Historically, certain sports, hobbies, and practices have been reserved for the ‘elite’ whether by design or default. The equestrian world is not open to all; you cannot saunter onto a golf course as you would into a park; and tennis courts are often cloistered in country clubs. Some things were – are – just sequestered off for the privileged. Yoga, as a practice, is practically the antithesis of that. It requires neither expensive equipment nor vast swaths of space; it needs no membership, can be practiced with no money. It only requires your body. And your mind.
But the reality is, just like money can be a barrier to entry, so too can language. And yoga, in its modern day incarnation, has for the most part, proven to be barricaded off from the Arabic-speaking world. A cursory online search will reveal countless yoga classes, but almost none in Arabic. Those which do exist, have been dubbed from other languages. Even within the Middle East itself, the same applies. You may not struggle to find a yoga class – but only if you’re among the privileged bilingual segment of society who doesn’t have to rely on their mother tongue to be taught. You’d be hard pressed to find a single instructor who teaches classes in Arabic.
It was really just born out of this desire to bring something that I had benefitted from in the Western world, into the Arab world, but in our language, not in English
And yet, Arabic is the 6th most spoken language in the world. For over 400 million people globally, habibi is a part of their daily vernacular. Yoga, on the other hand, is not. And that is exactly what Basma Masri, the founder of Yoga Bil Arabi, is pushing to remedy. Her initiative is essentially exactly what it sounds like; a network of Arabic-speaking yoga teachers and a digital platform of yoga video tutorials taught in Arabic. “It was really just born out of this desire to bring something that I had benefitted from in the Western world, into the Arab world, but in our language, not in English,” she says simply.
A relative newcomer to the practice, Masri, who is originally Palestinian, was born in Saudi Arabia and grew up in the Gulf between the kingdom and Dubai. She worked in advertising, as a bridal makeup artist, a Revlon ambassador in the Middle East, and founded an ongoing initiative empowering children with cancer called Superhope, before Yoga Bil Arabi was eventually born in 2016.
...it spoke to me about finding a purpose, rediscovering yourself.
And it was not until she crossed an ocean and found herself in a relatively foreign land that she discovered yoga. “I was visiting San Francisco to launch Superhope with Stanford Hospital (LPCH) - which was great. But later during my stay I started to get really homesick,” she recalls. “I think I was having a bit of a culture shock. I was also grieving over my dad who had recently passed away. I started to panic a lot. I just started questioning life, questioning myself: Who I am? What's my purpose? A lot of people go through this in different stages in their life, you start to want to know what you're doing here on earth.” Eventually it lead to a breaking point. “I had a massive anxiety attack one night - I thought I was having a heart attack.”
One of the biggest misconceptions about yoga in the Arab world is that some people think it's changing their religion
That day was a turning point for Masri; at her husband’s suggestion she began to look for ways to address her state of anxiety. “I started researching how to control my thinking, how to control my mind, and I found a lot of it had to do with breathing,” she explains. Anyone who has taken an introductory class to yoga can tell you the emphasis on breath is tantamount. The practice is as much about controlling your mind and mental state as it is your muscles.
The road from breathwork to yoga was rapid and shortly afterwards she enrolled in a year-long teacher training programme. “I fell in love,” she says simply. “Basically it spoke to me about finding a purpose, rediscovering yourself. And it’s fun too.” Upon her return to Dubai a while later, she was able to materialise the idea to teach yoga classes in Arabic – to relay what she had learnt. “So I came back to Dubai and then I started teaching at a studio called Rise. It was the first Arabic yoga class that was public in the Emirates, at least that I know of until now.”
You’d be hard pressed to find a single instructor who teaches yoga classes in Arabic. Yet, Arabic is the 6th most spoken language in the world.
The online videos didn’t come until a little later; the initiative first started with her classes, testing the waters in Dubai with the reaction to her linguistic swap. “The thing is, when it comes to yoga in the Arab world, people are still very English oriented and Arabic has become very rare. So when they find something given in Arabic they get excited just to attend the class because they just find a bit of authenticity in their own language, and I think that's a big part of what made people want to support this initiative.”
The online videos quickly followed. After she travelled back to the States for a short while, she wanted to evolve the concept of Yoga Bil Arabi and got the idea to start online video tutorials in Arabic. “I can’t be everywhere obviously, and geographically, putting the content online really opens it up to a wider audience.”
