Breathing Space: Yoga In The Icelandic Wilderness

Breathing Space: Yoga In The Icelandic Wilderness

Photos by
Timothée Lambreqc

For all of Reykjavík’s obvious charms, ask anyone who’s lived in the city for a while, and they’ll tell you that they need to escape sometimes. In sharp contrast to larger national capitals, Reykjavík’s central island is a tiny area—walking the same streets week in, week out can lead to an odd kind of claustrophobia, even among people who love the place.

So it’s with anticipation that I head down to the BSÍ coach terminal one bright morning to take a trip with Breathe Iceland, a young company that takes small groups out into Iceland’s landscape, not just to do some sightseeing, but to practise yoga in the fresh air. The tour will take a full day, and includes a stop at Þingvellir for a meditation and yoga session, a lunch break, and then some more yoga at Flúðir’s (not so secret) “secret lagoon.”

Breathing lessons

As we head out of Reykjavík, our guide Arnbjörg tells us the story of how she came to find yoga, feeling a magnetic pull towards her own practise, and eventually, towards teaching others. Arnbjörg, who has been an instructor for four years now, seems to radiate kindness and calm, speaking slowly and placidly. A relaxed atmosphere settles over the group as we listen to her story.

We pass Mosfellsbær and take a right towards the Þingvellir national park, and Arnbjörg begins to lead us through some preparatory breathing exercises. She talks about posture and tells us to try and be mindful of our breathing throughout the day—to take deep, slow breaths, rather than shallow “automatic” breathing.

Not long later, we take a left from the main road, heading away from the most popular tourist area of Þingvellir. We pull over in a craggy, wild area of the park, and head up a short path to a grassy crevasse. Arnbjörg carries a large case with her that contains the gong for the meditation session. We down our bags and spread out between the rocky walls of the chasm, starting with some breathing exercises before Arnbjörg leads us through some stretches and a gentle, basic yoga routine.

As we go through some of the common poses, my mind leans into a more concentrated and present state, ceasing to race with everyday jobs and thought processes. Arnbjörg’s soothing voice guides us through a series of smooth movements, and as my attention focuses, the colours and textures of the surrounding environment seem to become more vivid.

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IRL

But, as always, life provides distractions. During peak season, Icelandic nature becomes something of a theme park, with loud helicopters buzzing overhead—at one point there are three visible at once, both a pair of tourist ‘copters and a rescue aircraft, presumably on an exercise. Shortly after, a stream of Gore-Tex-clad tourists appear, snapping photos, chatting loudly, and eyeing us with curiosity.

While these things disturb the peace of the moment, I’m surprised by how unselfconscious I feel within the group. It’s not like the passersby are seeing us individually; they’re just thinking “oh look, it’s a yoga class.” They also offer a reminder of the real challenges of yoga and meditation—to let the noise of the everyday world slide past, and to concentrate on quieting the tumult of everyday thoughts.

This is what we focus on during the gong meditation. We lie on the grass and Arnbjörg starts to run the mallet around the gong’s circumference slowly, creating a resonant, organic droning sound. She intermittently strikes the gong, in three different chapters of rhythm, creating a hypnotic sound that seems to draw us in and silence all other thoughts. I drift away into a dreamy, meditative place where I’d have been happy to remain all day.

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Tomato oasis

Our next stop is Friðheimar, a farm that holds, among other things, a year-round tomato greenhouse. We’re shown the growing process, from the geothermal water piped in for heating, to the environmentally friendly biological pesticides, and boxes of imported bees used for pollination. We sit on the sun terrace for lunch—a fresh, tangy tomato soup that’s the best I’ve ever tasted.

The final stop is the aforementioned “secret lagoon” in Flúðir, a man-made swimming pool filled with piped-in naturally hot geothermal water. After paddling around for a while, we gather at one end of the pool for a final water-yoga session. It’s hard to stay balanced with the water gently buffeting us, but some exercises that don’t require any balance feel good in the pool. Arnbjörg employs floats to give each of us a gentle massage in the warm water, letting us float free blissfully.

As we start the homeward drive, I am struck by just how relaxing the day was in comparison to other tourist trips. By spending some time focussing on ourselves in the moment, instead of just snapping pictures at each stop and moving on, we got a more vivid experience. In contrast to the default mode of tourist-as-experience-consumer, this trip offered a more mindful and ultimately more memorable experience of Iceland’s landscape.

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