Standing in a veil of mist on the mountain’s edge, a waft of crisp alpine air filters through my lungs, the hymn of a distant waterfall settles my mind. “Connect through the soles of your feet,” guides Sigrid Pichler, our on-trail yoga teacher. “Where the roots of trees get their water.”
In early September, yoga mats from all over the world — 15 countries in total — were rolled out in St. Anton am Arlberg, Austria — considered the “cradle of alpine skiing” — for the Mountain Yoga Festival, a four-day event combining yoga, nature and health. Starting with Friday morning’s hike and meditation, the Tyrolean Alps’ scenic setting was on full display as 20 of us trekked through a lush green forest overlooking the postcard village in the valley below.
The Mountain Yoga Festival, in only its fourth year, has quickly become one of the most reputed yoga festivals in Europe. One of its main draws, apart from the storybook surroundings, is its small-scale nature, with less than 250 students attending the end-of-summer event. As co-founder Wilma Himmelfreundpointner told me on opening night, “We want to focus on quality, not quantity.”
“We want to focus on quality, not quantity.”
This year’s festival theme was the “Power of Water,” highlighted by flow-based classes, scheduled talks and an aquamarine mala gifted upon arrival. Even Mother Nature, on cue and on purpose, depending on your yogic outlook, contributed to the weekend’s purifying theme. From our first asana to our last, a sporadic and poetic rain fell from the sky; by Sunday, the season’s first snow had whitened the peaks up above.
Quality-wise, the gathering is buttressed by a lineup of world-renowned teachers — from Mallorca to Munich to New York to Bali — each versed in a different modality. Taught in both English and German, classes run the gamut. There’s Forrest Yoga led by Alexandra Sagoroz-Zimmerl, one of only 14 Forrest Yoga Guardians (handpicked by Ana Forrest) in the world. There’s Jivamukti Yoga, an energetic flow of chants, bandhas and backbends, led by the entertaining and spirited Karl Straub. One afternoon, there was even a tribute class to the 50thanniversary of Woodstock — a challenging Vinyasa Flow that saw students rock out (and singing along to) Patti Smith, The Who, Joan Jett and The Rolling Stones. Classes like these allow students to explore a practice not offered on a regular studio basis.
In addition to yoga, sunrise and silent hikes are led by a certified nature guide, who can identify native flora along the way (my guide plucked a patch of purple, and fragrant, wild thyme for us to inhale). Indoors, wellness experts augment the daily program with lectures and workshop topics such as the science of Ayurveda (the world’s oldest holistic medicine) and the swadhisthanachakra (or, the second chakra) in relation to the fluidity, and festival theme, of water. On Saturday night, an interactive drum circle of 100-plus djembe-playing attendees made for a unifying — and amusing — group concert.
Of all the weekend’s highlights, one of the biggest bonuses was the daily 10-minute gondola ride up the slopes to the classroom. The nature-rich commute, ornamented by mountainside sheep and birds soaring in and out of the fog, was the ideal time to “tune in” and re-establish my festival intention in preparation for a full day on the mat. Inside, the soothing sound of Wolfgang Wehner’s Hang instrument provided a peaceful and graceful transition between classes, when yogis mingled over tea and hearty vegetarian and vegan fare served at Gampen Restaurant.
As a newbie to the festival scene, the intimacy and warm-hearted atmosphere of the Mountain Yoga Festival – from its participants, teachers and organizers – felt more akin to a retreat than a large group event inundated with too many options. The result: a shared collective energy of love, smiles and genuine connection from one open-minded yogi to the next.
“We’ll never be the biggest yoga festival in the Alps,” said Iris Höll, organizer of the event, who founded the festival alongside Himmelfreundpointner while skiing in 2015. “We’re aiming to be a ‘premium’ yoga and nature event, where people can simply focus on their body and mind.”
If an idyllic and off-the-radar yoga escape is a priority for you in 2020, look no further than St. Anton am Arlberg’s Mountain Yoga Festival. In Austria, the hills are vibrant and alive – with the sound of om-ing.
An espresso-drinker who writes about travel – in that order – T.J.’s yoga journey began with Bikram, progressed to Vinyasa, before the frog-hopping and chanting of Kundalini yoga were too fun to ignore. Professionally, T.J. is a freelance travel writer inspired by the big (and beautiful) blue dot he’s grateful to call home. In the last year, assignments have taken him to the Amazon, Australia, Bolivia and more. He’s also visited and spent time in the ashrams of Rishikesh, India – the birthplace of yoga. His favorite adventure of all, you ask. Easy – Fetch in 50: he and his yellow lab Gus’ quest to visit every U.S. state. 49 down, 1 island to go. Watch the ‘Fetch in 50’ short film at www.tjolwig.com and follow his travels on Instagram @extraotjo.