On a mission to put his fondness for alcoholidays behind him, Zack Cahill goes on a rock-star yoga retreat in Germany and discovers the inestimable joy of getting high on an Alp and feeling reborn.
The icy Alps loom in high definition. The rain machine-guns the veranda and the hills are alive with the sound of German ladies of a certain age talking about yoga. More accurately, talking about their instructor – the world-renowned Patrick Broome. We hear about him long before we see him. A sort of yoga rock star (which is cooler than it sounds), he has a devoted following that includes the country’s football team.
Here at Schloss Elmau, a century-old resort in the Bavarian Alps, the yogis will convene for four days. They come clad in Lululemon and Sweaty Betty, to sit cross-legged at the feet of Patrick and think deep spiritual thoughts, to contort themselves geometrically, breathe diaphragmatically, grin beatifically and (if they suspect you’re not taking the proceedings seriously enough) shush you ruthlessly.
This comes at the right time for me. I’ve been obsessing about retreats for a while. I was – to put it mildly – doing London too hard. Too much working and partying. I tore my bicep while drunk at a Christmas party, ruptured the tendon, so the muscle bunched up in a tight little knot under my shoulder. Instead of going to A&E, I got on a plane to Greece for a story and self-medicated with red wine while fannying around in nice hotels for a week. When I came back, the surgeon told me the operation would be difficult because the muscle had retreated further than it should, contracted like a snapped rubber band.
That should have been a wake-up call, but I persevered for two more years. Burning the candle at both ends. Napalming the candle. Hurtling through relationships so rapidly I seemed to be in a state of perpetual break-up. Knocking it back so much I was in a state of perpetual hangover. I spent six weeks in South America drinking every day and came back ruined to the same old boozy London weekends and realised I had to stop.
And then, oddly, I did. I didn’t stop drinking, but I stopped getting drunk. And everything began to improve. I loved work again. I dropped five kilos of fat and gained it back in muscle. I reclaimed my Sundays, a whole day I hadn’t experienced with a clear head since my teens. Suddenly, I was planning activities. Handstand classes. Canal walks. I read books about spirituality and digital detoxing, like a total prick. Instagram ads went from trying to flog me ‘rave recovery’ vitamin packs to targeting me with offers for fitted shirts and moisturiser. I was – with only slight exaggeration – reborn. And I wanted more.
“The room is beautiful: wooden floors and scented candles and long flowing drapes opening on to a view that would give Julie Andrews multiple orgasms.”
Back in Bavaria, the owner of the property looks exactly as you’d imagine he would. Immaculately tailored. Movie-star teeth. The eyes of a spree killer and the deep-mahogany tan of a well-oiled rifle. We drink mineral water on the vast deck at the foot of the Alps, basking in the sunshine while frosting our lungs with mountain air.
He used to do yoga, the hotel owner did. Proper yoga, he says, not ‘hotel yoga’. I nod sagely. I have no idea what he means.
He was resistant to yoga retreats here, initially. The hotel was famous for dancing; people came to waltz in the glorious vaulted ballrooms. If they were going to do yoga here, they were going to do it right. No hotel yoga. Which is why he sought Patrick out. Scoured the earth for the best and it took off. Hence the chattering hausfraus taking tea and fruit salad on the deck alongside us.
We arrive at the first class late. We find space among the attendees, feeling scowls burn our necks, admonishment for our tardiness.
The room is beautiful: wooden floors and scented candles and long flowing drapes opening on to a view that would give Julie Andrews multiple orgasms.
Patrick begins. In German. And it’s fine, actually. He demonstrates beautifully, folding his long body into balletic figures with all the pressure of sealing an envelope. We breathe and twist and bend and fold. There are certain things my body flatly refuses to do. Standing on one leg makes my kneecap feel like it’s going to snap off and fly across the room. Patrick slips into English to guide me towards less advanced versions of the poses. Small blocks are available to prop up limbs and make positions more achievable. I use so many of these I look as if I’ve lost a game of giant Jenga.
More interesting is the breathing practice. You think you’d know, after 36 years of living, how to breathe, but my recent lifestyle changes have shown me I don’t and so hold tension in my shoulders constantly.
We spend 20 minutes on our backs, emptying our lungs of stale air that’s probably been hanging around since Heathrow and filling them with an abundance of alpine freshness. By the end, I feel high but rested.