x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Free-agent yoga instructors meet demand in Abu Dhabi

With just one studio and a growing demand for yoga classes, an increasing number of teachers are offering instructions through hotels, on beaches and in public parks.

The instructor Jennifer Stewart holds a class at the St Regis Hotel on Saadiyat Island. Ravindranath K / The National
The instructor Jennifer Stewart holds a class at the St Regis Hotel on Saadiyat Island. Ravindranath K / The National

While interest in yoga has exploded in recent years, opportunities do not always meet demand in Abu Dhabi.

Despite its burgeoning population and ready students, the capital really just has one centre, Bodytree, which also offers instruction in Pilates and dance as well as a number of programmes for children.

In comparison, there are more than a dozen yoga studios in Dubai, including Club Stretch, dedicated to Bikram yoga, and The Yoga Room, catering to devotees of the hardcore practice Ashtanga.

In the meantime, a pool of free-agent instructors is making the most of Abu Dhabi's shortfall. Without ties to a specific venue, they are taking to hotel beaches, gymnasiums, community centres and elsewhere to help the populace get its fix of downward dogs and warrior poses.

One of these is Jennifer Stewart, a 29-year-old American who came to Abu Dhabi in 2011. With a full certihication from the US, she teaches 12 hours of group classes a week at various spots throughout the city, including the St Regis Hotel on Saadiyat Island and the Eastern Mangroves hotel on Salam Street, as well as some private schooling.

"It would be awesome if we had another yoga centre, as I think a bit of friendly competition wouldn't hurt," she says. "It raises the standards. If you have two [studios], you have to compete against someone. And we do owe it to the community to bring the standard of yoga up in Abu Dhabi."

One of the city's longest-serving teachers is Debbie Kochanczyk, who runs the perpetually popular classes at the Hiltonia resort on the Corniche.

She agrees the city could use another yoga studio to meet demand, and worries that when people teach independently outside of the studio setting there is a risk of underqualified instructors coming across willing students.

"Yoga is hugely positive but it's dangerous stuff," she says. "If it's not taught properly, you can really hurt yourself trying it. By going into back bends or arm balances or headstands without being properly supervised, you could permanently injure yourself."

Established centres such as Bodytree demand that teachers are certified by recognised bodies such as the UK's Yoga Alliance. Outside of that structure, there is always the risk that freelancers can start teaching without recognised accreditation. Kochanczyk believes that is happening already.

"There are some people who are not qualified teaching in the city," she claims. "If you were going to a doctor, wouldn't you ask what are their qualifications? Just like doctors, yoga instructors are people who will be working with your body.

"These teachers can go to India and train at an ashram and at the end they will give you a very nice certificate. But you're not really trained, are you?"

On top of this, Kochanczyk believes many yoga instructors find it impossible to move to Abu Dhabi because they cannot get a visa. Many freelancers, Stewart and Kochanczyk among them, work on their husband's visa. This shuts out unmarried teachers.

Laila Dajani, who has been teaching yoga in the capital since 2007, says the situation makes it hard for people to strike out on their own.

"It is different here because there is only one yoga studio. If anyone else wants to set themselves up as a freelancer, you have to be sponsored on your husband's visa," she says. "So, if you're not married it's really hard to start teaching. I think yoga is greatly in demand but there aren't enough teachers and studios to accommodate everyone."

Additional studios and tutors would also be able to offer a more varied timetable.

"There are plenty of classes during the day catering for the stay-at-home mums," says Dajani. "But most people in Abu Dhabi are here to work, and so it's not possible for them to attend these midmorning classes or even get out during their lunch breaks for a class. Early morning, before work classes or late evening classes are the ones really in demand, but there still aren't enough of us teachers to go around."

Another issue, according to Neli Hristova, who is one of the city's most prolific freelance instructors, is that a lack of yoga studios often leaves new yoga instructors feeling isolated from their fellow professionals.

"New teachers coming to Abu Dhabi don't have a network. If you're working in a hotel you can end up working on your own. So you really have to push to get your own set of clients.

"Because of this it's very transient, so teachers are coming and going all the time. So just as a student gets used to their teacher and starts to make progress, their teacher could be about to go home," she says.

The hotels themselves say they, too, profit from being able to offer yoga to both their guests and the community at large.

Candice D'Cruz is director of marketing at St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, which hosts numerous beachside yoga sessions every week.

She says: "The idea is to keep things interesting for our members and guests, and having yoga on the beach is quite simply refreshing. Yoga at sunrise and sunset by the beach simply adds to the experience."

While there might be a plethora of free agents flitting around the city, Kochanczyk believes that change is afoot: "I just think about when I first came to Abu Dhabi 10 years ago. There was nothing here in terms of yoga teaching. But we've seen some huge changes since then."

She also believes that such is the demand for yoga that hotels will soon be obliged to incorporate it into their fitness facilities.

"All these new hotels have got to employ a yoga instructor at some point," she says. "In many months of the year, it's beautiful to be outside on the beaches doing yoga. And this could be a really big selling point for the hotels in Abu Dhabi."

To cope with the ever-increasing popularity of yoga, Bodytree recently moved to a spacious new villa. The studio coordinator Natasha Clarke says there are plans to open a further studio off Abu Dhabi's main island.

But Clarke also says rivalry from free agents or future businesses that may open in the future is not to be feared: "Demand is growing so fast for yoga in Abu Dhabi ... But competition is healthy and keeps you on your game."

Bikram yoga

The Dubai instructor Tasha Hawkins explains her decision to bring the sweltering art of Bikram yoga to the capital

Those in Abu Dhabi who like their yoga hot, sweaty and exhausting will be pleased to hear that Bikram yoga is no longer confined to Dubai.

Tasha Hawkins, a tutor at Dubai's Club Stretch yoga centre, has recently begun classes in Anahata Spa in Khalifa A.

"There are four studios offering it in Dubai but to the best of my knowledge none in Abu Dhabi," she says. "I had people from Abu Dhabi who were travelling up at weekends to Dubai just to get their fix of Bikram yoga. And they were always asking me if I would consider starting classes in Abu Dhabi."

Developed by the Indian guru Bikram Choudhury in the 1970s, this form of yoga involves a 90-minute set of 26 postures and two breathing exercises completed in a room heated to 41°C. The sultry ambience is thought to stimulate the organs, detoxify the body and help prevent injury. Hawkins' classes are currently women-only, but she says she has plans to start mixed sessions at a different venue in the near future.

Search for BikramYoga Abu Dhabi on Facebook for details.

hberger@thenational.ae