Yoga. It often conjures up fixed images in your mind’s eye, stereotypes that have seeped into the collective consciousness; scantily-clad blonde girls in varying degrees of hyperflexibility; elderly Indian men sitting cross-legged, heads wrapped in turbans; Bali. But the reality is that the practice does not ascribe to one singular interpretation; it defies categories and those who practice it cannot be pigeonholed into archetypes.
As a practice, it is inherently inclusive; it knows no gender or age; it requires neither equipment nor space; it does not even need particular levels of fitness. And perhaps because of this, it has seen a veritable explosion in popularity across the globe in the past few decades – but its rise in the Middle East has been more recent.
In Egypt, yoga studios began to appear its capital about ten years ago, and though the country is still far from saturated when it comes to yoga, the practice has steadily expanded its scope of influence since it was introduced. And in a culture where the career paths that do not fall under the traditional umbrella of doctor-lawyer-engineer and the pursuance of alternative jobs is considered child’s play until you learn to adult, more and more people are taking the path that’s considered rather unorthodox in the Arab world; yoga. Entrepreneurs have opened a smattering of studios across the city, and those who attended a single class to see what all the fuss was about are abandoning their full time jobs and becoming teachers.
The fact that Egyptians are now more open to exploring [...] could be attributed to a liberation of sorts that came about after the revolution of 2011. The youth are more curious; the older generations are more accepting of different cultural influences and beliefs.
Though admittedly, yoga is still inaccessible to large swaths of the Arab population, barricaded off from much of the Arabic-speaking world by sheer language – Arabic is the 6th most spoken language in the world and yet a cursory online search will reveal almost no instructors who teach yoga in Arabic – it is slowly expanding its presence and every groundswell starts someplace.
For International Yoga Day, we gathered 10 Egyptian yogis from across the city to capture them across Cairo’s urban landscape. Their stories reflect the myriad reasons they started the practice, how it is perceived in their country, and how it has affected them, set against the backdrop of their own city, with its gritty beauty and raw urban sprawl. Every yogi has a story, and so does every spot in the city.
Farahnaz Hany | Downtown Cairo
I've been practicing yoga for about 7 years, 4 of which I’ve spent teaching. Yoga, the union of body mind and soul/breath, is NOT a physical exercise. It is an energetic practice that uses the body as a tool.
Yoga is NOT a physical exercise. It is an energetic practice that uses the body as a tool.
The fact that Egyptians are now more open to explore with their bodies and to some extent, layers of the consciousness and quality of awareness, could be attributed to a liberation of sorts that came about after the revolution of 2011. The youth are more curious; the older generations are more accepting of different cultural influences and beliefs. Seeing this unfold around us in such infant stages is really beautiful. The cultural gap is huge so it might be difficult to fit such a strong lifestyle like yoga in the Egyptian culture, but I believe that we are just at the beginning of what could be a great relief and mental, physical, and emotional support for Egyptians.
| Downtown Cairo is the beating heart of the city. The district was designed in the 19th century by French architects commissioned by Khedive Ismail, who wanted to emulate Parisian and European architectural style, and has been Cairo's urban center ever since, even serving as the focal point for Egypt's 2011 revolution which swelled around the now-infamous Tahrir Square. Many of its side streets are in varying states of decay but its arterial streets still boast facades that harken to a bygone era. |
Ohoud Saad | The Greek Campus
I’ve been practicing yoga since 2010, and I’ve been passionately teaching Ashtanga since 2015 when I received my teacher training in Rishikesh, India. When I first started practicing, there were literally a handful of yoga studios in Egypt; today, new studios are opening every month, teacher trainings are becoming more and more accessible and there’s a thirst in trying out the alternative.
I definitely think people tend to freak out about a pregnant woman doing pretty much anything and that includes yoga!
I definitely think people tend to freak out about a pregnant woman doing pretty much anything! But I’m sensible and I love being active and I don’t do anything that’s harmful to me or my baby. At the beginning of my pregnancy, I couldn’t practice as much as I wanted to due to nausea and fatigue. Soon enough though, I started gaining my energy back and I got back on the mat. I was very explorative, I didn’t hold back but I definitely listened to my body and what it’s capable of. To my surprise, it was capable of everything it’s used to basically. Bit by bit, I just had to make some modifications and stay away from deep twists and backbends but it’s been so great continuing my on and off the mat yoga practice.
| The century-old complex of the Greek Campus has been a stalwart marker of Downtown Cairo since the early 1900s, when it was the site of two Greek schools. In 1964, the American University in Cairo moved in, when it got its name ‘the Greek Campus’. Today, the five-building complex is Cairo’s first technology and innovation park, and the epicentre of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. |
I guess I have been practicing yoga regularly since I gave up on gymnastics – or frankly when gymnastics gave up on me! I stopped gymnastics around 2011. It’s very tough sport, it’s incredibly physically demanding, and as you get older you need to train more and more to keep your form, which definitely gets harder as you start working, etc.
