Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1353, (20 - 26 July 2017)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1353, (20 - 26 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Steps towards yoga bliss

Although still out of the reach of many people, yoga has been finding more and more followers in Egypt, reports Dina Ezzat

Steps towards yoga bliss (photo: Sherif Sonbol)

It was at the clinic of her orthopaedist that Reem Nashed was first introduced to the idea of yoga. As of then, some eight years ago, Nashed had rarely needed to book an appointment with her doctor except for an annual check-up on her slipped disc that had hardly caused her any pain.

Steps towards yoga bliss (photo: Sherif Sonbol)

“But then I had to be treated for a few months for acute lower back pain that was rendering me almost paralysed for long hours every day and sometimes for the entire day if I had stressed myself out,” Nashed said.

Having been forced to rest for a few months and medicated with anti-inflammatory and muscle relaxant pills and injections, Nashed managed to regain her strength. She asked her doctor about the way forward and he advised her to try swimming. “Then he said I might want to also consider yoga because it would help my body and also my mental distress. He said there were several locations I could try in Cairo,” Nashed recalled.

Four weeks down the road, Nashed was feeling better but was still “worried about the next time I would have to put up with an attack of pain that I knew would keep me in bed for a week”. She decided to give yoga a chance. “I looked it up and read a bit about it — first online and then in a book. I considered a few nearby places that were each offering a three-month course for quite reasonable fees and I decided to try one,” she said.

Steps towards yoga bliss (photo: Sherif Sonbol)

She opted for a studio that was nearby and where the course was instructed by an Indian trainer who was recommended on social media sites. “My doctor had been very clear when he advised me to take up yoga. He said that I needed to be with a good instructor in order to make sure that I did not harm my body, and he warned me against untrained instructors whose poor skills could do me harm,” Nashed said.

That was three years ago “when there were fewer places and fewer skilled instructors” than there are today. Nashed now takes her three-times-a-week yoga classes as seriously as her twice-a-week swimming routine. And she is “without back pain and with a lot of inner peace that makes any stressful day at work or home” for this single mother of two teenagers something to put up with calmly.

“Yoga started as a form of exercise to improve my posture and to help with my tough daily routine that includes a lot of driving around and a lot of standing up when I teach or cook,” Nashed said. Later, she added, “it turned into a lifestyle in which I also gradually adopted a vegetarian diet and took up meditation seriously.”

Over her three years with yoga, Nashed, now in her mid-40s, has “found a calmer pace of life, while still observing all my duties as a teacher, single mother and only child”. She has also achieved a “better sculptured figure” and a new circle of yoga-practising friends. 

Dalia Hussein, a banker in her late 40s, also found out about yoga three years ago. Hussein was not looking for an athletic routine, but rather for “something to do and to immerse myself in” to help unwind and stop smoking.

She had taken up smoking in her teens, and as a banker she had come to depend on cigarettes to help her cope with life. But the chain-smoking she had been living with had started to take a serious toll on her health and overall energy.

She was aimlessly flipping through TV channels one weekend when she spotted a programme on yoga and how it had helped some people give up smoking. “I thought I would be reducing my daily consumption from a pack plus to half a pack. I thought I would try it out. Why not, I asked myself,” Hussein said.

Unlike Nashed, who was able to adopt the elementary moves of yoga easily, Hussein had “a very stiff body, poor breathing, and a very edgy temper — what comes from working in a bank and over 30 years of smoking.”

She nearly gave up in the early weeks. “I thought I would not be able to do it. I thought it was something I should have taken up at a much younger age, but I stayed on and it worked,” she said.

“It is never easy in the beginning, but this is what we keep telling those who start yoga classes: you just need time and patience and things will come round,” says yoga instructor Hala Barakat.

Hussein agreed that it was due to the help and patience of her instructor that she managed to pass through the first phase of inaptitude. Three years down the road, Hussein is almost in perfect command of the key yoga positions she has learned so far.

INTERNATIONAL YOGA DAY: Three years ago, the prime minister of India proposed to the UN General Assembly that a day in the last week of June should be designated International Yoga Day. As of 2015, 29 June became International Yoga Day as a result.

