the eleven years, the retreat has worked. Joel estimates that he has hosted people from around 150 different countries, but no Khmer – until recently.
“Until Covid, very few Cambodians had been able to come,” explains Joel. “One of the reasons was the price, which we reduced, and in the last two months we have seen about 15 Cambodians retreating.
“In addition, we have created a program for staff retreats, and we want companies or NGOs to bring their staff for short retreats, maybe three or four days, where we have a basic health program, of well-being and culture. “
Hariharalaya is also extending its reach to the Khmers by recording some of the centre’s Dhamma discussions in the Khmer language and creating online platforms for the Khmers.
Considering the unique nature of Joel’s retirement, it might not come as a surprise that he had a quirky life, beginning with his first vocation as a musician.
“I grew up playing classical music,” he says. “I trained in double bass, double bass, from six to eighteen years old and I have performed all over Europe with the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra.”
He then trained as a linguist and translator, and during his university studies he was introduced to yoga, meditation and the great sages.
“It sent me on my way and from the start I was gung ho,” he says. “Then I discovered silence through yoga and meditation and I knew that this silence held the key, so I moved to Brazil and spent a few years living in communities working with shamans and healers. “
He returned to the United States and lived in ashrams before moving to India to study with yogis, then moved to Thailand where he was robbed and contracted dengue. A friend from Brazil who lived in Cambodia suggested that he come to visit in August 2020, which he did, and when he heard Khmer music he got hooked.
“I heard this music, it struck a chord in my soul,” he says. “I understood that I had to learn this music and that I had to stay here. I came for two weeks, and here we are, it’s been over eleven years and I’m still here.
Arriving with only about two hundred dollars in his pocket, Altman spent a few months teaching Western music theory, then, after taking his vows in a pagoda and undergoing the Vipassana meditation, he had the vision of setting up his center, quickly creating an eco-village and a community campus spread over two hectares of “jungle gardens”.
Along the way, the Hariharalaya retreat has carved out a global reputation for himself as an oasis of healing, as perhaps best exemplified by Larry Dvoskin, a four-time Grammy-nominated American songwriter, producer, music consultant and songwriter. .
Writing about retirement in the Huffington Post in 2017, he revealed: “When I first went to pre-register for the week I would be in Siem Reap, I was sad to hear that it was full! And the following weeks were sold too. Apparently word of mouth is spreading with people all over the world… ”
He was eventually able to register for the retreat following a cancellation where he extended his stay and helped adapt a song he originally wrote with Beach Boy’s Al Jardine, about Jardine’s Cow.
In the Huffington Post, Dvoskin wrote that he attended a ceremony at Joel’s house to bless a new cow.
“I pulled out my guitar and sang a song I co-wrote with founding Beach Boys member Alan Jardine,” he wrote. “His cow Jennifer Clover was now dead, but I used the same words and the same melody to sing to Joel’s New Cattle.”
Joel adds, “Yes, I have these beautiful Vedic cows, three, now a mom and two babies that she has given birth to in the past three years. And so Larry came over to my place when the cow was pregnant, and we had, we had a jam with the cow, which was nice.
Which sort of sums up the attractions of Joel’s unique Hariharalaya Yoga retreat and meditation center.