For years, yoga was a prohibited sport in Saudi Arabia since it was perceived as a Hindu spiritual practice. Though it was exercised by many in the kingdom, yoga classes were only held in private. Recently, though, things have changed as part of the country's liberalization reform drive.
In 2017, the country's Ministry of Trade and Industry announced it was officially recognizing the activity as a sport, and it did indeed. The decision was all thanks to Nouf Almarwaai, the kingdom's first certified yoga instructor and founder of the Arab Yoga Foundation.
In the months since the groundbreaking announcement two years ago, yoga studios started popping up across the kingdom, proving to be wildly popular. Two years later, the discipline is still gaining a soaring number of participants as more instructors are venturing across the country.
One of the most successful local studios was launched by a Saudi flying trapeze artist who opened the kingdom's first certified aerial yoga business in Jeddah a few months back. Roa'a Al-Sahhaf, who's also Saudi Arabia's first female circus performer, said her classes have been so popular she's now planning to expand throughout the kingdom. Her studio features classes including yoga, pole dancing, pilates, family dance workouts, and boxing.
Al-Sahhaf recently performed with the Circo Americano group at the kingdom's Taif Season. Speaking to Arab News, the yoga coach said she hopes to build a community of Saudi aerialists in the near future.
"I want to engage with the Saudi General Entertainment Authority for more performances and shows done by the studio team. I would love to collaborate with gyms and studio owners around Saudi Arabia to include these types of arts and sports in their gym schedules," she explained.
"Yoga is so popular in the kingdom, there's a huge demand for classes"
The demand for yoga classes has reached an all-time high in the country, Saudi-based yoga instructor Manal told us.
"Since Saudi [Arabia] listed Yoga as an official sport so many people took interest in practicing it. I teach over two hundred people per week and that's huge compared to just a few years ago. The demand was previously so much lower because people thought Yoga was illegal and were scared to attend classes even if they were held in private," she pointed out.
In her opinion, things have changed so much in the kingdom that the sport is no longer perceived in the way it once was.
"People thought it's a practice that goes against Islam but when authorities actually approved it everyone sort of got the point that it's simply a sport that everyone can practice regardless of religion. It's just a way to connect our bodies to the planet, to be more in tune with ourselves and to find balance," she remarked.
As for Reemas, a Saudi college student, she confirms the sport's popularity among young women in the kingdom as many of her friends have been attending classes for the past two years, including herself.
"I go to a class twice a week and it's amazing to see how many Yoga studios are opening up in the kingdom," she explained to StepFeed.
"I am so glad that we're finally practicing Yoga in public, years ago I remember my mom would go to private classes and it was so frowned upon back then. To the outside world this might look insignificant but to us it's one step forward towards doing normal things we were previously not allowed to do in our own country," she added.