#InternationalYogaDay How yoga strengthened the Saudi woman’s steely resolve

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Nilima Pathak
In 2018, Nouf Almarwaai tweeted, “Thank you Rashtrapati Bhawan for the honour. I dedicate this award to my beloved country Saudi Arabia and all the people who supported me. I pray to God that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and India prosper and flourish in all fields, as India is my second home.”
The President of India Ram Nath Kovind had conferred Nouf with the fourth-highest civilian award the Padma Shree. The first certified yoga instructor in the region, she was credited for getting yoga recognized as a sports activity in Saudi Arabia.
She said that the honour and trust the Indian government bestowed on her, was a “big responsibility” on her shoulders. She pledged to never stop practising and promoting yoga, which she has been doing for over two decades.
Who is Nouf Marwaai?

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A leading practitioner and the official promoter of yoga in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, Nouf is a Saudi businesswoman and entrepreneur. She is also a practitioner of Ayurvedic Indian medicine and lifestyle counselor.
Removing misconceptions
Initially, when Nouf started practising yoga in her hometown Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia, she found people enquiring whether it was a Buddhist practice like meditation. She faced strong opposition from people belonging to the Muslim community in certain South Asian countries, as some had misconceptions about yoga in relation to the Islamic culture.

• Padma Shree from the President of India.
• Yoga Ratna award, given annually by SHWAASA Yoga Centre in Bangalore, Karnataka, to recognize excellence in yoga.
• Yoga Person of the Year award by Loving India Foundation and Digital India Foundation.
• Women’s Empowerment Award, presented by Dubai authorities.
• Ministry of the Saudi External Affairs award by the Government of Saudi Arabia, at Janadirya, a cultural festival.
The woman yoga master stressed, “I would again like to clarify that yoga asanas are practised for physical and mental well-being. No yoga institution makes you do any kind of worship. As now, back then also I explained its benefits and how it brings about a positive change in a person’s outlook towards life.”
Personal journey
Nouf’s yoga journey began in 1998 when she was 18-years-old. She was born and diagnosed with lupus, an auto-immune disease due to which she was unable to lead a normal lifestyle. Nouf had to stay away from school and was restricted from heavy sports and strenuous activities because of muscle and joint pains, stiffness, inflammation and fatigue. All this impacted her and caused a lot of stress.

Yoga and India

What earlier intrigued me was the fact that while yoga was respected and given credence in the West, the almost 5000-years-old philosophy of art and science of healthy living was not properly acknowledged in India from where it originated. That is until Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power. Because of his initiation, Yoga Day was internationally recognized by the United Nations General Assembly on December 11, 2014, and the UN declared June 21 as the International Yoga Day. We witness how yoga mats roll out across the world – from India to Italy and Saudi Arabia to Singapore, year after year. Millions of practitioners across the world are now promoting yoga that has a meditative and spiritual core.
She informed, “Someone told me about yoga and on a visit to Mecca, I stumbled upon a book on the discipline, and bought it. On reading and researching further, I saw a silver lining. Through books and videos, I grasped whatever best I could.”
Life-altering effects
On practising a few yoga postures, she felt the difference in her health condition. While studying at the King Saud University in Riyadh, she was able to attend regular classes and passed with good grades.
Nouf shared, “Yoga had a life-altering effect on me and I started feeling energetic. I was a volunteering psychologist at a mental health hospital in Jeddah. But after completing my yoga certifications, people began approaching me to teach them the medium, even though I had no intention of taking it up as a career.
“Some of my relatives wanted me to ‘stop this nonsense’, as they called it and instructed me to focus on going to the US for further studies, as I was nominated for a scholarship.”
Changing mindsets
Nouf would have none of it and decided to teach and promote yoga. In 2004, she founded the Saudi Arabia Yoga School in Jeddah, which, in 2010, was named the Arab Yoga Foundation, the first official centre in the Gulf region.
The trained psychologist presented the medical, scientific and economical facts to support her cause. She conducted awareness campaigns through TV shows and spoke about various mental and physical health issues and how yoga and meditation could help overcome these concerns.

