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 country.
Yoga was not officially permitted for decades in Saudi Arabia due to religious reasons.
But with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman vowing an “open, moderate Islam”, the kingdom last November recognised yoga as a sport amid a new liberalisation drive that has sidelined religious hardliners.
Spearheading efforts to normalise yoga in the kingdom is Nouf Marwaai, 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 head of the Arab Yoga Foundation, which has trained hundreds of yoga instructors in the kingdom.
“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”.
Arms outstretched, their bodies folded into a 180-degree backward bending posture known as “chakrasana”, or wheel pose.
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 the exercise had transformed their lives.
Ayat Samman, a 32-year-old health educator, said yoga helped alleviate her lifelong struggle with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder that often left her bedridden.
Yoga also works as therapy, the women said, helping them vent bottled up emotions and tackle a woefully common ailment — depression.
“It just opened me up like a water balloon,” said Yasmin Machri, 32. “After my first class… I started breaking down and crying.”