You know how it is: you are just getting settled on your yoga mat and some latecomers barge in, harrumphing and stamping their feet because you have taken their favourite spot. But I was 1,000 metres up an Austrian mountain, with glorious views over the pretty spa town of Bad Hofgastein and the last of the sun on my face for an evening meditation class … and the late arrivals were a family of wild horses with two foals.
Gastein Yoga Days, a 10-day festival held twice a year in the Gastein valley, an hour south of Salzburg, takes bringing nature into your practice to a whole new level. It’s one of the biggest such festivals in Europe and sees 40 teachers offering nearly 300 yoga classes of all types, for all levels, in indoor and outdoor locations and participating hotels in the three small towns that comprise this chocolate-box gorge – Bad Gastein, Bad Hofgastein and Dorfgastein. I’m here for four nights, with a three-day pass for my choice of yoga sessions, but breaks can be any length.
My class next morning takes place at the summit of the imposing Stubnerkogel, reached by cable car. The dramatically perched Glockerblick viewing platform, 2,300 metres above sea level and reached by a 140-metre-long suspension bridge, is packed with rosy-cheeked yogis from all over Europe. Hot-chocolate and strudel in the alpine cafe add to our après-class glow. The following day we head to picturesque Bad Gastein, as steeply tiered as a wedding cake and a source of inspiration for Schubert and Johann Strauss in the early 19th century. On a secluded woodland platform, the teacher has to compete with the cascading Gasteiner Ache waterfall to be heard – no ambient rain music required.
The festival was founded in 2014 by Vienna-based mountain-lover Elfi Mayr. She publishes a guide to yoga classes all over Austria, and wanted to combine that with a festival led by carefully selected teachers in beautiful surroundings. Striking Gastein was the obvious location.
The festival offers something different to a more traditional yoga retreat, in that visitors have the freedom to mix and match classes and try out different styles. Besides the better-known hatha, vinyasa flow and yin, sessions from aerial to kids to pool-based yoga are on the programme, complemented by classes from dancing to cooking, yodelling to mountain hiking. I particularly love the aerial class, with fairy-like teacher Malu in Das Goldberg, a design hotel worthy of a James Bond film. No one seems to mind when I slip into its spa afterwards – all warm pine and floor-length windows looking out on to an infinity pool and sunlit meadows.
The region is also a wellness destination, and in between classes there are plenty of places to indulge in an après-yoga massage or sauna. With no fewer than 17 thermal springs, the valley has so much healing water sloshing through it (5 million litres, apparently) that you feel cleaner just walking down the street. Options include the Gastein Healing Gallery, whose radon cave is said to offer relief from all kinds of chronic pain, and Alpentherme, a thermal pool complex in Hofgastein with spectacular views and full menu of rejuvenating treatments.
With participating hotels ranging from small guesthouses to swish havens like Das Goldberg, all budgets are catered for, too. I stay in an elegant ski hotel called Das Alpenhaus, just off the main square in Bad Hofgastein: it’s well-placed for the festival, though I still have to get on buses or taxis between venues.
The majority of classes are held in German (though this year at least two sessions a day will be in English), but besides the odd bit of confusion, anyone who’s not a complete beginner should be able to follow what’s going on. In one class I out myself when the teacher asks at the beginning whether there are any problems – and everyone graciously volunteers for the class to be done in English – as if being a Brit in Europe isn’t embarrassing enough these days.
My final evening coincides with the full moon and a night meditation hike in the mountains. Wrapped in borrowed layers, we set off like the Von Trapp family marching through the Alps, with Elfi and another teacher, Johma, as our guides. Frankly, by the end, I would have followed Johma all the way to Switzerland. It’s a cloudy night so we see no moon, but a bunch of yogis encircled by dramatic snow-capped peaks created enough inner light of their own.
• The trip was provided by the Gastein Valley, SalzburgerLand andAustria.info. The Gastein Yoga Days festival is on 30 May-10 June (see programme details) and 11-20 October (programme tbc). A four-night stay costs from €205pp, including B&B guesthouse accommodation and a three-day yoga pass (the same package in a four-star hotel on a half-board basis from €333). Flights extra; Salzburg is the nearest airport