Ski yoga : ‘Give yourself to the power of the mountain’
There’s a blizzard blowing in the Alps near St Moritz but somehow it feels just like ‘Om’
“Ski yoga is not just about the positions, it’s about a way of life.” Instructor Sabrina Nussbaum demonstrates a posture on the slopes.
The Grand Hotel Kronenhof, in the town of Pontresina, where resident yoga teacher Aretz Chatzi “takes no nonsense, even from the considerably wealthy and influential clients”.
The mountains form a dramatic backdrop for the Grand Hotel Kronenhof’s entrance.
In the hotel’s cellar is a host of old skis. The original skiers came from Britain at the birth of Alpine skiing in the 1860s and the skis were left behind at the outbreak of the first World War.
“You are up here because of the nature, so get in touch with it.” Emma (in black) and Sabrina do – what else – mountain pose in the snow.
St. Moritz, the famous holiday resort, at 1,856m altitude, is virtually unique in the world for its broad sports offering. Photograph: Christof Sonderegger/swiss-image.ch
“There are the Rothschilds,” says our tutor, Sabrina Nussbaum. “In the mountains we are all the same.”
I’m electively lying on my back in the woods half way up a mountain with large flakes falling on my face. Three members of the banking family are elegantly sliding through the trees past us. And, while not everybody has holiday homes in the most expensive suburb (Suvretta) of St Moritz, where apartments sell at €30,000 a square metre, I guess we all feel the groundedness of being on a mountain out in the elements.
And that is what Nussbaum is helping us, her two pupils, tune into. She recently helped St Moritz set up a series of yoga slopes, called Yoga Piste Paradiso, complete with map and pictures of poses to do, but, Nussbaum says: “Ski yoga is not just about the positions, it’s about a way of life.”
So while we dutifully do poses on our skis: sliding one diagonally up the hill for warrior, launching ourselves hands-first towards our ski tips for down-dog and stretching our hands up for – of course – mountain pose; most of the lesson is spent relearning how to ski in a relaxed way.
A relentless spring snowstorm has brought a philosophy lesson with it (incidentally, Nietzsche once lived here). There is no way we can get to the yoga pistes, says Nussbaum, especially since a German blogger and her sister (as photographer) are with us and the snapping sibling has a light coat and trainers on. This is not suitable attire for the subzero temperatures and metres-deep snow on these high Engadine slopes – never mind not being able to get on a ski lift sans skis. So, to my deep disappointment, we head to a nearby nursery slope. But life is full of expectations that are not met – whether in a positive or a negative way. And this time it was a positive.
Having anticipated a morning of doing yoga in horrendous weather, I instead have my skiing transformed. Even before we get to the slope we’ve had that lesson about living in the moment, going with events, and not trying to control life by sticking to an original plan when circumstances are apparently conspiring against it.
“People come on holiday and are wondering what each day holds, where to go next, looking at the ski map and running to a timetable,” says Nussbaum, who teaches skiing as well as yoga. “Just ski down the mountain. You are up here because of the nature, so get in touch with it.” She takes clients for whole days and persuades the more agenda-driven to leave the decisions to her and not ask questions about the immediate future.
We physically embrace the concept of letting go and ski with our toes held up – feeling the rest of the foot grounding into the mountain. This is an antidote to the way we usually ski, with our toes scrunched up: “Don’t fear it,” says Nussbaum.
We then ski with our hands over our ears and sometimes close our eyes. It completely tips the focus into what the body is doing and how it meets and reacts to the territory. Counterintuitively it reduces fear and increases trust in yourself.
The biggest breakthrough for me is being told to turn when the skis are ready and to breathe out when doing so. It removes tension, creates a natural flow and results in freer skiing.
After the lesson Nussbaum offers to drive me back to my hotel as the storm has got heavier but I want to ski and even she is surprised that I am embracing the moment in adverse circumstances. Heading up into a blizzard alone I begin to wonder if it is wise, but sliding down I live out what I have been taught. In white-out conditions, with unpredictable but softly fallen snow underfoot, I glide through the whiteness with my feet grounded, toes spread, legs working together, shoulders relaxed, breathing out on every turn and not only feeling at home in horrendous conditions but relaxed and happy.
This day of pushing boundaries began in the Grand Hotel Kronenhof, in the nearby town of Pontresina, where resident yoga teacher Aretz Chatzi takes no nonsense, even from the considerably wealthy and influential clients that come here. “Lots of politicians,” a staff member tells me. “And Thomas Müller likes staying in the honeymoon suite with his wife,” he says, beaming.
“Bayern Munich. ”
The honeymoon is one of the more modern suites in the hotel, with a glass screen between the shower and bed. The main part of the hotel is a glorious 19th-century neo-Baroque creation with a vast reception area, bustling with besuited staff, that leads to a sittingroom and bar of palatial proportions. Oil paintings enrich the walls and frescoes look down from the high ceilings while a mountainous window frames the Alps.
It is extraordinary to ski and stay in this period pile – channelling the original skiers who came here from Britain at the birth of Alpine skiing in the 1860s. Many of their wooden skis are still in the basement (along with old wine barrels, sledges and carts) with brown-paper-and-string luggage tags on them bearing the names of their owners. The skis have been here since the first World War when the skiers could not return. One set was recently reclaimed when a woman tracked down her granny’s skis to here and they were willingly returned to the family.
This hotel’s sister accommodation – the Kulm – was owned by the family of Caspar Badrutt who, the story goes, started Alpine skiing in the 1860s, encouraging British summer visitors to return in winter with a bet. The actual town is believed to have been founded by the Celts centuries before – in the 1130s – and their health hub is still on the outskirts of town, where you can drink the practically clanking, iron-laden waters from a well.
A hotel guest who declares she cannot turn her head as she has a stiff neck, is not let off the exercise by Chatzi, who says: “You must do it, it will help it.”
She brings an errant rolling knee of mine back into line with: “You imagine these things are not possible, but I know you can do anything.”
That’s some endorsement to take into a blizzard and I’m up for anything, even – towards the end of the lesson with Nussbaum – the shavasana relaxation in which I lie in deep snow beneath the trees with snow flakes hypnotisingly coming towards my eyes. It’s cold on my back but incredibly calming. “Give yourself to the mountain, feel its power,” says Nussbaum. Okay, it sounds New Age – but I think I can. She does this with the children she teaches: she gets them to lie down and make snow angels – and they never want to get up.
HOW TO ... ST MORITZ
Rates at Grand Hotel Kronenhof, which is open from December 7th to April 1st 2017, start from CHF495 (about €454) for two people sharing a double room on a half-board basis; kronenhof.com
The hotel has a Digital Detox package including a morning of ski yoga, a Pilates lesson, a mindful sunrise hike, a detox bath, a 30-minute Haki treatment and a 50-minute Kronenhof Energy Massage, plus three nights’ dinner, bed and breakfast and the voluntary handing in of all electronic devices. Prices start from CHF1,455pp sharing a double room.
To get to the hotel, fly to Zurich (aerlingus.com) and take a train (swisstravelsystem.co.uk). Kronenhof has a sister hotel in Zurich, The Widder, (widderhotel.com) in a former butcher shop. See myswitzerland.com