Most French ski resorts offer plenty of activities other than skiing or snowboarding – everything from ice-skating and igloo-building to parapente and giant zip wires. Plenty of people visit ski resorts who don’t want to ski all the time (or even, at all) and wellness pursuits such as spas, massage, pilates and yoga are increasing in popularity in mountain locations.
Val Thorens has introduced weekly excursions which combine snowshoeing and outdoor yoga. The three-hour outings are led by mountain guide Brigitte Ruff, who has been leading snowshoe excursions since 1993. She deals with the snowshoeing side of things while Anita Thevenot, an ayurvedic masseuse and yoga teacher, leads the yoga sessions at intervals along the course.
The walks take place a short minibus ride from the main resort in a small valley with a pretty stream during most of the season, or on a quiet pedestrian trail next to the pistes early or late in the season, if the snow has melted further down the valley.
Once Brigitte has made sure everyone has put their snow shoes on correctly and has their poles at the correct length, the group (always 12 or less) set off along the quiet path.
It is easy to walk in snowshoes – they are light and stable – leaving you free to look around and enjoy the scenery in a way you cannot always do on the more frantic pistes.
The valley is chocolate-box pretty with old stone shepherds’ huts, snow-dusted trees and the calming sound of trickling water – it is incredibly peaceful even though just a few metres away you can see skiers whizzing down a nearby piste. While we occasionally walk a little uphill, the terrain is easy and taken at a slow pace with many stops, suitable for any level of fitness.
After trekking a short way, we stop for Anita to lead us in some simple stretching exercises, before continuing the walk. Brigitte points out animal tracks belonging to foxes, hares and stoats, among other animals, and at one point passes around binoculars so we can better see a couple of deer, further up the slope. “It’s important not to get too close so we don’t scare them,” she says. “Their reserves of energy are low in the winter and we don’t want to make them run unnecessarily.”
At the second stop Anita leads us in sun salutations – which for those who don’t know, involves stretching up towards the sky before getting down on all fours and pushing yourself up again. This is why it is important to wear salopettes and take ski gloves. While Anita is happy to tailor the routines to the wishes and abilities of the group, she usually does 12 sun salutations - which is somehow tiring and energising at the same time.
“Practising yoga outside is very different to practising in a studio,” Anita explains. “You breathe differently, especially at over 2,000 metres altitude. The other thing we find is that it allows people to connect with nature. At the first stop they start to smile, then they start to chat to each other. They become more open.”
The next stop includes balance poses which Anita talks us patiently through, including when to breathe in and breathe out. For the less flexible (like me), taking my foot out of the raquette to and placing it above my knee is a bit of a challenge, but somehow it doesn’t really matter – I stand quietly and enjoy the fabulous view, along with some honey tea from a flask brought along by Brigitte.
The final stop includes some gentle twisting poses followed by breathing exercises. As we sit cross-legged in the snow, Anita demonstrates alternate nostril breathing – in through one nostril, hold for several seconds, and then out through the other. While it sounds simple, and indeed it is, the effect is incredibly calming. We then sit for a while, eyes closed, with the sun on our faces. It’s quite magical.
“Another advantage to being outside is it can be easier to clear your mind,” Anita says. “You can focus on the feel of the sun on your face or the sound of the stream, or you can simply concentrate on the gently in-out of your breathing. Anything which helps keep your mind calm is good – thinking about how nature is interacting with you is perfect; thinking about what you are making for dinner later or what you did at work yesterday is not!”
Anita believes that yoga should be ‘almost obligatory’ before skiing as the two complement each other. “Yoga warms up your muscles and prepares them for a strenuous activity like skiing,” she says. “It’s a great thing to do first thing in the morning to help you have a good day. The breathing exercises can help keep you calm on the mountain. There are many benefits. I’d recommend taking a yoga class as soon as you arrive for your holiday to prepare both your body and your mind – then you can spend your holiday feeling zen.”
As well as holiday makers, Anita runs weekly courses for seasonal workers and says that as well as increased suppleness, they also report sleeping better, as well as feeling calmer and less impulsive.
The walks take place in all weathers, but Anita insists that the sun salutations do their work and the sun is almost always out.
“Even if the weather isn’t good, the scenery remains fantastic and it is always enjoyable. Practising yoga in a studio is good, but practising yoga in the open air, with mountains, the sky and a glacier as a backdrop is even better.”