Mountains & spiritual practice

In the taxi to Mittersill, where I was going on a week’s yoga retreat, my fellow passenger, an elderly Austrian woman, related the weather lore of the Ice Saints. She said not until the day of the last Ice Saint, Cold Sophia on May 14, was it safe to plant without the risk of frost. It was early May, and I was coming from Dorset, where I had been running round in a t-shirt. Now we were driving along winding roads fringed with snow-tinged pines; above them, jagged mountain ranges.

 But there’s something special about mountains and spiritual practice. I was told in India it’s so much easier to practise in the mountains. Maybe it’s the purity of the air, or the quiet hush snow brings, or the towering peaks suggest a greater power. So in the last two years, I’ve been drawn to the mountains for my retreats, and this year I decided to try Sivananda at Hotel Sonnberghof.

Sivananda lux

This is Sivananda lux. Hotel Sonnberghof is four star; it hosts retreats while closed off-seasson. It has suite of saunas, a natural pool (too cold to swim in May), and possibly the best food I’ve had on any yoga retreat. All the food was organic and often in the Austrian tradition, the cheeses and a dessert called topfenknodel were particularly delicious.

 Many people at the retreat were older and had not done Sivananda yoga before, so the organisers didn’t make it too ‘strange’ — easing them gently into the chanting, not using spiritual names, a subtle altar, but still keeping with tradition. Satsangs and classes were usually held in a room with panormaic glass windows overlooking the pool and mountains. The talks I went to (on stress reduction and positive thinking) were simple but profound. The format of the day was the usual Sivananda one, but not quite as intense. Meditation was at 6.30, and satsangs and yoga classes were not as long as they could sometimes be. Also as there was no karma yoga, I had plentiful free time which I mostly spend reading or having the occasional sauna. The saunas were a shock for me, being the only English person there, as the German-speakers go naked. However, I marvelled at the efficiency of them: straw baskets to carry your towels and robes, and clothes pegs with the names of herbs written to clip onto your towel so you knew which one was yours. Also the rooms were designed with underground passages so you could go easily from your room to the spa or restarant without having to put your outdoor boots on (or trudge through snow in the ski season).

Family affair

The hotel, like the Reith ashram, is family-run. From what I understand, these are farms, handed down through previous generations, and the present owners felt they could boast profits by turning part of them into hotels (still keeping the dairy —  to the side of the hotel were huge sheds out from which the occasional cow popped her head). The families like to add their own touches to the hotels. The male owner of Sonnberghof was a champion folk wrestler; the hotel is full of his trophies, plus those of prize-winning cows). The female owner’s passion is herbalism: on clear days I saw her picking herbs and flowers to make into toiletries and teas.

Himalayan substitute

 As an English-speaker, I was in a small minority. It didn’t really bother me, as I knew the yoga positions and simulataneous translation was provided for the lectures. Also, I like being alone on retreats, seeing it as an opportunity for inner reflection. It was a serene week away, and a worthy substitute for the Himalayas.