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Yoga at its core is intended as a practice that is open to all. You don’t need to be a hyperflexible lithe blond with a mastery of Instagram filters; you can wear a veil or be unable to touch your toes, it doesn't matter. “No matter where you are in your yoga journey, you are always right,” says Masri succinctly. But by virtue of the lack of Arabic content, it has become exclusionary, denying access to the Arabic-speaking world. A practice which is meant to be available to everyone has become esoteric in a sense. Additionally, not everyone in the Arab world can access a yoga studio; but by and large the majority can access a YouTube video. Statistics estimate that there are approximately 200 million internet users in the Middle East. Between language and digitization, Masri believed she could make it more accessible to large swaths of the Arabic speaking population. “Because it's all about reach and I cannot reach everybody. I can reach a wider range when I'm on YouTube for sure; so many more people around the world can watch you.”
Since launching her digital platform, via Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube, the responses have come rolling in. While I was scrolling through the Yoga Bil Arabi Instagram account I came across a comment saying: My [Arab] mom loves your show! She has guests now and she was saying that as soon as they leave it's time for yoga with Basma! “That was a comment that really opened my mind,” says Basma with a smile, “Because at first, while I knew I was targeting Arabs, I didn’t really know what demographic it would appeal to, because there’s not been a service like this out there already in the market that I can compare myself to.”
I'm not claiming to be the first or only one. After I started the movement here, I was looking around to bring other Arabic yoga teachers onboard, and I found out that there are a handful of them but everyone is dispersed in different parts of the world and doing it alone.
She soon discovered it not only shattered a linguistic barricade but a generational one too. “I would have personal messages telling me ‘thank you for doing this in Arabic, we don't speak English very well, so this is really helping us.’ But then I realised that the other crowd that it opened doors for is the older Arab generation – especially older women – that don't speak in English. It allowed them to dip their toes a little bit into something which they maybe had never considered before.”
I would have personal messages telling me ‘thank you for doing this in Arabic, we don't speak English very well, so this is really helping us.
But Masri’s primary goal now is expansion; far from a one woman show, she wants it to be a community of teachers. “I'm not claiming to be the first or only one,” she admits, “After I started the movement here, I was looking around to bring other Arabic teachers onboard, and I found out that there are a handful of them but everyone is dispersed in different parts of the world and doing it alone.” So far, she has brought on board about a dozen other Arabic speaking teachers to join her in the hopes that it becomes self-sustaining.
Dana Salbak, one of the instructors who joined the Yoga Bil Arabi digital platform to teach in Arabic.
The initiative of course, comes with its own set of unique challenges. Language actually becomes problematic. “When I started bringing on board Arabic teachers, everyone I spoke to at the beginning was excited to join but many of them were afraid to teach in Arabic because we had all learnt yoga in English as teachers,” she recounts. “That opened a door for me to be like, ok so maybe we need to create a curriculum in Arabic as well. So that's a whole different project to create, that's number one.”
Imagine I go into a yoga class full of Arabs and I tell them ‘yulla let's do downward dog’ and I use the Arabic word ‘kalb’ – I feel like they'd throw eggs at me!
In the Arab world, a region that comes with a whole host of cultural specificities, merely translating a yoga class is not enough. Certain words come with certain connotations, and specific names for certain poses, like ‘downward dog’ would be considered among some as inappropriate to instruct an Arab person to do, because of a stigma in the region related to canines; it’s considered highly insulting to call or relate someone to a dog. “Imagine I go into the class and I tell them ‘yulla let's do downward dog’ and I use the Arabic word ‘kalb’ – I feel like they'd throw eggs at me!” Masri laughs. “But in all seriousness, for Westerners, it's normal and a dog is part of their culture; if you share qualities with a dog, they don't have an issue. But I cannot do that with Arabs. Which is why we need a yoga syllabus in Arabic to alter the words to something more appealing to a Middle Eastern audience.” So Masri took it upon herself to begin constructing a new curriculum of sorts, altering the names of certain poses so as not to alienated her Arab audience. For downward dog, she began to call it ‘rakam tamanya’, which is the Arabic for the number eight; in Arabic numerals, it looks like an inverted V.
...we need a yoga syllabus in Arabic to alter the words to something that works for the Middle East.
“Translation is a big challenge but I also find great joy in doing it. Sometimes I want to pull my hair out and I feel like I can't do this alone, but then a lot of the times as I illustrate and research, it’s very fulfilling,” Masri says. “Honestly this has opened my mind to a lot of Arabic poetry, to see what words I can borrow that can create a nice flow in the class. Having a startup and creating a whole curriculum is both fun and frustrating.”
