Tourists have been striking yoga poses in front of Icelandic scenery since time immemorial—or at least since time Instagram-memorial. Clearly, exquisite natural settings and yoga practice are a match made in New Age hiker heaven.
This summer, entrepreneurial yoga instructors and massage therapists, Emil Tsakalis and Magnús Andri Pálsson, tapped into the backpacking demographic in Þórsmörk with ‘yogahikes’ and ‘nature massages’ for the first time in cooperation with Volcano Huts.
Are there back rubs in heaven?
As the last stop along the Laugavegur trail, Þórsmörk already has a reputation for its heavenly surroundings and the resulting atmosphere. And now that massages are available for all those sore pack-carrying shoulders, it’s hard to imagine a heaven that doesn’t involve back rubs. Thank goodness Þórsmörk’s wearied trekkers won’t have to any longer.
As day-trippers we arrived in Þórsmörk’s nature reserve by a monster truck of a four-wheel-drive bus. Wandering the campsite, we crossed a quaint footbridge over a tiny rivulet of water that paled in comparison to the rivers our bus had just braved. Once safely on the other side, we met Magnús who had the firmest handshake of any yogi I have ever met (in his former life Magnús was a weight lifter, before a trip to India changed his worldview). He showed us the cedar barrel-like sauna situated near a small pool and invited us into the large massage tent from whence he came.
“Yogahike” does NOT mean easy hike
We decided to embark on our yogahike first and finish with a relaxing steam, soak, massage trifecta. We soon learned the hard way that ‘yoga’ is not a euphemism for ‘easy’ in ‘yogahike.’ While our group rose to the challenge, we had neither mentally nor physically prepared ourselves for the rigours of steep inclines and rock scrambling. But as Magnús said, “Meet your body as it is today,” and that we did.
Magnús was extremely patient and used our frequent rest stops as a chance to share some breathing and meditation exercises. Breathing in and out through the nose can be difficult when you’re exercising for the first time in weeks and all you want to do is pant like a dog, but once I got the hang of it, I realised the hiking experience was far more Zen sans gasps.
Off the beaten track
Throughout the course of our hike, Magnús led us off the beaten track to Sönghellir, a “singing cave” with perfect acoustics. Next we conquered Valahnúkur and sprawled out in the grass on top of the mountain. Happily exhausted from the steep incline, we bathed in the sun like starfish clinging to a rock during low tide. Once upright, we took in truly incredible views of the glaciers Tindfjallajökull and Eyjafjallajökull of 2010’s ashy fame.
We passed Snorraríki, the cave of a legendary meat thief named Snorri, cleverly out of reach of any pursuing po-po. I attempted to climb into the cave using the foot and hand holds that Magnús pointed out, but was not confident enough in my wall scaling abilities to swing into the cave. I plan to commit a petty crime as motivation for my next attempt.
We ended our hike with a pleasant stroll near what is known locally as “the valley of the elves:” a picturesque vale complete with birch trees, yellow and purple wildflowers and a tranquil stream—yet no observable elves. Just beyond this valley lies a field of tall grass where Magnús conducts his yoga sessions.
Due to a sudden injury within the group, we could not complete the yoga portion of our hike, however recuperating in the field felt just a meditative and saved me the embarrassment of not being able to touch my toes. It is important to note that the hike is not dangerous and most people will not run the risk of injury if they have the proper hiking boots, but Magnús was particularly apt in the emergency situation, and we felt safe in his care.
Relaxation: rain or shine
Sitting in the sun, we earned sunburns like red badges of courage. When the sun shines briefly on Iceland during a rainy summer, you soak it up like there’s no tomorrow. However, Magnús assured us that rain can sometimes enhance outdoor yoga sessions. During particularly inclement weather, he takes the yoga inside the massage tent and holds off on the hikes. Luckily saunas and massages remain all-weather activities in Iceland.
Magnús’s massages incorporate the same attention to breathing that he fostered throughout the yogahike. “Massage is a meditation for me,” he explained, using breathing to focus the mind. And while the thought of a man breathing deeply over your thinly veiled naked body may sound unsavoury to some, it serves as a good reminder to keep breathing yourself.
I think we can all agree breathing improves all animate activities. Yet this essential life function is easy to ignore in the course of our day-to-day lives. Yoga is about more than just striking camera-ready poses—it is primarily concerned with mindfulness and intention. If you want to know true relaxation, take a deep breath of fresh air in Þórsmörk, hold it for as moment and then let it all out. Very good.
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