Yoga and Cultural Connection in the Swiss Alps

Jody Tull

Jody Tull

Jody Tull, owner of Ann Arbor's Be in Awe Yoga, recently led her ninth yoga retreat in Soglio, Switzerland, just an hour’s walk from the Italian border.  She answers questions about the retreat and what it's like practicing yoga in a foreign country.

Interviewed by Julianne Popovec

Q. How did the Soglio retreat come about?

A. In the heart of Switzerland’s mountainous Bregaglia district lies Soglio, a small farming village built by my husband Rupert’s ancestors, more than 1,000 years ago. For Rupert, sharing Soglio with me was a dream come true. For me, in turn, sharing Soglio with yoga students is a dream come true.

My first thought after entering its majestic field was: Somehow, someday, I will share this place with beloved yoga students.

I am convinced that we should not question the birthing of such an idea. Instead, its call to action orchestrates life, magically. Listening and honoring — with reverence — is at the core of yoga and offers life pathways and purpose.

My initial glimpse into Soglio was a silhouette against the majestic backdrop of Alpine mountain peaks piercing a deep blue sky. Its energetic vibrancy gave me goose bumps. I was in awe — thus the name Be In Awe — and keenly aware of my bursting resolve: I will bring yoga students to Soglio one day.

Rupert’s response, “You couldn’t possibly do that,” provided me with an inner, Hmmmmm… give me two years.

So it happened. Yoga students, mostly from Ann Arbor, gathered in 2004 for our first welcome dinner. And, due to popular demand, we have served the same welcome menu for each of the eight years (you’ll have to join us to find out what it is).

Q. What is it like, practicing yoga in Soglio?

A. Sometimes we’ve chosen to use the yoga meditation studio, a converted hayloft in the village center. But mostly, yoga mats are arranged in a field, where we meditate and stretch, breathing in life, deepening a connection with the earth and to the sun while magnifying and resting in Soglio’s shimmering beauty.

Morning practices prepare us for late morning hikes that take us through resonant tunnels carved through the rock, fun for singing, chanting, and improvisation, to waterfall-fed swimming holes, which are wonderful for refreshing dips. We sometimes hike to Italian market villages with their handmade, take-home treasures, ancient ruins, lovely little meadows with breathtaking views, local grottos, gelateria, cafés, and Roman roads used until the 1800s for herding sheep, goats, and cows.

Evening practices shake out any lingering tightness from the day’s hike-swim-sing, with time for the sharing of insights, adventures and transformations — in preparation for a good night’s sleep.

During our fifth yoga retreat (2009), local farmer Felix Bruegger, in addressing our group, offered a brilliant explanation for Soglio’s unmistakable field of radiance: “We farmers have always used organic methods and ancient farming rotation techniques (using our hands versus machinery), while embracing and prioritizing this philosophy of looking after each other and the animals with kindness.”  

This ever-present attitude of kindness permeates the village. It explains Soglio’s exceptional goat cheese, scrumptious raw milk, and a line of gorgeous strictly pure Soglio products made exclusively from local plants and herbs.

One more element that enhances our yoga practice is Soglio’s light. The unique and exquisite lighting results from the way in which the sun enters and exits the village each day — truly something to behold. Soglio is frequented by artists and photographers from around the globe who come for the light. 

Q. How have the retreats evolved over the years?

A. The first couple of years, most attendees were Be In Awe yoga students from Ann Arbor. By year three, we were also welcoming yogis from Germany, Holland, England, Belgium, and India. Some travel solo, some with a partner, daughter or friend, and some have traveled in a group. Some have time enough just for the retreat. Others tag on a week for exploring Milan, Lake Como, St. Moritz, or Zurich. All talk about the “gotta get myself there” call, coupled with having had to muster up courage, at least for the first year. Each year, we have around half the group who have returned for a second or third time. They really welcome, look after, and generate loads of excitement for first time attendees. Each has a story to share from a previous year, such as a hike, class, meditation, meal, and so on. This builds year after year and is really so rewarding to observe.

Q. Where do you stay?

A. We’ve mostly stayed in a gorgeous old house that is over 700 years old. Typically Swiss in how it’s masterfully equipped and brilliantly restored, with beautiful and varied views, the house is comfortable and indicative of the region — with the kitchen and adjoining balcony wonderful for gathering. Some participants specify single rooms. But, on their next year return, each (without exception) has preferred sharing a room, from which many (and there are many) “roaring with laughter” moments and many tearful moments have ensued — all essential in finding one’s way home and sharing that home inside friendship.

Q. What do you appreciate about the culture?

A. The pace of daily life for the locals unfolds with connection to the sunrise and sunset. They work hard and then, basta, they call it a day. Stone benches provide gathering places for sharing news of the day, while admiring the changing tones of bright orange against the darkening blue sky.

To drink the fresh unpasteurized milk, to catch a morning whiff of baking bread and then partake while it is still warm and slathered with freshly churned butter, to savor the taste and texture of the day’s collection of eggs and to fill up on the world’s best-ever fresh goat cheese — all of this epitomizes the very heart of “buying local.”

Year-round residents, whose clans have lived in Soglio for hundreds of years, radiate the beauty of their surroundings. Machines, internet connections, and other ways of modern life are relegated to second place. Instead, the people of Soglio connect with and tune in to nature, the angle of the sun, the current season. They listen to Mother Earth.