I loved gymnastics because to me it’s the science of biomechanics and it’s almost how your body creates art – and that was one of the things that drew me to yoga in that it was very similar to gymnastics in that sense but at the same time, yoga is much kinder on your body.
| The iconic Imbaba Bridge - the only railway bridge allowing trains to pass between East and West of Cairo - has had a long and full life since it was originally designed in the late 1800s by French architect Gustav Eiffel (yes, that Eiffel). The bridge that stands today was actually built later, between 1912 and 1924, and has in its tenure played host to many iconic scenes in Egyptian cinema, acts of civil disobedience, and even a near-homeless Anwar al-Sadat in his days of poverty prior to 1952. |
Omniya Baghdadi | The Diplomatic Club
I’ve been practicing since 2010 and teaching since April 2015. Yoga is a very personal journey. It’s never about a certain pose that you try to achieve. Your development through physical movement, breathing, and meditation aids your progress. A certain asana (pose) is just a by-product of your entire practice. It can take a few days for someone to get into a headstand or it can take years. Everyone is different and it doesn’t matter how long it takes as long as you pursue a full practice.
increasingly, Arab men are becoming more interested in yoga for its great physical and emotional benefits without holding onto any stigma of it being a sexualized or strictly female practice.
In the Arab world, I think that yoga is conceived by many as a form of sport similar to gymnastics or synchronized swimming, both of which are highly respected and admired here. And what’s worth noting as well is that increasingly, Arab men are becoming more interested in yoga for its great physical and emotional benefits without holding onto any stigma of it being a sexualized or strictly female practice.
| Originally designed in 1908 by French architect Alexandre Marcel - whose belle époque interpretations of 'exotic' (or cosmopolitan) architectural styles can also be seen in the iconic Baron Empain palace in Heliopolis - the building formerly known as the Mohamed Ali Club was a veritable who’s who of Cairene society in the first half of the 20th century. Though the club’s days of entertaining the kingdom’s rich and famous waned with the establishment of the Egyptian republic in 1952, its decadent architecture - with its grand staircase, dangling chandeliers, and giant orientalist paintings - has stood the test of time. |
Hend Mosallem | Felucca on the Nile
I found yoga 11 years ago and got certified as 200h vinyasa yoga instructor in 2018. My yoga journey has been a little bit tricky although it’s also been kind of magical and full of miracles.
In 2015 my world came crashing down; I was in my 4th year of studying fine arts and I suddenly got a very bad injury in my back, neck, and right arm. I wasn’t able to move or do anything by myself – I couldn’t even brush my own hair or dress myself. I was extremely depressed and angry all the time. I went to yoga classes for the pranayama practice (the breath technique) because it was the only thing I could do. I eventually found a yoga teacher who started giving me private lessons and she literally saved me.
If anyone out there doubt themselves and is afraid to start yoga let me tell you, I’ve never been flexible, I had scoliosis, a slipped disc, and inflammation of my the nerves in my hand.
After a year, I was feeling much better and I decided to learn how to practice alone at home. I believed that yoga would be the only thing to help me to survive. I read endlessly about anatomy and ailment, and started to watch and study different courses online, taking what worked best for me.
If anyone out there doubt themselves and is afraid to start yoga let me tell you, I’ve never been flexible, I had scoliosis in my back, a slipped disc in my neck, and inflammation of my the nerves in my hand. So the secret of yoga is don’t ever think that you should be flexible, skinny, young, or in perfect health to start practicing because yoga is for everyone.