When this day was first celebrated in Egypt, Hussein and Nashed were glad to join the events and to share their experiences with friends who had not really known much about yoga before, except for the little they had read about in magazines.

“I remember when a colleague at the bank asked me if I spent my yoga time leaning on a wall with my body positioned upside down or just sitting with my legs crossed and staring at the ceiling,” Hussein laughed. “I know that for a long time this was the image that would come to the minds of most people when they heard the word yoga. But this has been changing fast with more yoga studios and with prominent gyms including yoga as part of their classes.”

“We have a very high demand for yoga classes. We do different types and we have different trainers and we try to encourage the members of similar levels to join the same classes to help easy integration and get the maximum benefit from the class — and of course to make it easy for the instructor to conduct the class,” said Mourad Mahmoud, a director of a prominent gym in Heliopolis.

Still, Mahmoud added, “it is expected that the members of our gym, who are from the upper middle classes, will be familiar with yoga and willing to take it up, but I know, having worked in a smaller gym in a less privileged neighbourhood, that not that many people in Egypt are familiar with yoga. This is still the case despite the high profile that yoga has been receiving in Egypt over the past few years,” he said.

This year on International Yoga Day the Embassy of India organised basic yoga exercises in the gardens of the Baron Empain Palace in Heliopolis. Nadia Mohamed, a state school student who joined the initiative with her PE teacher, said it was “the first time I had heard of yoga”.

Mohamed was not sure that what she was seeing on that hot summer afternoon in Cairo would be something that she would be able to keep up even if she liked it. It was not part of the PE routine that her teacher was observing, nor was it something that was practised in the public youth club that her university student brother had joined to play football.

In a roundtable organised by the Indian Embassy at the Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture in Cairo, Riju Trvedi, a teacher at one of the international schools in New Cairo, said that yoga could well be introduced to children in schools in Egypt, given that it is something that is best picked up at a young age.

Nada Salah, a part-time PE teacher at a state school in Cairo, said that this was “a bit of a far-fetched idea”, however. “We don’t really have PE in schools, at least not in government schools. We just get the boys and girls to move around in the yard a bit, because we all know that there is hardly any space for PE in most state schools, not to mention the fact that even when there is a yard it will usually be too small to accommodate a class of over 60 boys and girls,” Salah said.

“Maybe a start could be made in youth centres or the gardens of some public libraries. For yoga, you just need space that is well-aired. You don’t need machines or anything. It is a perfect fit for most people in terms of the fact that it does not require buying a special machine or even special outfits or sports shoes, and also in terms of the fact that it helps people relax and stay relatively fit,” she added.

Salah noted that International Yoga Day celebrations have taken place in open spaces, public gardens, at the seaside and so on. Speaking at the Maulana Azad Centre, Barakat agreed that efforts should be made to bring yoga to those “who actually need it and not just those who can have access to it.”

“This is especially so given that yoga is not just about exercise, but also about having a better life in a sense. It shows the way to peace of mind,” Barakat said.

Sharing her experience of “embracing yoga as a lifestyle in which one is enabled to overcome inner conflicts and not just a form of exercise”, commentator Nawal Mustafa agreed that finding the right place to start yoga and the right trainers was essential. She had been able “step by step to take myself off a treadmill of depression into a state of emotional and physical well-being through yoga”, she said.

According to Ahmed Shaaban, another instructor who joined the roundtable and the International Yoga Day event, there has been a considerable increase in the number of people of different age groups and socio-economic backgrounds taking up yoga. Some are doing it to get a sculptured and flexible body, and some are doing it for peace of mind.

“The fact of the matter is that yoga is about body, mind and soul. It is not just an exercise for inside the class. Yoga outside the class is the more advanced step where one reaches a level of meditation,” Shaaban said.

There are no clear statistics on the practice of yoga in Egypt, but it is a growing trend that allows for more studios to open and even for yoga retreats to start. “There are many yoga activities that yoga groups share through social media, including anything from where to go shopping for a nice yoga mat to joining trips to retreats in India, so I think yoga is gaining space very fast,” Nashed said.

She added that “one starts the first class with the instructor encouraging the newcomer to do the steps slowly, and then you move on up through eight levels, eventually finding internal and maybe even eternal bliss.”

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