10th International Day of Yoga: How yoga became popular in UAE

Mass free yoga events are also popular in the UAE
Mass free yoga events have gained a large following in the UAE
Image Credit: Gulf News archives

Dubai: As the UAE gears up to mark the 10th International Day of Yoga (IDY) on Friday with various free yoga sessions across the country, yoga instructors following different streams of the ancient Indian practice say yoga has become immensely popular in the country, especially after the introduction of IDY.

They have also highlighted various health benefits that are making people of different nationalities and social backgrounds embrace this practice that uses physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation to improve overall health.

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Apart from the massive free yoga events spearheaded by Indian missions in association with UAE authorities during the annual IDY events, yoga and meditation have become part of fitness centres, schools, workplaces and even hospitals, they said, pointing out the benefits reaped by people of all backgrounds.

10th International Day of Yoga events in UAE
Date: Saturday, June 22
Time: 5pm-7pm
Venue: Sheikh Saeed Halls 1,2,3, Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC)
Organised by: The Indian Consulate in Dubai, Dubai Sports Council

Date: Saturday, June 22
Time: From 6pm
Venue: Atrium at Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC)
Organised by: The Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi Sports Council

Date: Sunday, June 23
Time: From 7.30pm
Venue: Promenade and Dome View Rooftop, Louvre Abu Dhabi
Organised by: The Indian Embassy and Louvre Museum

Dora Vargas

Colombian expat Dora Vargas moved to Dubai from Bogota 17 years ago without a clue about yoga. “But here, surrounded by so many yoga studios and people practising, it was like being swept up in a wave. I’ve been practicing for 16 years now, and I don’t just “do” yoga anymore—I live and breathe it,” said Vargas, who became a life coach, meditation trainer and yoga teacher.

Vargas thinks yoga’s popularity in the UAE is partly because of the country’s geographical location. “Being close to India, where yoga originated, makes it easier for courses to be offered here and for yoga teachers to travel and teach. I live in Dubai, and let me tell you, there are yoga studios everywhere. They offer really top-notch practices. With so many options around, it’s super easy for people here in the UAE to get into yoga and make it part of their routine. There are many yoga teachers and groups offering free classes as well.”

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People often confuse yoga with exercise, but yoga is not merely physical activity, she pointed out. “It’s a comprehensive philosophy that integrates various practices like meditation, journaling, breathing exercises, and postures to guide us towards a balanced life. Yoga emphasises the balance between doing and being. While activities like walking, going to work, or practising sports involve doing, yoga is centred around the practice of being present. Therefore, it is distinct from mere exercise,” said Vargas who offers free meditation classes.

Riitta Goshayeshi

Riitta Goshayeshi, 59, from Finland, also got introduced to yoga and meditation during a holiday in Dubai in 2005. “Initially, I focused on relaxation and meditation, later incorporating asanas and pranayamas. These practices have given me inner peace, calm, and flexibility.”

After getting trained in India, she has been teaching meditation free of charge since 2007. “The goal is for everyone to experience its transformative power. Yoga is more than just asanas. It unites us with a higher purpose. Its popularity stems from its ability to provide mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being, especially in our busy lives. International Yoga Day has further raised awareness and encouraged more people to practice yoga.”

Scientific studies show that regular yoga and meditation practice boosts brain activity, leading to greater calm, less stress, and a stronger immune system, she said. “For instance, I rarely get sick, and even my COVID-19 symptoms went unnoticed.”

How UAE is promoting yoga

Indian expat Kumar Kota, 53, COO of Gulf Medical University and a yoga wellness instructor, has practiced yoga for over 20 years. He credits yoga with improving energy and stress management, which has helped him face life’s challenges. Associated with the Indian Consulate in Dubai, he teaches yoga to blue-collar workers and students, promoting strong bodies and sound minds.

“The UAE government has been conducting fitness challenges and health awareness campaigns to motivate healthy lifestyle and preventive health. Yoga Day participants in the UAE have been from all walks of life including some ministers and diplomats of the UAE government, encouraging a large number of people to join yoga for a healthy lifestyle,” he pointed out.

Sanjay Meherish

Sanjay Meherish, regional director, Middle East and North Africa, for a popular meditation foundation, is another person who has witnessed how the UAE government has encouraged the growth of yoga here.

