Stretching a point: Beirut adopts new position on yoga

Stretching a point: Beirut adopts new position on yoga
Feature: The Lebanese live in a tumultuous country, in a restive region - and many are now turning to yoga in the search for harmony.
5 min read
25 June, 2015
Looking within: Yoga is proving remarkably popular in Beirut [AFP]

It was only a matter of time before yoga reached the shores of cosmopolitan Beirut - usually one of the first Arab cities to jump on global fads.

But Beirut's yoga phenomenon did not originate from the practice's birthplace in India; it has taken a detour via the yoga studios of California and New York.

The yoga scene in Beirut has expanded steadily, sweeping almost every corner of the city and beyond. Various types of yoga are practiced here every day, from power fitness yoga to slower yoga geared towards restoration, meditation and mindfulness - and coping with the stress of living in the chaotic metropolis that is the Lebanese capital.

Several dedicated yoga studios have popped up in Beirut, but many teachers are also giving classes in informal studios, including in their own living rooms. Yoga classes are being offered at major fitness centres as well.

As with any trend, however, it has expanded well beyond its purists. The yoga community in Beirut does not solely consist of hard-core proponents of eastern philosophy - some see yoga as a fitness movement, others even as a status symbol.

Yoga and affluence

The anecdotal link between affluence and the tendency to take-up yoga is nothing new - or even unique to Beirut - but there is a particularly Lebanese twist here. Yoga, a foreign cultural phenomenon, was probably first imported into Lebanon by its Westernised middle and upper classes, and expatriates living in the country.

In effect, most, if not all, of the listings we investigated for yoga events in Beirut were in English, giving a good clue as to who their target audience might be.

     In Lebanon, few people I met do yoga for its spiritual and physical benefits
 - Nouhad Awwad

Across Lebanon, there appears to be a near-pervasive culture fixated with appearance. Almost everything can become a way of displaying one's affluence, from plastic surgery to the hiring of domestic workers.

Indeed, in a country where the minimum wage is roughly $450 and where nearly 29 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, the cost of yoga classes and gear may be prohibitive for many.

Even yoga enthusiasts willing to invest a little are put off by the sums of money they sometimes have to fork out.

Nouhad Awwad, a young yogi living in Beirut, agrees that yoga in Lebanon is generally exclusive to the affluent, with classes costing anywhere between $15 and $50 per session, the latter being what one usually pays when the yoga instructor is a foreign or celebrity guru.

This is without mentioning yoga retreats, which can cost hundreds - or thousands - of dollars.

"In Lebanon, few people I met do yoga for its spiritual and physical benefits", Nouhad told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

"People are mostly interested in their physical appearance, which is not the essence of yoga."

Flexible finance

This is not to say that there are no ways for yoga to be affordable. In theory, all one needs is a mat, and even that is not always stricly necessary.

Yoga instructors do, however, say people should get some professional pointers before making the leap to practice alone.

In Lebanon, many gyms offer yoga classes as part of their membership packages. Gyms in Lebanon are not particularly exclusive, and yoga enthusiasts we spoke to believe this will help in pushing yoga further into the mainstream as more gyms incorporate it into their programmes.

Some yoga studios also offer discounts, including to students. Occasionally, classes are offered free of charge such as during the International Day of Yoga. Many studios and teachers insist that money should never be an obstacle to taking classes or workshops.

'Humanitarian yoga'

Some yoga classes are held on a donation basis, where the proceeds go to humanitarian organisations and causes.

One such initiative is Move4Syrians, which works with refugees in Lebanon, one of the principal host countries for Syrian and Palestinian refugees.

     Yoga offers refugees and other vulnerable groups a chance to be calm, be themselves, cope better with daily challenges

The initiative offers English lessons, as well as yoga and dance activities for Syrian refugee children and adults, with the goal of helping them "heal, learn, and strive for a positive future".

Nikita Shahbazi, a human rights activist and former photojournalist, is the founder of the I Move Foundation, the key organisation behind the project. She told al-Araby al-Jadeed that yoga offers refugees and other vulnerable groups a chance to be calm, be themselves, cope better with daily challenges and become more focused on educational attainment.

Industry or empowerment?

Inevitably, the yoga phenomenon has given rise to a yoga industry, in Lebanon as in the West. After all, Lebanon is a free market economy, and capitalism eventually finds its way into almost any activity.

With yoga largely dominated by women in Lebanon and elsewhere, the "industry" has given many women the opportunity to become entrepreneurs, and to empower themselves.

Many Lebanese and expatriate women in Beirut are investing a lot of money in courses to become yoga teachers, or to open their own studios.

To many, this fits into a much-needed effort to improve conditions for women in a country where, despite all appearances, they still lag behind men in pay equity and basic rights.

Ultimately, unlike other fads such as homeopathy, yoga has proven benefits for both mind and body.

It has social and humanitarian benefits, as the Lebanese example shows, and implications for gender equality.

However, to spread its benefits, some say yoga in Lebanon and in other Arab countries should become more accessible, more affordable, and more inclusive, including by addressing some cultural sensitivities concerning the religious roots of yoga.

All things are possible, one deep breath at a time.