| The Nile is the longest river in Africa and threads its way through the northeastern part of the continent. It has long been the lifeblood of Egypt - as well as synonymous with the country even though only 22% of the infamous river actually courses through Egypt. The country's civilisation has centered along its banks; to this day, over 90% of the population live near where it flows. Feluccas are an iconic sight floating along the city's river; and though they're mainly relegated to touristic purposes in Cairo now as opposed to a necessary means of transport, every Egyptian has spent their fair share of time aboard one of these boats. |
Diana Faaberg | 6th October Bridge
I’ve been practicing yoga for 7 years and teaching for 3. Yoga can definitely be wrongfully sexualised in the Middle East, but that’s not just in Arab countries, it’s all over the world. Some of the movements are beautiful so people sexualize them. Flexibility is also sexualized. Along with the tight clothing, the whole combination comes off that way to many people, especially people who haven’t tried yoga.
yoga can definitely be wrongfully sexualised in the Middle East, but that’s not just in Arab countries, it’s all over the world.
They have no idea what it feels like to do yoga and it’s easy to just judge from the other side, but we can definitely change that. We are in the process of it with more and more people understanding yoga. It’s about creating awareness and education people about the practice.
| The so-called ‘spinal cord of Cairo’, 6th October Bridge is a massive 20.5 kilometre elevated highway that extends from the West side of the city all the way to Cairo International Airport in the east. Completed in 1996, the goliath national infrastructure project took almost 30 years to complete. Today, approximately half a million people traverse the road every day. |
Reem Hossam | Imbaba Bridge
I’ve been practicing yoga for 5 years and teaching for 3. I actually discovered it while doing a much more intense fitness program called P90X. There was a yoga day for recovery. It was my first time to every try it and I immediately fell in love with how my body felt after class. I was hooked.
I started practicing daily, going to every class I could find, and a year after that I stopped practicing everything but yoga. I felt like it was all I needed. It gives you both strength and flexibility but you don’t get there overnight, and people see these poses in photos and mistakenly think that achieving them is easy. To get to a pose, you need to maintain a consistent practice, you have to show up to your mat, be patient, don’t skip levels, and listen to your body.
Diana & Lousiana Faaberg | Rooftop in Dokki
[Lousiana] I have been practicing and teaching yoga for 3 years now. I have noticed in the last few years how yoga has grown in Egypt; I started my first teacher training in 2016 and ever since then I definitely feel that the yoga community in the country has started to bloom with more yoga teachers and classes everywhere now with different styles, workshops, and even teacher trainings. There are so many options now, and it’s definitely something great to witness.
| There are few images as iconically Cairene as the endless satellite dishes practically spilling over balconies and rooftops. Perhaps only the everpresent laundry lines hung out of windows and rooftop pigeon coops come close. Over the years, the dishes have become as (or maybe slightly more) prevalent than the city’s minarets, which is saying something considering the Egyptian capital was called ‘the city of a thousand minarets’ for most of its history. |
Nina Kabbany | Metro
I’ve been practicing yoga for almost 9 years, and teaching for 6. I went for a teacher training in Thailand just to learn a bit more. It was meant to be for a month. 2 weeks in, I quit my job, and I stayed for another 2 years.
Yoga’s been my full time ‘job’ for 5 years. Different cultures will perceive yoga teachers in different ways – they may not take them as seriously – but what’s important is how you feel. How people will perceive it or think of me as having a ‘real job’ or not, is up to them and their culture and their understanding of what counts as ‘work’ and what doesn’t. But for me, I don’t actually consider it a job either because I’m just doing something that I love.
| Beneath the notorious dysfunction of the capital, the relatively reliable subway system transports some 1.3 billion people a year. When it was first built in 1987, the Cairo metro system was the first subway system in Africa. Though exact figures are difficult to come by, the most recent numbers put daily ridership at a whopping 3.5 million people, which is still barely 20% of the city’s massive population of 20 million. |
Marwan Samir | The Greek Campus
I’ve been practicing yoga for about 2 years and teaching for 6 months. I've always been athletic. In my teens I competed in track and field championships but had to stop due to ACL injuries (in my knee). I continued playing different sports but found yoga to be the most beneficial because it helped with my injuries while still giving me the strength and stamina that I wanted. Yoga has actually become one of the therapeutic ways of dealing with any injury.
yoga actually complements any other sport you practice
I would definitely recommend that children practice it at a young age. Lots of parents will put their kids in tennis or swimming or football classes, but yoga actually complements any other sport – it’s an excellent balance between strength and flexibility and it protects your ligaments and tendons.
Mohamed Bassyouni, Reem Hossam, Diana Faaberg | Imbaba Bridge
Photography by Mohamed Mortada and Sherif Abdelazim.