India is the birthplace of yoga. In the birth city of Rishikesh, high in the mystical Himalayan mountains, yoga was first mentioned in a written text over 7,000 years ago. It was through India, yoga became a global trend and it is a widely practiced culture in the west. 

Widely perceived as a Hindu spiritual practice, yoga was not officially permitted for decades in Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam where all non-Muslim worship is banned. But with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman vowing an “open, moderate Islam”, the kingdom in 2017, he recognised yoga as a sport amid a new liberalisation drive that has sidelined religious hardliners.

Nouf Marwaai is Saudi Arabia’s first woman yoga master. 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. Marwaai was awarded India’s fourth-highest civilian honour Padma Shri, on 15 August 2018.

Nouf’s story goes beyond yoga. She has had a long struggle with health conditions and has defeated lupus as well as cancer, through the help of yoga. Nouf sees yoga as a liberating factor that rids one of the mental disturbances and other psychological stress factors.

Nouf Marwaai with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Nouf Marwaai with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi

When Nouf’s yoga journey began, she was motivated by her determination to fight ill-health. In the year of 1998, She was not allowed to do a lot. She was fighting excruciating joint and muscle pains. It was then that Nouf discovered yoga asanas positions.

However, she couldn’t find a yoga instructor in Saudi Arabia from whom she could learn to practice the right way. She had to travel a lot to learn and practice and then obtained a license to open a yoga studio. 

Nouf praised the reforms initiated by Saudi King Salman and the way Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is running the country. According to Nouf, lives of women in Saudi Arabia have changed and they are being empowered in every field.

She also praises Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, President of the Community Sports Federation. It was because of her, it was possible to get yoga approved as a sport. Nouf has received Yoga Ratna award from Asian Yoga Federation and Yoga Person of the Year award from an Indian NGO. (Supplied)

Receiving the Padma Shri was “a great honor” and a “big responsibility” for Nouf. She had told Indian media, “I am very thankful for the trust Indian government has shown by giving me this award as an appreciation of my work in the field of yoga.”

According to Nouf, people in Saudi Arabia are curious about yoga and ask questions about it. She also highlights the misconceptions related to yoga and Islam. The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had also invited Nouf to contribute to the campaign Beti Bachao and Beti Padhaao.

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