Photos: Saudi Arabia embraces yoga in pivot towards ‘moderation’

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.

UPDATED ON OCT 03, 2018 09:44 AM IST 9 Photos
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Nouf Marwaai, 38, the head of the Arab Yoga Foundation (foreground), instructs her students at her studio in the western Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah. In a sparse, wood-floored studio, Saudi women squat, lunge and do headstands. Even a year ago, teaching these yoga postures could have rendered them outlaws in the conservative Islamic kingdom. (Amer Hilabi / AFP)

Nouf Marwaai, 38, the head of the Arab Yoga Foundation (foreground), instructs her students at her studio in the western Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah. In a sparse, wood-floored studio, Saudi women squat, lunge and do headstands. Even a year ago, teaching these yoga postures could have rendered them outlaws in the conservative Islamic kingdom. (Amer Hilabi / AFP)

UPDATED ON OCT 03, 2018 09:44 AM IST
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Spearheading efforts to normalise yoga in the kingdom is Nouf Marwaai (top), 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. Her foundation has trained hundreds of yoga instructors in the kingdom. (Amer Hilabi / AFP)

Spearheading efforts to normalise yoga in the kingdom is Nouf Marwaai (top), 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. Her foundation has trained hundreds of yoga instructors in the kingdom. (Amer Hilabi / AFP)

UPDATED ON OCT 03, 2018 09:44 AM IST
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“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 body-shrouding abayas and headscarves, the women stretched in unison in an arching warrior pose known as “virabhadrasana”. (Amer Hilabi / AFP)

“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 body-shrouding abayas and headscarves, the women stretched in unison in an arching warrior pose known as “virabhadrasana”. (Amer Hilabi / AFP)

UPDATED ON OCT 03, 2018 09:44 AM IST
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In a country where women have long been denied the right to exercise publicly, the students -- some of whom regularly attend yoga retreats in India -- said it had transformed their lives, also working as therapy, helping vent emotions and tackle a woefully common ailment -- depression. “It just opened me up like a water balloon,” said Yasmin Machri (L). “After my first class... I started breaking down and crying.” (Amer Hilabi / AFP)

In a country where women have long been denied the right to exercise publicly, the students -- some of whom regularly attend yoga retreats in India -- said it had transformed their lives, also working as therapy, helping vent emotions and tackle a woefully common ailment -- depression. “It just opened me up like a water balloon,” said Yasmin Machri (L). “After my first class... I started breaking down and crying.” (Amer Hilabi / AFP)

UPDATED ON OCT 03, 2018 09:44 AM IST
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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 Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest cities, Marwaai said. Prince Mohammed, the de facto ruler, has sought to project a moderate image of the kingdom, long associated with a fundamentalist strain of Wahhabi Islam, with a new push for inter-religious exchange (Amer Hilabi / AFP)

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 Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest cities, Marwaai said. Prince Mohammed, the de facto ruler, has sought to project a moderate image of the kingdom, long associated with a fundamentalist strain of Wahhabi Islam, with a new push for inter-religious exchange (Amer Hilabi / AFP)

UPDATED ON OCT 03, 2018 09:44 AM IST
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Still regarded a deviant practice in conservative circles, sometimes associated with witchcraft, 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.” (Amer Hilabi / AFP)

Still regarded a deviant practice in conservative circles, sometimes associated with witchcraft, 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.” (Amer Hilabi / AFP)

UPDATED ON OCT 03, 2018 09:44 AM IST
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The recognition of yoga 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 against a female Muslim yoga teacher just days before the kingdom recognised the sport. (Amer Hilabi / AFP)

The recognition of yoga 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 against a female Muslim yoga teacher just days before the kingdom recognised the sport. (Amer Hilabi / AFP)

UPDATED ON OCT 03, 2018 09:44 AM IST
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In a shrill Indian television debate, Marwaai -- a lupus survivor and recently awarded the Padma Shri -- 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. (Amer Hilabi / AFP)

In a shrill Indian television debate, Marwaai -- a lupus survivor and recently awarded the Padma Shri -- 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. (Amer Hilabi / AFP)

UPDATED ON OCT 03, 2018 09:44 AM IST
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“It is not the worshipping of the sun and the moon,” Marwaai responded as tempers frayed, denying they engaged in chanting. Unconvinced, a cleric said the set of physical movements in the Muslim prayer ritual offered enough exercise. The slow meditation does not increase the metabolic rate, Marwaai retorted. “Prophet Mohammed used to race with his wife.” (Amer Hilabi / AFP)

“It is not the worshipping of the sun and the moon,” Marwaai responded as tempers frayed, denying they engaged in chanting. Unconvinced, a cleric said the set of physical movements in the Muslim prayer ritual offered enough exercise. The slow meditation does not increase the metabolic rate, Marwaai retorted. “Prophet Mohammed used to race with his wife.” (Amer Hilabi / AFP)

UPDATED ON OCT 03, 2018 09:44 AM IST

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