Living a life based on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad is important to Noor, ever since she converted to Islam 17 years ago. French-born Noor wears a face veil (niqab) and is also a yoga instructor in Qatar where she teaches women-only classes. She does not see any conflict between her faith and yoga. If anything, the two go hand in hand.
“Yoga and Islam are both very spiritual, the roots are the same, they both come from an oral tradition, through a chain of masters teaching their students how to reach God … if yoga can help people practise their Islamic faith in a more mindful and peaceful way, then why not?”
Noor is not your typical yoga teacher. She is bringing this ancient Indian practice to other Muslim women in her community, helping to change attitudes in a traditionally conservative region. She reflects the remarkable journey of yoga in modern times.
Millions of people across the world are marking the second International Yoga Day on June 21. The brainchild of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is an enthusiastic yoga practitioner himself, the UN-sponsored day has been endorsed by an unprecedented 175 countries, including Qatar.
In the past 20 years this ancient spiritual practice has been thrust from society’s fringes into the mainstream. Millions of people practise some form of yoga, spawning a multibillion-dollar industry catering to every kind of consumer. Yoga studios are ubiquitous in towns and cities across the world. And yoga is increasingly offered in schools, hospitals, prisons and offices, from Melbourne to Malibu.
Part of yoga’s appeal and rising popularity is its ability to be interpreted and shaped by the culture or society in which it is practised. Traditional styles of yoga such as Iyengar or Ashtanga co-exist alongside more new-age forms such as boxing yoga or rave yoga, even Christian yoga.
Some religious conservatives complain that yoga is rooted in the religions of the Indian sub-continent, notably Hinduism and Buddhism. This perception has restricted the rise of yoga in conservative Islamic societies such as Qatar, where it can be seen as blasphemous. The small Gulf nation is governed by an austere form of Islam known as Wahhabism, which views yoga with suspicion. Despite its global popularity, many Muslims feel that practising yoga is tantamount to practising another religion.
Noor disagrees. “Yoga is not a religion,” she told Al Jazeera. “It is a discipline.”
The reason Noor is able to practise and teach yoga at all, is because of Valerie Jeremijenko. She is an early pioneer of yoga in Qatar, perhaps the earliest. Valerie has been a yoga teacher in Qatar for the past 15 years and has operated her own studio, Yama Yoga, since 2009. She also runs a successful teacher-training programme. However, while the perception of yoga is changing, she still faces some, mostly cultural or social, difficulties.
“This has less to do with yoga and more to do with Qatar’s licensing laws that do not like mixed male-female classes or recognise yoga outside of a sport,” Valerie told Al Jazeera.
Valerie said that the kinds of yoga that took off in the West, physically demanding practices such as Ashtanga and hot yoga, were rooted in the Protestant work ethic, and as such, don’t really suit traditional Qatari society.
“The daily ethic of a rigorous practice is not really part of the Qatari culture, nor is individual expression … so yoga as it is practised in the West does not really work with the traditional Qatari way of life,” she added.
However, things are changing. Thirty-five-year-old Heba is a Qatari businesswoman and yoga practitioner who runs her own beauty salon. She has been practising yoga for more than 12 years.
She told Al Jazeera: “In our Muslim prayer we have some common poses as yoga. These similarities made me more aware of both practices, yoga and prayer. It helped me become calm and take my time in prayer rather than rushing it, correcting my posture … resulting in a much more enlightening experience.”
But things were not always so simple for Heba. When she first started practising yoga, mixed classes were not an option.
“I had to practise yoga privately for the longest time until the taboo surrounding yoga began to shatter and it became just another sport,” she said.
Today, there are dozens of places in Qatar where you can practise yoga. And it is already an established industry in much of the West. The current Indian government is aggressively championing yoga as a holistic approach to health and wellbeing, using it as a form of soft power.
People such as Heba, Noor and Valerie are blazing a humble trail in a region without a yoga tradition. They show how the perception of yoga has changed over time and why the United Nations decided it was a good idea to celebrate it once a year, in effect rubber-stamping, some would say politicising, its global success.