“Our Foundation was officially registered in the UAE in 2004, so we have been active here for 20 years. We rely entirely on voluntary service and word-of-mouth promotion. Yet, we have been officially approved by the Dubai Sports Council and the UAE Federation of Sports.”

Benefits for residents, students

Apart from the official recognitions, he said yoga’s popularity has soared because people have experienced its benefits firsthand. “Consistent practice brings noticeable changes, such as increased energy, calmness, and improved relationships. Just like fitness, yoga and meditation require regular practice to see results. When people see positive changes in their mood and physical well-being, they continue with their practice and share their experiences with others.”

He said schools have reported improved behaviour and focus and better relationships among students practicing relaxation, meditation, and yoga. “Working with children of determination has been particularly heartwarming, seeing their positive reactions and the joy it brings to their parents.”

Tackling stress at work

Pankaj Singh

Pankaj Singh, an Indian yoga instructor offering private classes and sessions at fitness centres, highlighted yoga’s role in improving mental health, especially in urban environments where stress levels are high.

“Yoga has been really popular in the UAE because of its effectiveness especially when it comes to mental health. Studies have shown that the risk for serious mental illness is generally higher in cities compared to rural areas and that’s where yoga plays a big role. When we practice yoga carefully and consistently, it improves mental health as well as physical health. People who practice yoga even change their diet and start eating healthier. Several fitness joints in the UAE have incorporated yoga in their sessions,” he added.

Yasha Nirav Shah

Yasha Nirav Shah, 38, from India, has practiced yoga for over 15 years. She believes yoga helps balance the internal and external self, providing benefits such as weight loss, stress management, and muscle strengthening. “Yoga should be integrated into all school curriculums, especially for children aged 9 to 16, as it aids in better decision-making, smooth menstrual cycles, and mental relaxation, providing a solid foundation for future health and stress management. Additionally, incorporating yoga into corporate routines can reduce medical claims, employee turnover, and sick leaves, benefiting both individuals and companies,” she said.

Yoga during pregnancy

Dr Lina Barot Rathod

Dr Lina Barot Rathod, 52, from India, a homeopath and yoga consultant, started practicing yoga in 1997. She said she experienced significant benefits during her pregnancy and pursued further education to become a yoga therapist. She has taught yoga to school students, differently-abled children, and pregnant women, witnessing improvements in physical coordination, concentration, and emotional well-being.

“One of the key reasons for yoga’s popularity is its accessibility. It can be practiced by anyone, anywhere. Yoga is inclusive, accommodating all ages, genders, and body. Many asanas have variations that make them achievable for each practitioner, according to their flexibility, strength, and experience level. Whether you want to build strength, flexibility, or balance, yoga offers something for everyone. Its adaptability gives it a universal appeal,” said Dr Rathod, an active member of Arab Region Yoga Instructors Council, a non-commercial entity dedicated to the promotion of yoga in this region.

How yoga controlled hypertension

Healthcare providers are also increasingly considering integrating yoga into treatment plans to enhance patient outcomes and quality of life. Having witnessed the benefits of yoga, some allopathic clinics and hospitals have already integrated it into their treatment procedures.

Dr Swati Prasad

A recent case study presented by Dr Swati Prasad, specialist, Internal Medicine, Aster Royal Clinic, Downtown Dubai, reveals the potential of yoga in managing hypertension.

She said a 55-year-old man, despite using antihypertensive medication, struggled with high blood pressure until he participated in a 12-week yoga programme.

The programme included 30-minute sessions of yoga postures (asanas) five days a week, supplemented with daily 15-minute sessions of breathing exercises (pranayama) and meditation.

Following the programme, the patient’s systolic blood pressure decreased from 150 mmHg to 130 mmHg, and diastolic pressure dropped from 90 mmHg to 80 mmHg. He also required less medication to maintain his blood pressure. Beyond physical improvements, the patient reported reduced stress, improved sleep quality, and an overall sense of well-being.

“This case study illustrates that a structured yoga program can significantly reduce blood pressure and improve overall health in patients with hypertension, highlighting the potential for yoga to be integrated into conventional treatment plans,” said Dr Prasad.

She added that some studies have found key benefits of yoga in cardiovascular health, metabolic health, respiratory health, mental health, musculoskeletal health, and in addressing inflammation and immune function.

“These findings support the integration of yoga into routine medical care for various chronic conditions, demonstrating its effectiveness as a complementary therapy,” added Dr Prasad.