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    • Mountain Yoga Festival at the Arlberg
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    Mountain Yoga Festival in St. Anton am Arlberg

    Practicing and teaching yoga becomes extra special when sheep are curiously judging your form in Downward Facing Dog, when marmots trill gleefully to show their support, when the mountain sun tickles your nose, and when you get to take deep breaths of air that is fragrant with mountain herbs, with a hint of freshly baked pastries from a nearby mountain hut. Welcome to the Mountain Yoga Festival in St. Anton am Arlberg in Austria.

    Serendipitous beginnings

    I have been very lucky to have been teaching yoga at the Mountain Yoga Festival in St. Anton am Arlberg since its inception in 2016. As a born and bred Austrian who spent childhood summers in the mountains, and then moved to the concrete jungle of New York City some 23 years ago, it is very special to connect with my roots, to be in and to share the beauty of the Austrian mountains, and practice and teach the benefits of yoga in an Alpine environment.

    Mountain Yoga Festival at the Arlberg
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    I remember the excitement of that early September day in 2016, when the first yogis arrived in St. Anton. My friend Iris and I were walking down St. Anton’s main street, filled with flower boxes rather than cars due to its car-free “downtown” area, and saw groups of people of all ages wearing the tell-tale yoga leggings or carrying their yoga mats, exploring the town, making new friends. We looked at each other, beaming with excitement and also a tad nervous.

    Up until then, I knew St. Anton mainly as a ski resort and the hustle and bustle that is its very nature, but on this sunny late summer morning, we saw yoga mats sticking out of people’s bags and not skis or ski poles.

    •                     Mountain Yoga Festival at the Arlberg
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    •                     Mountain Yoga Festival at the Arlberg
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    Initiating the flow

    Later that very first day of the Festival, Karl, a fellow yoga instructor from the US, and I shared a chairlift up the mountain to the Gampen “hut” / restaurant, one of the venues for our yoga classes. I found out that Arizona-born Karl now calls Switzerland his home, so his commute to the Mountain Yoga Festival was a lot shorter than mine coming from New York.

    10 yoga teachers from all over the world gathered in St. Anton for the Festival that year, joined by several hiking and nature guides, and experts from the fields of nutrition, sports, music, herbology, you name it. Both Karl and I have been teaching yoga for a significant number of years, but being here, in the Austrian Alps, teaching yoga, this felt different and new and exciting, as if unlocking a secret treasure that had been hiding in plain sight. The swinging of the chair and buzzing sound of the chairlift turn-around pulled us right out of our contemplations and here we were, at the Gampen hut, ready to teach our first classes.

    Each year, the venues for the classes are carefully sought out locales from huts and mountain restaurants, their outdoor decks and outdoor spaces, flat mountain meadows, the finishing arena of a world cup ski run, but also indoor spaces at the Arlberg Wellness Center, the town hall, the local school, and hotels, for when the weather does not cooperate.

    Yoga for all

    The programming allows for yogis and want-to-be-yogis of all kinds to participate and rejuvenate body, mind, and soul. At the Festival, I have met and taught people who live and breathe yoga day-in day-out, but also people who step on a yoga mat for the first time – usually brought by a well-meaning friend or spouse – and I have not seen a single one regret it. I have brought my elderly parents several times, and while my Mom loves to participate in the yoga classes, my Dad does everything but yoga. One might conclude that he is forcefully nudged by my Mom to come along. And yet, he has been coming every year. And let me tell you, when a curmudgeon like my Dad says “yeah, that’s something special, there is a really good vibe here.” that means a whole lot! Festival participation is purposely capped at 250 allowing for a community feel – that really good vibe – and sensible class sizes, where you can still expect personal attention from us teachers.

    Yoga high(er)

    My personal highlight are the yoga hikes, that are a main part of the program every year, and that I get to lead with my dear friend and mountain guide Geli. Geli is a formerly professional free skier, a state-certified ski instructor and guide who has completed skiing and hiking expeditions in Alaska, Nepal, Greenland, Tibet and beyond. Geli’s courage and lust for the mountain life are contagious, just like the sparkle in her eyes and in her smile. Her love for the Arlberg region and her family that has lived here for generations, make her one of the most knowledgeable people I know when it comes to the mountains, people, and traditions of the region. Her uncle, octogenarian Franz (Hiesel), is herding bulls high up in the mountains, and his philosophy about taming these beautiful and gigantic beasts, is as yogic as it gets:

    "When you radiate calmness, the animals are calm too. Quiet your thoughts, and you’ll bring calmness into your life!"

    St. Anton am Arlberg
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    Franz Hiesel

    On our yoga hikes, we usually head out into the morning, when the sun is burning off the mist of the very early morning hours and nature awakes, we hike and find a good spot for a yoga practice, we rest, we picnic, and we hike some more. I remember a very emotional moment on one of our hikes when we walked through a man-made tunnel that serves as an underpass for a particular unpassable part of the mountain, and we decided to stop and take advantage of the echo in the tunnel and chant a resounding “Ohhmmm”: twentysomething voices accompanied by the howling of our two canine friends that came along for the walk… Pure magic - and some happy tears!

    Mountain Yoga benefits

    Aside from such magical moments - and there are many, practicing yoga in the mountains has its proven physical and mental health benefits. In and around this altitude, St. Anton is at 4278 feet, we automatically breathe deeper because the oxygen saturation in the air is a little less, hence we are pulling more air in and deeper into our lungs, stimulating the cardiovascular system and increasing the energy in our bodies. Does the term “forest bathing” ring a bell? It is the same idea, and in several studies by Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a professor at Chiba University in Japan, who has been researching the benefits of Forest Bathing since 2004, the practice of forest bathing / being immersed in nature has been found to lower blood pressure, heart rates, and levels of harmful hormones — like cortisol, which your body produces when stressed. This can help put you in a more calm and relaxed state.

