I remember, one of the first occasions I found myself sitting on a yoga mat was in a beautiful thatched roof shala, wonderfully crafted in a dark tropical hardwood, perched on a cliff on the southern tip of Koh Samui, gazing out on the handful of uninhabited islands cushioned in the brilliant jade sea. The air vibrated with Thai Prana and offered tastes and smells to delight the soul.
“Yes!….I am here, I am exactly where I want to be!” I thought with an intense feeling of well being, almost euphoric in nature…then our teacher offered us these words,
“ Your time on your mat is like a journey, and it is only by being fully aware of what you are doing that you will be able to take advantage of the opportunities that your journey has to offer.” Those words really made an impression. He then set about bringing our presence and awareness into focus for a more meaningful practice. And I think it was at the end of this practice that I felt the first “shift” inside my soul and became aware of the potential that yoga has to transform.
I started attending yoga retreats and noticed how every ingredient of the retreat really had an effect, every location had a different vibration that affected the group. The food we ate, the rooms we slept in all became important parts of the retreat, almost as memorable as your time on the mat.
I then attended my 1st Vipassana retreat and here slowly but surely, the hours spent meditating, contemplating and processing started to merge together. The food, although wonderfully nutritious, became more of a pastime, as I began to realize that in this purer detoxifying state, an intake of calories was needed less and less. It was a wonderfully reassuring revelation, the gradual realization that it was my mind that could take care of and nourish my soul, and that my entire “Soul Aid Kit” was to be found right here within. The most natural environment our planet provides us with was also the most nurturing environment for our physical being, and it was right here, all around us. By stopping to look we arrive. Arrive at a place where we realize that we have everything we need for our journey in this life time.
This, of course is a great place to start our journey in earnest to start to achieve what we really feel is our true calling. Our Dharma.
Back home in the Alps I was studying for my International Mountain Leader qualification and I was eager to get back on to my beloved trails, stretch my legs and start to regain some of the fitness I’d lost during the days of sitting in Vipassana. Bringing the focus and observation I’d acquired on retreat I found my time on trail to be a wholly different experience. Instead of my mind wandering to various problems of the past or worries about the future, I was savouring every step of the way. With this new relaxed presence I found myself observing many more things about the terrain through which I was trekking, things I previously might of missed.
One particular day I was exploring well off any marked trails about 3 hours from the parking where the road ended. A low raise covered in grass was in fact the remains of a wall. On careful inspection other walls could be traced and I realised that this was the place where people used to husband their herds and flocks hundreds of years ago. I was surprised that they had chosen such a remote spot. On closer inspection a small mound proved to be a pile of stones from where their croft had been and just a short distance away the reason for this seemingly bizarre choice of venue came gushing forth out of the pristine alpine mountain side. And as I drank from the delicious crystal clear waters of this centuries old spring, as the shepherds of the croft had before me, time melted away. The brief transient nature of our lifetimes here on our planet swelled in my consciousness, and the relatively timeless nature of the mountains that surrounded me infused my cells with sacred awe.
This experience got me thinking. Without attending Vipassana I would’ve probably hiked right past those ruins lost in my worries, never found that spring and completely missed those moments of deep connection with Pachamama. Thus the seeds were planted to bring together a basket full of ingredients to nourish a greater variety of the many aspects to our spiritual and physical beings.
Now the fabric of the basket was woven, in the form of a week long retreat, it was time to carefully select the items to go in it. Of course every great day starts with a great yoga practice! So that was a given. Starting the day with some form of practice, however short, can really make a difference to how you approach your day. It could be as little as 5 mins of meditation and 10 minutes of asana. Then take the focus and presence you practiced on your mat, and apply it to your activities off the mat, in the same way you would slowly explore an asana, with an awareness and sensitivity to any adjustments you might make to improve your experience.
There is nothing that helps us understand our perception of a particular topic or environment than taking a step back, giving ourselves time for reflection. To this end I think our time spent out on the mountain offer an amazing Yang to balance the Yin of our yoga. While our journeys on our mats take us in a largely inward direction, our excursions into the high alpine valleys and onto the soaring ridges help us translate the often sublime states we can achieve on the mat into our time off the mat. Finally reaching a breath taking summit, standing where Pachamama kisses the cosmos, gulping down great lungfuls of pure alpine prana surely ignites ones soul!
In traditional Tibetan medicine it is taught the importance of walking long distances, in the form of pilgrimages and to arrive at isolated retreat centers. So it is clear that this connection between a physical journey on foot through the wondrous beauty of our planet goes hand in hand with our inward journeys to discover the divine within.
To keep this connection activated what better than to meditate while space was being held for us by our stunning alpine setting. Occasionally we should also practice high on the mountain. To fully appreciate natural forces at work we will get in a rubber boat ad let the fast flowing fresh river water sweep us down stream. Then later the same day, relax in bubbling, healing, hot pools. Marveling at waters amazing ability to transform from icy torrent to warm therapeutic spring we might subconsciously relate to our own liquid capacity for change.
Now our basket seems to be taking on a holistic glow, I am delighted along with my friends and colleagues at Wild Alps Adventure & Surya Alpine Yoga Philosophy to be able to offer our vision in the form of this summers retreats based in the Italian Alps.
This article was written by Nigel Higgins of as part of our weekly ‘inspiring stories’ theme shared by our community of retreat leaders and teachers. Join Nigel on his Mont Blanc magical tour retreat this July in the Alps where you will be trekking in four different venues on the Italian side of Mt Blanc, in the wilder, lesser known parts, as well as a day in the Chamonix area. Mountain meditations will be incorporated in some spectacular locations along with 1 or 2 mountain yoga classes.