The meditation confusion

Meditation is the practice of focused concentration. It is not an exercise to release stress, as is made out to be by many practitioners. If you are not free of stress, how can you meditate? In fact, you are putting extra stress on the brain by trying to focus, when the brain is not ready. So, it is advisable to follow pranayama first in order to start meditation, which reduces anxiety, depression, heart disease and high blood pressure.
“Since for many in Saudi Arabia, it was a new concept, irrespective of the age group, they became enthusiastic about it,” Nouf divulged. “While many began practising quietly in the confines of their homes, others taught privately in their workspaces,” she added.
“Imagine, those very relatives who had opposed me later came to my clinic for Ayurvedic treatment, dietary and lifestyle consultation, and back pain therapy!” she chided.
In 2007, Nouf went to Australia to complete her studies. By then, her illness had started to attack her kidneys.
India beckons
In 2008, she made her first trip to Kerala, India, and met some Ayurvedic doctors. Impressed by the treatment methods, Nouf decided not to live with her illness anymore. In the years that followed, she mastered the art of yoga with renowned ashtanga and hatha (types of yoga) under illustrious yoga gurus in Coonoor, Tamil Nadu, New Delhi and the Himalayas. She achieved the status of Yogacharinie Nouf Marwaai, a title awarded in Kerala.

Yoga for pregnant women

I have been teaching prenatal yoga since 2010. One needs a qualified and certified yoga instructor, who has studied prenatal yoga to be able to teach pregnant women, as these exercise moves need to be done with immense precautions. Some asanas are to be avoided in certain trimesters. Women are also trained on how to breathe and manage pain in the first and second stages of labor. It is important to know that prenatal yoga is not for women to stay fit during pregnancy, but is significant for the mental and physical well-being of the mother and to prepare her for childbirth.
In 2014, she was diagnosed with early stagebreast cancer. But with yoga as a tool, she battled with the disease. “Yoga is the need of the hour, because it is a ‘costless’ holistic wellness treatment,” she declared.
Yoga as ‘wellness sport’
Witnessing a change in people’s attitude towards yoga, she felt a strong need to regulate it as a sport. Without losing time, she set out to change things at the ground level. Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, President of the Community Sports Federation supported Nouf in her mission. In November 2017, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Commerce and Investment officially approved the teaching of yoga as a sport.

On postnatal depression

The reason for postpartum depression is hormonal changes, but not every woman suffers from it. Other reasons such as the changed breathing pattern and the vasovagal attack, which lowers the heart rate, can also cause postpartum depression. Women, especially those who do not follow a healthy diet or exercise routine during pregnancy, can also suffer due to weak abdominal muscles after the delivery of the child. Yoga asanas, pranayama and meditation techniques are beneficial in such circumstances. Yoga helps women get back in shape and lifts the mood. Importantly, it improves the sleep pattern, which is extremely necessary to avoid postpartum depression.
Elaborating on the subject, she explained, “By practising yoga asanas and breathing techniques,one imbibes the elements of sports physically and physiologically. Still, it is different as far as its depth and benefits are concerned.
“In fact, just one session of the breath control asana can affect the neurological and biological levels of a person. Followed by savasana (relaxation exercise), it helps calm the nervous system and reduces the stress hormones. Furthermore, the meditation techniques enhance the feeling of spirituality in a person.”
Shaping lives
She said that people often question her on whether yoga is a sport or sadhana (dedicated practice) or a therapy. To that, her response is: ‘It is all of that and can be studied and practised as a science of movement and wellbeing.’

Anxiety and stress

Practising certain asanas, especially hatha yoga, improves the respiratory system and muscle function that comforts and relaxes the mind. Yoga helps rapid breathing, which is a result of anxiety and stress that affects the lungs. A line from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, ‘yogas chitta vritti nirodha’, refers to stilling the mind in order to experience tranquillity. In yoga, the chitta (mind) and prana (energy) are interconnected. When prana moves, chitta moves. So, it is important to relax the nervous system. Similarly, nidra (sleep) yoga helps in slowing down the brain waves and the mind goes into deep relaxation mode.
Nouf said her life revolves around yoga. “I have coached more than 10,000 people in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. I practice 7 days a week and teach for more than 8 hours a day between theory and practice.All my travels are associated with yoga – whether it is to teach or to learn.”
Learn? But haven’t you achieved the perfection stage? Nouf laughs, “It is not possible to attain perfection in yoga. One can only perfect the discipline. It is a life-long learning process and I am still exploring.”
Nouf’s dedication has resulted in yoga being practiced in several Saudi Arabian cities including Riyadh, Jeddah, Damman, Taif, Mecca and Medina, where yoga centres and yoga teachers are much in demand. Her mission is to provide educational and training courses to students who are keen to learn more about this ancient Indian science.