High above the glistening Engadine valley in a gondola tightly packed with harassed half-term skiers, Sabrina Nussbaum emanates an air of calm.
It is infectious – I would normally feel stressed, but I don’t. And this is exactly what the 49-year-old yoga snow sport instructor (known locally as ‘the angel’ after her first aid help at two ski accidents this winter) hopes to teach with her ‘Yoga on Snow’ piste in St. Moritz.
Think practising yoga while skiing sounds like a gimmick? I certainly did.
But as we make our way west of Corviglia mountain station to the top of the uninterrupted three-kilometre Paradiso red run, where ‘Yoga on Snow’ is located, I discover otherwise.
Seeing the view
It is the first sunny Sunday after weeks of snowfall. The view over the valley is stunning: pillows of snow atop a symphony of summits that meet wintry forests and the frozen lakes of St. Moritz, Champfèr and Silvaplana.
In four idyllic spots just off-piste, Sabrina, who has been a ski and yoga instructor in the luxury resort for 27 years, has installed wooden posts to mark areas dedicated to yoga. Signs engraved with the word, Om (a mantra chanted at the beginning and end of yoga classes), correspond to numbers in the ‘Yoga on Snow’ leaflet (available free from nearby ski lifts) and explain eight exercises within the outline of a yoga class.
Nevertheless Sabrina says, ski-yoga can be practised anywhere – from nursery slopes to off-piste terrain.
We start with Om (arrival) – and it can’t come soon enough, as my pre-skiing nerves are setting in. I’m not an absolute novice skier but I get worried when the slopes are too steep. Sabrina tells me to close my eyes and feel the mountain beneath me: millions of years old, a steady presence. Fittingly, the pose we are doing is tadasana (mountain pose).
I relax the soles of my feet into my boots to feel the ground and help my balance – many skiers are forced by their boots to scrunch up their toes, which destabilizes them.
When I open my eyes again, I see the view anew. Even if you feel cynical about the concept, there is no doubt that the yoga spots take you to viewpoints you would otherwise blindly ski past.
“The Engadine has an energy that I have not discovered anywhere else,” says Sabrina. “It comes from the nature, the mountains, the lake. Many people are so focussed on capturing the view in videos and photos that they forget to really look at it. But if you can connect with nature, you will be a better skier.”
Simple but effective
Sabrina is at one with her surroundings – she reads the direction of the incoming bands of fog to decide which run to do next. But to help me find my connection, we move onto Prana (breathing and balance) – practising inhaling and exhaling. A conscious nasal exhale can improve wide ski turns, while fire breathing (sharp, rhythmic breaths) assists with short turns.
Trying it out on piste, Sabrina asks me to ski a few turns with my thumbs blocking my ears so I can concentrate on breathing. I am immediately more conscious of the grooves in the snow and the lie of the land: instead of doing uniform turns one after another, I pick my route more effectively.
And remembering to exhale when I feel out of control is a revelation. I have never skied so fluidly, nor glided so easily down a piste I considered steep – it feels like flying.
“People bring stress from the city into the mountains,” says Sabrina. “All they can think of is fitting in as many runs as possible. Yoga on snow helps them to slow down – not in terms of the speed they ski, but by teaching them awareness of their breathing and their body’s needs.”
I realize that ‘Yoga on Snow’ is a principle to apply to improve skiing rather than a gimmick.
Sabrina has been incorporating the philosophy into her instructing for years, and created the dedicated piste following the success of the ‘Sentiero dello Yoga’ hiking trail she founded two years ago in Ticino.
‘Yoga on Snow’ has proved so popular that she has trained six instructors, and classes have been attracting increasing numbers of men and women. “Only for men the concept has to be packaged slightly differently!” she laughs, noting that some men think yoga is a feminine thing.
We continue with “Surya Namaskara”, bowing to the sun, inhaling and stretching arms upwards. Then several asanas (yoga postures) to help lengthen muscles – important if you ski regularly, according to Sabrina, as the sport can cause muscles to contract: many instructors are three centimetres shorter by the end of the season.
As the session draws to a close, there is just one more section to come: Savasana, a relaxation pose that Sabrina calls ‘snow angel’.
I drop into a deep bed of snow and feel it close around me. The sun warms my face; the sound of skiers is but a whisper. Who knew a slope-side during the school holidays could be so peaceful?
Suvretta Snowsports School runs three-hour group ski-yoga classes on Saturday mornings and Wednesday afternoons for 90 francs per person. Private lessons on request. Stay in Hotel Cervus****, a traditional Engadiner property with swimming pool and sauna that is within ski-able distance of the Signal lift to Corviglia (rooms from 120 francs per person).
Emily Mawson’s trip was provided by Engadin St. Moritz Tourism.