x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Alternative therapies find open minds in the UAE

Yoga, meditation, ayurvedic medicine and aromatherapy have enjoyed wide acceptance here, in part because of the region's long history of alternative therapies.

Sona Bahri teaches Raja Yoga at the Inner Space centre in Abu Dhabi. Delores Johnson / The National
Sona Bahri teaches Raja Yoga at the Inner Space centre in Abu Dhabi. Delores Johnson / The National

Friday afternoon in a villa in Abu Dhabi, and it would be hard to imagine a more disparate group. There are couples, young and not so young, groups of friends and solitary souls. There are a variety of expatriates - American, British, Egyptian, Lebanese - and several Emiratis. One has driven from Al Ain with her brother, two live nearby and come cradling their drowsing babies, another listens earnestly as his neighbour quietly translates the afternoon's proceedings into Arabic.

Every now and then, the door opens and another late-comer edges into the room. Rows of chairs are added, pushed up against the back wall. People have driven from Dubai, Sharjah, Al Ain and Ajman. All these different people are looking for the same thing and hoping this might be the place they find it.

Mumbai-born Sona Bahri has been teaching Raja Yoga - a form of meditation - at the Inner Space centre in Abu Dhabi for four years. Every couple of weeks she holds a seminar. This is an introduction to the practice.

"A year and a half ago," she says, "I'd be surprised if 20 people showed up. Now with five days notice and no advertising, we get 100 bookings."

For many, the prevailing image of the UAE is that of rampant consumerism. Forget sand and heat, it is bling that comes most readily to many minds at the mention of Dubai and Abu Dhabi: tall buildings, supercars, designer heels flicking from the hems of black abayas and bags that cost more than many earn in a month.

Bling so dazzling it obscures the substance that lurks beneath this often dubious style. Because there is another UAE, hidden, alternative and on the rise. On any given day or night, you'll find some version of it somewhere - at a meet-up group, a seminar, a class or in a treatment room. Somebody somewhere will be looking for an alternative way of thinking, a different way of dealing with stress, illness, broken hearts … life.

Take a quick browse online and the sheer volume of options is startling. Some are admittedly more "alternative" than others. There are believers in Crystal Children, whose aura, invisible to human eyes, is the manifest colour of high magic. There are Astral projectors, whose out-of-body journeys take them to higher planes. There are Lightworkers who, rather nobly, volunteered before birth to help the planet. There are Gong Masters and Gateway Healers and shamans.

Truth be told, there are a great many groups that might be deemed the reserve of bored yummy mummies with full closets and empty hours; fads that blow in with their expatriate advocates and are, in all likelihood, destined to blow out with them again when they leave. The degree to which many expatriates live online - swiftly making contact with notions they might otherwise never have encountered and trying them on for size just for the heck of it - must play some part in this scene.

But not all those turning to alternative therapies are bored expatriates, and some are neither.

Bahri, who taught Raja Yoga for 14 years in Australia before moving to Abu Dhabi with her engineer husband, admits: "Initially I was surprised that locals came. I had the impression that they had their family here, their social circles. For a lot of expats there is the stress of being in a new place. For locals, I just thought it was business as usual.

"But then I realised that this phenomenon of losing ourselves is a worldwide one. We all get caught up in the consciousness of our labels, our appearance, the external world we live in.

"Consumerism is something which has become almost a habit in the UAE. I'm not against economic progress but I think a lot of Arabia used to be a very simple place and now that has changed. There is so much stuff and people have lost themselves."

Natalie Wells agrees. Born in Leicester, England, the mother of two has lived in Abu Dhabi for four years where she works as a doula and childbirth educator. For the past two years she has also practised reiki. Among her regular clients is a local man who she says "has a very stressful job and finds it hard to switch off".

"Whatever your circumstances, life is full of trials and tribulations," she says. "Nobody is immune."

Reiki is an ancient healing system based on channelling universal energy. It's believed this energy is intelligent, meaning that the practitioner is a conduit who doesn't direct it; it just knows where it is needed.