    St. Anton am Arlberg / Verwalltal / St. Anton am Arlberg
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    Keeping the balance

    While practicing on sometimes uneven ground has its own set of challenges, it is also a lot of fun. We have had many good laughs trying balancing poses standing on grass, standing on one leg, looking out over the valley, hundreds of feet below us, and up into the mountain range across the valley hundreds of feet above us. Hello there, Vertigo! But somehow, falling becomes part of the practice, somehow the power and majesty of the mountains starts to infuse you if you only let it, and maybe there is this moment of balance, of standing in your power, of time standing still, of being right here right now in this moment without judgement. Mindfulness in action. Until you fall out of your balancing pose again and we laugh it all off and try again.

    For me personally, nothing beats resting on your back in Savasana at the end of each yoga practice, the moment when you surrender down onto the ground and feel the wind and the sun and the support of the whole mountain range underneath you, well, that’s the magic of practicing yoga in the mountains.

    Slowing it down

    Evenings roll around, and as we yogis come back from the mountains into the village, I cannot help but smile how the entire village is involved in the Festival. Residents of St. Anton mingle with yogis from all of Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy, and many other corners of the world. Evenings at the Mountain Yoga Festival feature artists, music, dance, and seminars.

    What is included in the Mountain Yoga Festival Pass:

    + 3 night accommodation (including breakfast) 

    + 1 or 2 yoga lunches 

    + daily yoga classes / all levels / classes in German and English / kids yoga classes 

    + daily meditations 

    + yoga hikes 

    + expert talks on topics ranging from ayurvedic nutrition, to the quality of mountain air, herbs, self-motivation, … 

    + evening programs with music and entertainment 

    + yoga bazaar – come on, who does not need an extra set of handcrafted mala beads or some essential oils from Alpine herbs? 

    Mountain Yoga Festival
    Mountain Yoga Festival
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    Yoga – a different way to experience the mountains

    Mountains are one of the most popular locations to increase your energy levels and gain strength. Yoga and hiking make this even easier. They are the perfect combination to reap the maximum benefits of mountain activities. Enjoying breathtaking views after a beautiful and strenuous hike, breathing in fragrant mountain air and stretching and strengthening yourself on a yoga mat: these are all perfect recipes for disconnecting from the stresses of everyday life. And to reconnect with yourself.

    Yoga an der frischen Luft
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    5 Yoga Poses for before and after your hike

    Yoga is an ideal complement to hiking. With these poses before your hike, you bring your muscles and mind into the right focus. After a hike, these postures help to calm body and mind, and to process the powerful impressions of nature internally. As with any yoga session, it is important not to force yourself. But do: practise quietly and gently, and see what your body will allow at that moment.

    • Wide legged forward fold (prasarita padottanasana )

      Keep the weight evenly in your feet and keep the toes relaxed, keep a slight bend to your knees, fold from hips and not the waist, relax your torso and head; benefits: opens hips, relaxes back, relaxes mind

          Wide legged forward fold
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    • Pyramid pose (parsvottanasana)

      Keep your inner thighs engaged, keep your core engage, work the pose from the legs, relax upper torso and head; benefits: stretches spine, stretches hamstrings, strengthens legs

          Pyramid Pose
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    • Squat (malasana)

      Keep weight evenly in your feet, tilt the pelvic floor forward, find lift out of your waist; benefits: strengthens hips, knees, and ankles, stretches lower back

          Squat
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    • Reclining thunderbolt pose (supta virasana)

      Make sure your knees do not hurt – if they do, do not go all the way back and / or separate your knees a little bit and / or keep weight in your hands; benefits: stretches quads, abdomen, chest; strengthens knees

          Reclining Thunderbolt Pose
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    • Low lunge (anyanejasana)

      Stay engaged through your inner legs, push into the ground with your feet / leg, and lift out of your waist; benefits: releases tension in your hips, stretches your hamstrings, quads, and groin, strengthens your knees

          Low Lunge
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    5 Yoga Poses for before and after your hike

    Yoga is an ideal complement to hiking. With these poses before your hike, you bring your muscles and mind into the right focus. After a hike, these postures help to calm body and mind, and to process the powerful impressions of nature internally. As with any yoga session, it is important not to force yourself. But do: practise quietly and gently, and see what your body will allow at that moment.

    • Squat (malasana)

      Keep weight evenly in your feet, tilt the pelvic floor forward, find lift out of your waist; benefits: strengthens hips, knees, and ankles, stretches lower back

    • Low lunge (anyanejasana)

      Stay engaged through your inner legs, push into the ground with your feet / leg, and lift out of your waist; benefits: releases tension in your hips, stretches your hamstrings, quads, and groin, strengthens your knees

    • Pyramid pose (parsvottanasana)

      Keep your inner thighs engaged, keep your core engage, work the pose from the legs, relax upper torso and head; benefits: stretches spine, stretches hamstrings, strengthens legs

    • Wide legged forward fold (prasarita padottanasana )

      Keep the weight evenly in your feet and keep the toes relaxed, keep a slight bend to your knees, fold from hips and not the waist, relax your torso and head; benefits: opens hips, relaxes back, relaxes mind

    • Reclining thunderbolt pose (supta virasana)

      Make sure your knees do not hurt – if they do, do not go all the way back and / or separate your knees a little bit and / or keep weight in your hands; benefits: stretches quads, abdomen, chest; strengthens knees

    Full disclosure

    Note from the editor: the author of this piece, Sigrid Pichler, works for the Austrian Tourist Office in New York City, and, like most New Yorkers, has a successful side hustle. In her case, as a yoga teacher.

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