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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Yoga flourishing amid Saudi Arabia reform drive - in pictures  

'Five years ago, (teaching yoga publicly) would have been impossible,' says Nouf Marwaai, as she began training a cluster of women students at a private studio in the Red Sea city of Jeddah 

In a sparse, wood-floored studio, Saudi women squat, lunge and do headstands. Even a year ago, teaching these yoga postures would not be acceptable in the conservative Islamic kingdom.

Widely perceived as a Hindu spiritual practice, yoga was not officially permitted for decades in Saudi Arabia, but with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman vowing an "open, moderate Islam", the kingdom last November recognised yoga as a sport amid a new liberalisation drive.

Nouf Marwaai, 38, the head of the Arab Yoga Foundation (foreground), instructs her yoga students with at her studio in the western Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah on September 7, 2018. Widely perceived as a Hindu spiritual practice, yoga was not officially permitted for decades in Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam where all non-Muslim worship is banned. But with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman vowing an "open, moderate Islam", the kingdom last November recognised yoga as a sport, despite the risk of riling hardliners opposed to the practice. / AFP / Amer HILABI
Nouf Marwaai, 38, the head of the Arab Yoga Foundation (foreground), instructs her yoga students at her studio in the western Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah. Photo / AFP

Spearheading efforts to normalise yoga in the kingdom is Nouf Marwaai, a Saudi woman who has battled insults and threats from extremists to challenge the notion that yoga is incompatible with Islam.

"I have been harassed, (and) sent a lot of hate messages," said the 38-year-old head of the Arab Yoga Foundation, which has trained hundreds of yoga instructors in the kingdom.

"Five years ago, this (teaching yoga) would have been impossible," added Marwaai, as she began training a cluster of women students at a private studio in the Red Sea city of Jeddah.

Hanging up their abayas and headscarves, the women stretched in unison in an arching warrior pose known as "virabhadrasana".

Arms outstretched, their bodies folded into a 180-degree backward bending posture known as "chakrasana", or wheel pose.

The students - some of whom regularly attend yoga retreats in India - said the exercise had transformed their lives. Ayat Samman, a 32-year-old health educator, said yoga helped alleviate her lifelong struggle with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder that often left her bedridden.

Yoga also works as therapy, the women said, helping them vent bottled up emotions and tackle depression. "It just opened me up like a water balloon," said Yasmin Machri, 32. "After my first class... I started breaking down and crying."

Religious outreach

In just a few months since yoga's recognition, a new industry of yoga studios and instructors has sprouted in various Saudi cities. That includes Makkah and Medina, Islam's holiest cities, Marwaai said.

Prince Mohammed has sought to project a more moderate image of the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia in recent months has hosted officials linked to the Vatican and the prince also met a group of Roman Catholic and Jewish leaders in New York earlier this year, in an inter-faith gesture.

"The prince's outreach to other religions is apparent in the interfaith gatherings and the new enthusiasm for Saudi Arabia's pre-Islamic heritage," said Kristin Diwan, of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

The kingdom has also introduced entertainment, including mixed-gender concerts, and re-opens cinemas after a decades-long ban.

'Nothing to do with religion'

Yoga is still regarded as a deviant practice in conservative circles, sometimes associated with witchcraft, and Marwaai's students say they often confront accusations of betraying their religion.

"I receive messages through social media asking: 'Are you a Hindu? Did you turn into a Hindu?'" said Budur al-Hamoud, a recruitment specialist. "Yoga has nothing to do with religion. It's a sport... It does not interfere with my faith."

Yoga is seen at odds with several other faiths, but the recognition of the practice in Saudi Arabia appears to have given a new impetus to Muslim yoga practitioners around the world.

Marwaai is taking on conservatives not just in the kingdom but also India, the birthplace of yoga where clerics last year slapped a fatwa, or religious edict, against a female Muslim yoga teacher just days before the kingdom recognised the sport.

In a shrill Indian television debate, Marwaai - a lupus survivor and recently awarded the Padma Shri, one of India's highest civilian honours - calmly sought to reason with Muslim clerics who hurled insults at her.

The clerics were particularly opposed to "Surya Namaskar", a yoga sequence designed to greet Surya, the Hindu sun god, and the chanting of Hindu mantras. "It is not the worshipping of the sun and the moon," Marwaai responded as tempers frayed, denying they engaged in chanting.

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