Additionally, part and parcel of the Arab culture, a predominantly Muslim community, is how religion – or more precisely, the perception of religion – comes into play, which was another huge challenge for Masri. When I considered the introduction of yoga to a traditional Arab, majority Muslim population, my first thought was how culturally accepted it might be. My mind went instantly to the idea that they may consider it for men, a somewhat feminine practice in a region that has slightly more rigid roles of traditional masculinity, and for women, a somewhat sexualized practice. We so often see it in the media as women clad in skintight, skin-bearing clothes, clothes that would not be considered appropriate in much of the Arab world. Throw in stretching, legs splayed open, butts in the air – it’s just not typical sight in this region. But Basma has noted that she hasn’t faced those issues yet – in Dubai she taught no coed classes, and her online tutorials allow her audience to practice in the privacy of their homes. Instead the issue has been accusations of borderline blasphemy.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about yoga in the Arab world is that some people think it's changing their religion,” Masri elucidates. Yoga is equal parts mental – spiritual, in fact – and physical, and sometimes the reaction from Arabs is that it is an attempt to alter Islam. “I had that resistance at first, not just the practice of yoga physically but the practice of yoga spiritually. So I think a lot of the Arabs have a misconception that if I practice yoga spiritually, does this mean that I'm changing my religious beliefs?”
I had one comment on Instagram from a guy telling me that the child’s pose I was doing was like the sojood that Muslims do during prayer; he told me to stop spreading my ignorance to the world.
People are skeptical of certain elements of the practice, like chanting the ‘ohm’ at the end of a class. “In Dubai, if my class is Arabs I never, ever, chant ohm, unless I've built a long term relationships with my students and they trust my teaching” says Masri. Others, like resting in child’s pose, are also misconstrued, as it bears similarity to a movement in Islamic prayer, where you kneel on the ground and touch your forehead to the floor, as though before God. “I had one comment on Instagram from a guy telling me that the child’s pose I was doing was like the sojood that Muslims do during prayer; he told me to stop spreading my ignorance to the world.”
Basma hopes that as the community grows, as yoga reaches more and more Arabic-speaking practitioners, as she explains the benefits, addresses the misconceptions, her platform will help overcome that type of mentality and allow people to be open to the benefits of yoga. “In yoga, the teachers explain why child’s pose is important; the exchange of energy from your forehead with the ground. If all those little pieces of education are much more profoundly relayed in yoga I feel like Arabs will start to enjoy it a lot more.”
You know, we all see these yogis and their sexy outfits on Instagram and it kind of shows yoga in one light, but I think what's really important and what Basma's doing is really unlocking it from another light and allowing and giving the opportunity to Arabs to actually have an opportunity to experience the benefits of yoga and what it does
At its core, Basma Masri’s motivation is simple: she reaped the rewards of yoga and she wanted to share that with her people. “You know, we all have Instagram accounts and we all see these yogis and their sexy outfits and it kind of shows yoga in one light, but I think what's really important and what Basma's doing is really unlocking it from another light and allowing and giving the opportunity to Arabs – and especially Arab women because at the moment that’s the majority of her audience – to actually have an opportunity to experience the benefits of yoga and what it does,” says her husband Tarek, who is arguably to thank for her entire foray into yoga. “It unlocks so much within the body and mind and I feel like it's in need, in dire need in the middle east especially. Yoga is a very individual experience. It that it allows the person to really focus on themselves, and their mind and their body and unlocks a super power if you will. So I think by translating this into Arabic, especially the way Basma is doing it, is just giving millions and millions of people a chance to get to know themselves and to get out of their box.”
She hopes her spark will initiate a groundswell. “Yoga really gets you thinking of yourself and who you are, what you've done and what you want to do. It's so beautiful, it's intense but it's beautiful,” concludes Masri. “It has an amazing positive, long-lasting effects, and I'd love, inshallah, for this to be like a legacy for generations to come because the way I see it, yoga has benefited the western world and I really want it to benefit the Arab world – or rather the Arab speaking world. I can't wait to see what Yoga Bil Arabi creates.”
You can follow Basma Masri's YouTube channel here or follow Yoga Bil Arabi on Instagram @YogaBilArabi. You can also follow her personal Instagram account @BasmaYoga.