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.
The old Zack would take trips that ended up as alcohol-drenched affairs. I still recall the dread that filled my stomach on checking out of a hotel in Cambodia to learn I had racked up a bar bill in the multiple hundreds. I’m determined that this one will be different. I’m different now. I do yoga, for God’s sake.
My previous abortive attempts to cut down on drinking have run aground upon the same old rocks: what do you do instead?
I’d cut the booze and a few weeks later realise life was boring. In response, I’d grit it out, suck up the boredom, assume it was part of the deal. This approach is like a horse walking a tightrope: admirable, brave, but ultimately doomed. Because you can’t live your life that way. You can’t define yourself by what you’re not doing any more than you can avoid picturing a purple polar bear now that I’ve described one.
Instead, I had to tell myself, “You’re not erasing. You’re replacing”.
Like all great truths, this is as powerful as it is blindingly obvious. If you want to stop doing something you like, it’s not enough not to do it. You need to fill that time with something else. Something you can sink your teeth into and be shit at and improve at gradually. You can swan off to German yoga retreats – and this one is as good as it gets. You’ve got to do something to fill the time. It doesn’t have to be yoga. But here with Patrick I learn that it helps, because it’s something that requires absolute introspection, mindfulness. That will strengthen your body and give you access to ranges of motion you thought long off-limits. That calms the mind and soothes the nervous system. That focuses on intrinsic goals, like achieving a feeling of flow. Yoga does do all of those things.
And there is something powerful in immersing yourself. We’re ritualistic animals, after all. And a retreat like this, somewhere in a fresh and isolated environment without the distractions and triggers of daily life, can be transformative.
I have a couple of glasses of wine at dinner and stay up a little later talking to a fellow transformer. He’s challenging, at first, but I warm to him; in the way you inevitably do to someone when it’s one-on-one and you’ve had some wine and they’ve let their guard down. Or maybe it’s the yoga actually working. And there is no 3am finish and no hundred-quid bar bill and my stomach the next morning is free of dread. I fill it instead with eggs and sourdough and coffee distributed by a harassed, ruddy-faced waitress with forearms like ham hocks. The guests are testing her patience this morning and I refrain from whispering ‘namaste’ lest she tip my omelette in my lap.
The afternoon session is just me and my new friend. It’s led by a different teacher, a South African woman who looks as if she’s made out of gazelles. The Germans have abstained. Presumably, they don’t get out of bed for anyone but Patrick.
I enjoy this class even more. It’s in English – which helps – and I relish the intimate environment and close attention. And lo and behold, I am moving more freely, folding myself into those arcane positions with, well, I won’t say ease but certainly less agony.
She shows me a sequence she calls the ‘Magic Six’. As I write this two months later, I still do the poses every day.
One of the nuggets of wisdom that stuck to me throughout all this mid-life crisis/breakdown/call it a rebirth is the idea that every action you take is a vote for the kind of person you want to be. That means your actions count even when no one else is around to see, because you’re telling yourself who you are. I want to be the kind of person who does yoga on Sunday instead of hate-watching reality TV from under a duvet. I want to be the kind of person who comes back from a trip like this refreshed and positive, having learnt a new skill, excited to explore it.
I want to be that person. For the time being, I am.
Photography by Marc Sendra Martorell, Marco Borggreve and courtesy of Schloss Elmau
Get out there
… as many classes as you can and not just the most popular ones – smaller classes mean more one-on-one attention.
… get a pedicure in the hotel’s sumptuous spa. Yoga is a barefoot activity and you don’t want to be that one person with nasty feet.
… bring layers. The Bavarian Alps are a real ‘four seasons in one day’ kind of place and that can be the case at pretty much any time of year.
… forget your hiking boots. The area around Schloss Elmau is perfect for hikes and the scenery is spectacular.
… be deterred. Even if you don’t have a spiritual awakening here, the more you enter into the spirit of things the more you’ll get out of it.
… worry about your lack of experience. Yoga teachers are trained to deal with all levels, so there’s no need to be intimidated or worry about messing up.
The inside track
Dietmar Müller-Elmau is the CEO and managing partner of Schloss Elmau. He was born in the very place he now runs as a luxury spa and cultural hideaway.
Head for Schachenhaus, the breathtaking palace on the Königsweg built by King Ludwig II in the mid-19th century at an astounding 6000ft above sea level. By bike, it’s a pleasant ride, but those not up for pedalling can get there by e-bike.
The Bavarian Alps are a hiking wonderland. My favourite trails include one to Höllentalklamm, where you walk through tunnels, bridges and caves set in absolutely beautiful scenery. Another scenic walk is Hintergraseck to Partnachklamm.
Hear the Alps calling at the violin-making museum in Mittenwald. Some of the very best instruments in the world are made from wood grown here. Another thing I like to do is gaze at the Expressionist art at the Franz Marc Museum in Kochel am See.