Q. How can yoga enhance your connection to a place and culture in a way that might be different than if you just traveled to the location, not on a yoga retreat?

A. Yoga enhances the senses, so you are much more aware of the sights and sounds and smells and textures around you. The experience of sitting down to meditate in a pre-dawn dark meadow, and opening your eyes to a fresh new sunrise, is bliss absolute. The values of organic farming, fresh air, mountain views, and the outdoor life are perfectly matched to the health generating practice of yoga.

It’s completely enriching to arrive in a new location with a purpose, rather than just as an observer. The yoga element means that you are surrounded by like-minded people; many deep friendships have been forged among Soglio participants. The local way of life is diametrically opposite to the frenzied, smart-phone driven rat race found in so much of the world.

The people of Soglio enjoy life for itself.

Q. What are some cultural differences you’ve observed?

A. Soglio is at the meeting point of two cultures Swiss and Italian. The Swiss are reserved, thoughtful, and meticulous. They are not afraid to invest time and money to do something the right and wise way, so it will serve generations to come. They appreciate healthy hard work, nourishing food, activity, and relaxation. The Italians are exuberant, full of color, creativity, and fun. They come to life in the evening. The Swiss have finished their day’s work before some Italians rise from their beds. Both regions have natural beauty and stunning architecture, in different ways. One of many joys in Soglio is experiencing the influence of both cultures. The Italian border is only an hour’s walk from Soglio.

Q. What is the food like?

A. Alan Harmer and Rupert de Salis are chefs extraordinaire and receive rave reviews. The meals are always fresh and vegetarian, using mostly local ingredients with exquisite presentation, and Italian and Indian influences. Each year Alan brings fresh herbs from his garden in Geneva, along with his homemade quince jam and top secret ingredients for his best ever homemade ice-cream.

Q. What do you hope your guests discover on these retreats?

A. Awe. Gratitude. Best of life friendship — most especially with oneself. A relaxing energized flow to the day. A deeper and gentler understanding of the intention of yoga as a listening practice that reveals inner stirrings and wisdom. To discover and experience a way of life that prioritizes non-violence, gentleness, and kindness — especially directed toward oneself. Noticing and remembering just how good it feels to be comfortably at home, inside one’s own self and sharing that ease with others.

Q. What effects does practicing yoga in a foreign location have on travelers mentally, spiritually, and physically?

A. Travel is stimulating. It takes you away from the concerns of daily life. It heightens your awareness of everything, especially that which is new and different. A change of climate, food, and daily routines, and being surrounded by wonderful, like-minded people does wonders for your mood and outlook on life. Soglio, in particular, has a special magic. I wish I could just whisk people there, to experience the extraordinary sunlight, views, smells, sounds and textures — like the sound of water splashing into fountains as you fall asleep. What a backdrop for practicing yoga and meditation!

Q. Have you faced any challenges in leading a retreat abroad?

A. Yes! The main challenge is to convey to people who haven’t yet joined us just how transforming it is to practice yoga in Soglio. Early on, my students suggested that my raves about Soglio were me just being “all enthusiastic.” But, after experiencing Soglio first hand, they come home and recruit their colleagues, friends, and relatives. Most people who have joined us in Soglio have come because of a referral.

Q. How have things changed from the first Soglio retreat to the latest one?

A. Each year we discover a new gem of a hike, picnic meadow, or singing tunnel. Our list is now so long that choosing the walks, meadows, and menus for that year can be a fun kind of challenge.

Q. Jody, how long have you been practicing yoga?

A. I happened into the Sivandanda Yoga Center in the mid-1980s while working toward my master’s degree in Music Education at Columbia University. The swami in charge of the yoga center offered me unlimited yoga classes in exchange for voice lessons. This lovely opportunity was the launch of my yoga practice and the beginning of the popular course I teach called “Finding Your Voice.” These workshops are powerfully transformational, guiding students into experiencing the healing capacity of music with the healing capacity of yoga.

Q. What made you want to become a teacher?

A. I fell in love with how alive, open, and energized yoga made me feel. I wanted to share the experience of that feeling with all my loved ones. More than anything, I hope to be a force for good and provide a place of calm in our frantic world. My yoga practice — ultimately a meditation practice — puts me in touch with, and reveals to me, my best self.

Inside the energy field of Soglio, yoga participants effortlessly connect with the source of their breath and the great outdoors. Facilitating that connection in others is extremely rewarding.

If, as it was intended by ancient sages, every world citizen engaged in a daily meditative yoga-like practice, we would, more and more, resonate a peaceful and beautiful — Soglio-like — world.


Jody Tull received her master’s degree in education from Columbia University and lives in Ann Arbor. She is a certified therapeutic yoga instructor with 18 years of teaching experience. Her work combines classical full spectrum yoga, the philosophy of yoga, meditative hatha yoga, and the yoga of sound, called “Finding Your Voice.” Weekly yoga classes and relaxation treatments are held at the Be In Awe Yoga Studio in Ann Arbor. Visit www.beinaweyoga.com or contact Jody at jody@beinawe.com.

Posted on April 30, 2014 .