Saudi women discover yoga
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 last November the kingdom finally recognised yoga as a sport, despite the risk of hardline opposition.
A Muslim yoga boom: although seen as being at odds with several other faiths, the recognition of yoga in Saudi Arabia – the epicentre of the Islamic world – appears to have given a new impetus to Muslim yoga practitioners around the world
A new lease of life: 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 – say the exercise has transformed their lives
Impossible just five years ago: hanging up their body-shrouding abayas and headscarves, the women in this private studio in the Red Sea city of Jeddah stretch in unison
A deviant practice? "I receive messages through social media asking: are you a Hindu?" says Budur al-Hamoud, a recruitment specialist. "Yoga has nothing to do with religion. It's a sport... It does not interfere with my faith"
Yoga as therapy: the exercises often help the women 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 broke down and cried"
Spearheading efforts to normalise yoga: Nouf Marwaai battles insults and threats from extremists to challenge the notion that yoga is incompatible with Islam. "I have been harassed and received a lot of hate messages," says the 38-year-old head of the Arab Yoga Foundation
No longer outlaws: in a sparse, wood-floored studio, Saudi women squat, lunge and do headstands. Even a year ago, teaching these yoga postures would have been unthinkable in the conservative Islamic kingdom