The spiritual aspects of yoga can still leave those in Islam’s more conservative corners somewhat uncomfortable – hence the slow pickup among Emiratis
Meet the Emirati graduates of BodyTree Studio's yoga-teacher training course
Mera Al Hameli tried yoga after a knee injury left her unable to exercise the way she used to, whether that was playing football or dancing. “I couldn’t do anything,” says the 22-year-old Emirati visual arts student. “But some of my friends said: ‘Stretch.’”
She took up yoga, and her initial approach to the centuries-old mind and body practice focused purely on the physical. Until she decided to become a yoga teacher, that is. The decision shocked some of Al Hameli’s family members. “The first thing they say is: ‘Oh my god, you’re becoming a teacher,’” she tells me. “They find it something really big because none of my family members practise yoga.”
Al Hameli is one of four Emiratis and 11 women – most of them Muslim – to graduate from BodyTree Studio’s three-month yoga teacher-training course this month. It’s the first teacher training that the decade-old Abu Dhabi studio has held, and with it, BodyTree has produced some of the first Emirati yoga teachers.
Although yoga has exploded in popularity in the West, and is a trend that is highly visible in the UAE, the spiritual aspects of the practice can still leave those in Islam’s more conservative corners somewhat uncomfortable – hence the slow pickup among Emiratis. Al Hameli admits that while her mother didn’t stop her from taking the course, she remains sceptical about it.
“She thinks it is against our religion to practise, but before taking this course I used to think I did it for the physical aspect of it,” she explains. “I don’t know if I used to tell myself that because my mum’s voice was in the back of my head but… now looking at it, it doesn’t affect my religion in any way.”
In an interview before taking their final exams this month, the women talked about how, although they were initially trepidatious, they now feel that the spiritual aspects of yoga complement their religious beliefs, rather than compete with them.
Layla Kahmostaji, a 27-year-old who works in human resources, realised that, for her, any hesitation she felt about going farther down the yoga path stemmed mostly from a fear of the unknown. “It’s protecting something that’s your own against something that’s another person’s, or from another culture,” she says. “It’s protecting your identity and not wanting it to merge with others, even though it might and it will eventually improve on it. It’s just that fear of mixing up identity. I understand what the fear is, I was afraid of it as well, but I’m also curious, so my curiosity overrode it.”
Latifa Ahmed, a 38-year-old court coordinator who lives in Al Ain, is familiar with that fear, and approached the practice in much the same way as Al Hameli. “I had it at the beginning, but when I started practising, I took it as a physical activity, I didn’t take it as a spiritual way,” she says. “But during the course I had that idea about the spiritual side and I thought: ‘I can take the spiritual side to deepen my practice.’ So I think if I do it this way, it will not contradict my feelings or my belief in Islam, so I think it will help me.”
Jacquie Sadek, the Australian yoga teacher who led the three-month course, says she felt the resistance among her Emirati students and watched them be challenged, then overcome, then ease into their learning. “I felt that the trust built itself organically, as I often looked and was also shown by the Emirati women the striking similarities with the Muslim faith and rituals, as well as traditions,” she says. “The more they made these connections, the deeper their growth, spiritually, emotionally and psychically.”
During their interview, the women talked with wonder about aspects of Islam that they found reflected in yoga. They see the similarities everywhere, from the dedication to non-violence to the similarities in the postures and prayer, and in the correlation between chanting Om and the vibrational aspects involved in reciting the Quran.
“The flow of the sun salutation is almost the same as the flow of the Muslim prayer,” says Hala Shish, a 40-year-old French-Syrian, who left a marketing and communications job to become a life coach. “When you stand on the prayer carpet, you do almost the same movements… the fact that we chant, the sounds [we] create, everything is energy at the end of the day. It’s a way for us to really concentrate on these vibrations, beyond the physical being and materialistic world, and seeing the true essence.”
Sharifa Sehweil, who with her daughter Nadia owns BodyTree, says yoga, and teacher training, enhance each student’s understanding of the universe and of God, of self-love, helping them to realise that we are all connected. “It deepens your way of praying and connecting, and it makes you more compassionate, more loving, more understanding,” she says. “And it’s something that we need to spread to the world, because the world is in chaos right now.”
While some of her classmates want more training, Al Hameli is eager to begin teaching ladies-only classes at BodyTree. As for that initial fear, she understands it now. “It’s looking at the same thing, but from a different perspective,” Al Hameli says. “It’s interesting because every one is saying the same thing, but in their own language.”