Forever an Ayurveda enthusiast, Healing Holidays MD Frances Geoghegan was intrigued when it was announced the ancient Indian philosophy was making tracks in Austria - of all places.
As a fan of Ayurveda, a specialty of India and Sri Lanka, I was doubtful that a retreat in Austria could possibly offer an authentic, effective experience. Surely Ayurveda is only suited to a warm balmy climate, and perfected by those from the Indian sub-continent? I arrived at Sonnhof, a pleasant 90 minute drive from Munich, the snow is thick on the mountains, and the air is crisp and cold. This seems all wrong.
On entering the 30-room hotel, the air is thick with the smell of incense, Buddhas and images of the sun dot the reception area. I am greeted by Christina, daughter of the owner, who sits with me and explains how it all works. Sonnhof, 12 years ago, used to be a traditional Austrian hotel, serving stodgy Austrian fare and lots of schnapps. Her mother Brigitte Mauracher discovered Ayurveda and fell in love with the practice and its healing powers. She was suffering from cancer, which sadly killed her, but her passion for Ayurveda lives on in both her daughters. Christina is a committed practitioner of Ayurveda and does treatments on guests daily, whilst Lisa takes most of the yoga and meditation classes. Both work very closely with Dr Alaettin Sinop, a GP and naturopath, who hails from Northern India. I am shown around the Spa, which has 9 treatment rooms, and an area devoted to sauna/steam and infra-red, which the Austrians are very good at.
I am here to do the Panchakarma cure, a programme that will help cleanse my organs of deposits and toxins, and stabilise the nervous system. My first port of call is a full consultation with Doctor Sinop - he is a real fire ball of energy, funny and engaging, and makes me feel at ease straight away. He asks me to press both my hands over his right hand. From this simple action he can tell much about my medical state and the issues that plague my life - poor sleep, bad digestion, etc. He talks about my dosha - I am of the pitta persuasion, apparently, my type are brave, astute and self-confident, but also tend to be hot-headed, argumentative and quick to anger. He explains my programme for the next few days; very little activity, lots of rest, many massages and little food.
I head now for my first massage, an abhyango - which is a full body Ayurvedic massage. I am anointed in warm oil, which transports me to India. The massage is firm and totally relaxing. I drift in and out of sleep, and once they finish they wrap me in blankets and put a hot water bottle on my stomach. I rest for 10 minutes. Dinner follows, which starts with a cup of warm tea laced with Indian spices. It’s followed by carrot and ginger soup, eggplant medallion with tomato and garlic sauce, and finished with stewed pineapple. It is surprisingly delicious and artistically served. I retreat to my room, which is simple in décor - lots of wood, with one painted dramatic red wall to channel all the good energy. A couple of yoga mats lie at the bottom of my bed, but I am too exhausted to do more than sleep. I know tomorrow will be the most challenging day, as it’s the fast day.
It starts with a herbal powder massage, udartana, which is done by two therapists. It is like a salt scrub massage, and I feel squeaky clean after it. It is meant to start the detoxification process.
It follows with a ‘laxative cocktail’, nothing like any cocktail I am used to swilling. It’s green and slimy, a mixture of castor oil, lemon and spices. Disgusting. I feel as though the whole lot will come up at any second. I am sent back to my room to rest, relax and meditate, but most importantly to be near the toilet. I am meant to drink a cup of warm water every fifteen minutes, followed by some yoga exercises, and then to the toilet. As the hours progress, I drink less water, do no yoga exercises, just sit on the toilet. Lunch is a very bland boring rice soup, which tastes of nothing, and looks like wallpaper paste.
At 3pm I have an abdominal massage, and given how frequent my trips to the toilet are, I am unsure that I will be able to endure it. It passes without incident, it’s a painful massage, my belly is kneaded like dough, and fingers are dug in to my ribs, not a pleasant sensation.
Dinner is more dreaded rice soup, followed by bed.
The following day starts with a Yoga session, which limbers me, and sets me up for the day. Breakfast is stewed fruit, which is refreshing, but far from sating my appetite. I then follow with a back treatment (Kati Vasti), which is blissfully relaxing. My remaining days are rituals of deeply relaxing massages and treatments - my personal favourite was the shiodhara, an insanely-relaxing treatment, where hot oil is poured on your forehead; it puts you in a trance-like state, leading to deep relaxation.
Bottom Line: I think Sonnhof is a hidden gem, and it’s been a great joy to stay here. It is a very warm, friendly place, run beautifully by the Maurcher family. There is nothing pretentious about it, It delivers a great, authentic Ayurveda experience. I loved my room, with its balcony looking out to the mountains and valley. The food, (when I was allowed to eat), was tasty and colourful. Damith, the Sri Lankan therapist, is worth mentioning for his great hands. It was a joy to breathe the pristine Austrian air each day, and the walks through the mountains and forest were truly memorable.