In Saudi Arabia, yoga is coming out of the shadows and making up for lost time.
Men and women across the Kingdom have embraced this practice for decades in small, private settings, through personal invites, private social media posts, and word of mouth. But it was only 2017 when that all changed, and yoga was officially recognized as an important sports activity by Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Sports, a push instigated by Princess Reema bint Bandar, a strong sports advocate who is now the Saudi ambassador to the US.
With that announcement, the taboo associated with its Hindu and Buddhist elements was broken, and instructors and yogis alike were encouraged to open up studios and promote all forms of the practice for a healthier society.
Ameera Mohammed remembers returning to her hometown of Khobar from college in the UK to give birth to her first son: it was 10 years ago, and she was well into her third trimester. The expectant mother found it difficult to find a place to practice, let alone a class catering to pregnant ladies. Finally, through contacts, she found a small studio run by a certified yoga teacher. But little was known about it, and it was a tough sell for her family.
“Even while discussing it with my parents and mother-in-law at the time, they were afraid that my water would break from any sudden movements, especially given it was the first boy in both families,” says Ameera, now 32. “I can’t blame them, they just didn’t know what yoga was, how it was helping me relax and stay active.”
Today, there are 10 yoga studios in Khobar alone, with more popping up in major cities like Riyadh, Jeddah, Madinah and Dammam, fuelled by Saudis who are intrigued by a practice that has long captivated less conservative parts of the world.
For many, yoga is not simply about their physical and mental wellbeing. It’s about joining a space where the mind and body are united, incorporating breathing exercises, meditation, and poses designed to reduce stress and encourage relaxation.
Shahad Nazer, a yoga instructor based in Jeddah, left the corporate world to open her own studio following the lockdown in 2020. She joined her first class at Hoakalei Yoga Studio back in 2019, proceeding to complete 400 hours over two teacher training programs.
“Life isn’t perfect but I soon realized how good my life was, as many people who visited my classes trusted me and would return,” she explained. “I was grateful because I left an impact in someone’s life.”
Shahad explains that the most gratifying thing about being an instructor is seeing everyone flow together and her favorite part is when everyone is laying in the relaxed state of Shavasana at the end of a session.
“Yoga has its own magic,” she says. “We store our stress in our muscles, that one pose allows everyone to push it out of our system and we’re all doing it together.”
Khobar’s Mantra Studio founder Monira Alardhi found yoga back in 2013, when she left the Kingdom to attend college in Vancouver, Canada.
“I never knew what stress was,” she explains. “I never understood what it really meant as I was living a good happy life back in the Kingdom and I was thrust into a different and new environment that took a toll on me. Upon seeking help, the psychiatrist at the time prescribed medications that did more harm than good and I had to go cold turkey as soon as I graduated because I didn’t have access to the medication anymore.”
She had already visited a family doctor, who had recommended she attend sessions — something she didn’t take seriously at first. Eventually, she decided to do her yoga teacher training.
“That was the beginning of something amazing,” she explains. “By the end of my 200 hours, my system was shaken and I realized that this is what I wanted to do. Yoga gave me a new perspective in life and I decided to return home and share it with people who might need it, just like I have.”
Now that the yoga scene in Saudi is growing, she believes studio owners need to focus on making it more accessible.
“Yoga studios need to cater to everyone; prices should be reasonable to get the best of their offered services,” she says. “By doing so, it could open opportunities for those who wish to attend a session anywhere in the Kingdom.”
Kamel Khayat, an Egyptian engineer, athlete and yoga instructor living in Jeddah, says he was inspired to teach yoga when the practice helped him overcome injury.
“In 2017, it was absolutely uncommon for males, especially in the Arab world, to practice yoga,” he says. “It took me a while to get into yoga because I didn’t understand it. I was one of those who would opt out of it because men didn’t ‘do yoga’ in the Arab world. I just thought it was flow, meditation and candles, but after the first class, I was drenched; it was more physically demanding than I thought.”
Men are still slow to the practice in Saudi, something he is trying to change.
“I tried to help the males change their perspective of yoga by posting more on social media about strength related exercises,” he says. “Poses that require both strength and flexibility.”
Kamel says his yoga practice has helped improve his performance and consistency in the gym, and it is that aspect he tries to share with others.
“The view on yoga is changing, the practice is changing,” he says. “By leveling up my hours in teaching, educating myself and gaining more knowledge, learn more about the body, how the nervous system works when an injury occurs… etcetera. I’m able to help people do what they love doing around whatever discomfort they feel within the body so they could come out of this discomfort.”