BEST FOR: AN EASY-GOING INTRODUCTION TO AYURVEDA
NOT FOR: DIE-HARD AYURVEDA FANS. BE PREPARED FOR A EUROPEAN TWIST
Of the handful of spas in Britain and Europe that label themselves as Ayurvedic the least expensive we’ve come across is Sonnhof, in Austria, in the little Tirolean village of Thiersee. That’s certainly a lot easier to get to than Goa. The flight to Innsbruck takes well under two hours – 90 minutes if you’re flying from London – and then it’s about an hour by taxi (which the resort can arrange) before you’re drawing up outside one of those typical old wood-built Austrian chalets with balconies, walking into the cosy reception area, and being shown into your room.
Like everything at this little hotel, the bedrooms are immaculate. There are just 30, each with their own bathroom with a walk-in shower and well-soundproofed separate loo – an important point when you’re undergoing any sort of digestive cleanse and are sharing a room. Happpily, they’re not quite as vividly decorated as some of the rest of the hotel, which can veer into garishness. Colour abounds at Sonnhof, though – purple, scarlet, umber – because when the owners launched the Ayurvedic programme, ten years ago, they set out to differentiate the hotel as much as possible from the typical chalet-hotel with its red and white check table cloths and pine-panelled everything that exists by the hundred in villages across the Tirol. Up to then, the mother of the current owners, Christina and Lisa Mauracher, aged 28 and 29, who run the hotel with their father, had operated Sonnhof as a normal Tirolean mountain hotel with a couple of massage rooms, but she had decided to switch to an Ayurvedic-themed spa after meeting a practitioner of Ayurveda and being enchanted by its reach and potential for improving health via cleansing.
Sadly, Christina and Lisa’s mother died of breast cancer before she could see her dream realised. Since then, the sisters’ desire to run the hotel as conscientiously as their mother would have done has driven them to work hard at making her dream a reality. A key part of that has been creating a European version of Ayurveda. Buddhas and little statues of Ganesha, the elephant god, are dotted all around the hotel and gardens, and the sensibility here is spiritual. But the approach to Ayurveda is firmly practical. “Our mother thought it wouldn’t make sense to bring Indian foods, Indian oils and so all the way to Austria when an important part of Ayurveda is that you use what is to hand, what is locally-sourced,” says Christina. “So we use Indian herbs and spices in the kitchens and in treatments. But we have Europeanised a lot of other elements.”
The bed on which you lie to receive shirodhara, for example, the traditional Ayurvedic treatment involving the massaging of warm oil onto your body and then the repeated pouring of the oil onto “the third eye” in the middle of your forehead isn’t an authentic one. It would be made of wood, its perimeter surrounded by a channel to catch the oil, if you were receiving the treatment in India. “Quite uncomfortable for Europeans used to soft mattresses to lie on!”, says Lisa. Instead, guests as Sonnhof receive this treatment, along with most others, on a regular massage bed. A broad, comfortable one, too, wide enough so that you can lie with your arms at your side. Unlike in Indian Ayurvedic spas, where the air is heavy with the scent of whichever oils are being used, regardless of their pleasantness, the air in the 16 treatment rooms at Sonnhof is sweetly scented with essential oils of jasmine, sandalwood and rose, deliberately burned to mask the less pleasing oils.
After your early-morning yoga class (aimed at beginners) you go for breakfast, to which an hour is devoted before your mid-morning round of massages followed by sessions in the saunas and steam rooms, you will find familiar European foods laid out on the buffet. Cheeses, boiled eggs, smoked salmon, porridge made from oats, chia, barley or spelt, breads and jams: it is the most delicious spread, but definitely not what you’d find in India or Sri Lanka.
As you would at any Ayurvedic centre on the subcontinent, though, you start a stay with a visit to the Ayurvedic doctor – and he is the real thing. Dr Gaurav Sharma has practiced at Sonnhof for the last nine years, and although he doesn’t diagnose your dosha for you unless you ask him, he does ask the probing questions about your way of life, tastes and preferences that reveal to him whether you are primarily vata, pitta or kapha, and prescribes your treatment programme on the basis of that.
“It would get too complicated, we think, if we talked about doshas too much, and for instance tried to give everyone a diet according to their dosha,” says Christina. “What we want to do is above all make life easy for guests, give them a respite from rules and the stress of having to think whether they’re allowed this food or that. We want everyone who comes here to relax. The food is organic, as much as possible, and very healthy, and that means you eat healthily if not according to the strictest Ayurvedic rules about what each dosha can have.”
There are three meals a day, plus afternoon tea, unless you’re following a strict panchakarma detox programme. And apart from following your prescribed programme of treatments – massages and sessions in the various saunas (including infra-red saunas that don’t make you sweat but do have a profoundly detoxifying effect) – you get plenty of time to join the free daily yoga classes, to stretch out on one of the sunbeds arranged around the pools (indoor and outdoor), looking out across the garden to the Kaiser mountain peaks beyond, or to retreat to the meditation room or tiny gym. In summer, you can borrow a bike to explore, and you can hike in the surrounding hills and mountains year-round.
Most first-time guests apparently test the waters by booking in for just a few days, and then return a few months later for a seven- or 10-day stay to do a panchakarma detox. Our tip? Plunge straight in. There’s nothing to be nervous of here – they wont even make you do the colon-cleansing bit of panchakarma if you’re squeamish. And just breathing that pure fresh mountain in as you stand on your balcony in the morning, walk in the gardens or hike into the mountains makes you feel cleaner, better and brighter.
CONTACT: + 43 5376 5502; www.sonnhof-ayurveda.at
PRICE: Room rates range from €130 to €260 per person per night, including all meals. Treatment programmes from €658
NEAREST AIRPORT: Innsbruck
TRANSFER TIME: One hour
First-Hand Visit Write-Up By: Miranda Chenecey