Wells first encountered it 15 years ago when she had a treatment. But she only turned to it again when facing a major spine operation. "I'd been carrying my reiki master's card around for a year, having met her here in Abu Dhabi. I got in touch and she said reiki has a way of finding you when you're ready."

Wells smiles: "It definitely helped me recuperate. I think some of my family think I'm bonkers. I think our world in general works along the lines that, unless you can see or touch something, it can't be real. Healing is hard for people to get their heads around. But I find people here are more open to accepting things even if you can't fully explain it."

Geography and logistics may have a part to play. There is the proximity and influence of India, where great emphasis is placed on the ancient practices of yoga, ayurvedic medicine and naturopathy. Hundreds of different nationalities co-exist in the UAE and each brings its own wisdoms.

But alternative therapies are as much a part of the Middle East tradition as that of the subcontinent. This openness is not simply an import, it's indigenous. The first written records of herbal medicines are on Mesopotamian clay tablets and Egyptian papyrus.

Investigating attitudes towards various therapies a decade ago, researchers writing a paper for the Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal questioned more than a hundred medical students in Al Ain University - all Emiratis. Among other things, they found 73 per cent had used alternative medicines, 99 per cent would refer patients to a herbal practitioner and more than 50 per cent would consider spiritual therapy. The researchers concluded: "Alternative medicine has an enormous hidden presence and influence within the UAE healthcare system."

Those students of yesteryear are now the practitioners of today, so one can only assume that influence has grown with their careers.

Certainly Livia Anzaldo's experiences suggest to her a particular openness of UAE residents to alternative practices. "I wouldn't talk about healing and yoga with my parents or even my peers in Italy the way I do here because they'd think I was crazy," admits the Sicilian. "Here, it's different."

Anzaldo moved to Dubai in 2008 and, in common with many, her own journey to alternative therapies was bound up in the stress of the economic crash a year later. "I was in real estate and I really struggled," she says. "It was a very back-stabbing environment. I decided I needed a change and I needed to do it straight away. I was losing the plot."

She went to India and learnt from a yoga guru. In January 2010, she set up Liv2Lead, specialising in self-development and yoga courses, trips and retreats. "My yoga practice is very deep," she says. "It focuses on breathing properly, which is so important. You see things differently, your brain clears, you think more positively. Some breaths can be detoxing, others can improve your organs' functions."

Asked who her clients are, Anzaldo replies: "Anybody and everybody. In the past year, though, I've really noticed a growth. I started from zero in 2010 and now I have 400 followers on my Facebook page and another 400 on the website. It's incredible."

They are all, she says, looking for one thing: "Balance - in life, work and relationships."

Anzaldo also uses Gong Bath meditation. There are several groups in Dubai following this ancient Chinese form of meditation, where the vibrations of various gongs are said to induce different states of consciousness. "Everyone's perception of the sound is different," she explains. "We have different states of consciousness - theta, beta, gamma and delta - and these can be healing, physically and emotionally. We all have the capacity to heal ourselves."

This notion of healing oneself is a common thread uniting many alternative therapies.

When she came to Dubai from her native Hong Kong in 1997, Sunita Teckchand set up her own aromatherapy centre. But after six years, the physical nature of the work took its toll on Teckchand's health. She suffered paralysis in her right arm due to a problem with her cervical vertebrae and was told by three doctors she needed surgery. She refused, turning instead to the Japanese healing art of Jin Shin Jyutsu. "Let's say that our life battery is low and we need to jump-start it. Our hands are like the jump-leads," Teckchand said. "There are 26 safety energy locks on the left and right side of our body. We place hands over them and we jump-start the energy."

It worked for Teckchand, who avoided surgery and went on to open the Holistic Institute in Dubai, running accredited aromatherapy courses and a multitude of others.

To Teckchand, the key to all alternative therapies is the belief that "we human beings all have the innate ability to heal ourselves in every way. We have just forgotten".

Perhaps that is what is drawing so many people to explore such things. In an uncertain world, where fortunes and friends come and go, there is a powerful appeal about the idea of being reliant only on yourself. How liberating to be able to tap into an inner strength impervious to loss and circumstance; to know, as Bahri puts it: "Anything can change at a moment, but nobody can take away your happiness because it is within you."