Yoga’s 5,000-year-old roots twist over all the way back to India Image Credit: Gulf News

Anjana Shukla will never forget the day she first limped into a yoga class. Having seen her struggling with stress and rheumatism, brought on by a high-flying HR job in Singapore, her friend had recommended it.

Today, eight years later, Shukla is the founder director of Bay Yoga, the vibrant, fun, lemongrass-infused yoga haven for new agers in Dubai.

Yoga’s 5,000-year-old roots twist over all the way back to India. The word means ‘divine unifier’; Shukla calls it a discipline that is ‘self-healing’.

Beyond conditioning the body, and being proudly able to do the asanas [postures] without falling on your face, regular yoga practice has been known to fight addiction, chronic pain and imbalances. People today flock to the mat for its rejuvenating grace. And in Dubai, Bay Yoga is one place where they gather.

A sign by the studio says, “Friends gather here”. Evidently, that’s true for the men and women from more than 15 different nationalities that come here daily for several kinds of yoga under the same roof — Hatha, Yin and Bikram, with its unique 26 postures in a heated studio for 90 minutes. For the time-impaired, there is a shorter express session, too.

As an entrepreneur who literally bends over backwards for fitness, Shukla began to research other forms of exercises that can be combined with yoga and done in a heated yoga studio. That led to her discovery of Inferno Hot Pilates — a 60-minute high density core workout. She trained in New York and flew back to become the first Inferno Hot Pilates trainer in the Middle East.

In 2016, Bay Yoga was invited by Dewa to conduct a Breathe Easy programme for their 5000 plus employees. Bay Yoga also joined hands with Dubai Municipality on Car Free Day, to spread awareness about yoga.

And who knows, you might share the studio with a celebrity. Jennifer Lopez practised there with her crew when she visited Dubai in 2017.

Bay Yoga’s super-friendly trainers definitely form a hotchspotch from all over the world — Ningthoujam Robindro Singh, called Robin, has a Master’s degree in Physical Education from India. Eunseong Choi grew up in Korea, left her paralegal career to pursue her passion. Romanian-Australian trainer Alina Bou Mansour, used to fly as an air stewardess before turning into the ever-supportive trainer who spares a moment even after class, to encourage timid students, to ‘get that posture right’. And bubbly, ever-smiling Jessica Thomas is a dancer.

“I see so many friendly faces the minute I walk in the door”, says Annalise McNeill, a Canadian primary school teacher. Trainer Jessica enjoys ballet, jazz classes and cardios. Yet, “Bikram Yoga is my favourite, as it guarantees an all over body workout”. She quotes Bikram, the founder of this style, “Inside out, bones to skin, finger tips to toes. SO GOOD”.

There is no dearth of divas and dudes in Bollywood and Hollywood who have been vocal about their love for yoga.

Kareena Kapoor Khan does 50 surya namaskars daily (egad!). Lara Dutta practiced prenatal yoga; Ashwarya Rai did yoga post delivery. The stars of Sabrina the Teenage Witch throw yoga parties. For Jennifer Aniston, yoga is the remedy for stress. Demi Moore, Reese Witherspoon, Julia Roberts, Naomi Watts and Emily Blunt are fans. Jane Fonda gave up aerobics for it; Sidharth Malhotra and Akshay Kumar swear by it. Yoga healed Shilpa Shetty of chronic spondylitis. Sports yoga keeps Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and other football stars fit.

Yoga relaxes you and, by relaxing, heals

Yoga can be fun or be made fun of; it can help you look marvelous or feel marvelous. But the sensible practice of yoga does more than slap a smiley face on your brain. It massages the lymph system. (Lymph is the body’s dirty dishwater; exercise activates the flow of lymph through the body, speeding up the filtering process; yoga especially promotes the draining of the lymph)

Sandy Goldberg, Head of Merchandising at Marks & Spencer, tries to make it to Bay Yoga for at least three sessions per week. “I am finding all kinds of muscles that I didn’t know I have”.

McNeill adds, “Yoga trims and tones my body. It also improves my mood, energy levels and quality of sleep”.

The postures have a massive effect on the body, but the process isn’t instant. Especially in their first sessions, workout warriors may have trouble suppressing those competitive waves.

“At first, a lot of studio yoga is about who can do that really difficult posture the best”, jokes L Anton, a yogi from France. “The students have to realise that yoga is not war, but surrender”.

Selina Neri, an Italian professor, got attracted by the discipline yoga requires, the silence and its history. “The best part is to know that the teachers will challenge me and push my limits”, she says.

It may take a while for the enlightenment bulb to switch on, but the maxim for yoga is, “what you can do is what you should do”.

Yoga as an exercise puts more pep in your step every day, says homemaker Rina Solomon, a mother of two. “The pressures of daily life are intense: our jobs, our marriages, raising kids, even surviving another day can be hard. I don’t think it is a spiritual experience like church. For me, it’s a great exercise”.

Dr Saraswathi Mohan Suraj, an Ayurvedic doctor, a yoga practitioner and the first ever Miss Kerala, says yoga helps heal. “An internal correction happens. Yoga gives strength, stronger bones, better digestion, improved menstrual health and good posture. Learn to do it correctly and you can practise it even at home”.

The myriad health benefits associated with yoga have played an important role in its continued surge. When Anton first started practising in 2005, there were only a few popular styles — Iyengar, Hatha, Power, Bikram. “Now, there is a yoga for every person.”

A Google search underscores that observation. Names of yoga pop up — Athletic, Karaoke, Aerial, Detox, Laughter, Meltdown, Jivamukti and Fat Free. There is even Doga and Equine Yoga — to practise with your four legged pals. And a Tantrum yoga session — if you want to scream out all that angst.

Sounds daunting? Namaste, as instructors say at the end of sessions: the divine in me bows to the divine in you.

Western tradition looks at the body from the outside in, peeling it back one layer at a time, believing only what it can see, measure and prove. The East treats the person; the West treats the disease. The most cited study around — Ornish’s (1990) — tested patients with angiographically documented coronary heart disease, of whom 53 were prescribed yoga, group support and a low-fat vegetarian diet. Ornish’s results published in the American Journal of Cardiology, showed that 80 per cent of the 194 patients in the experimental group, were able to avoid bypass or angioplasty.

Dr Saraswati says, “Some maladies can be reversed — especially those like arthritis. Doctors may warn against surgery, yet people are willing to pay for a quick solution like off-the-counter medication; they do not want to pay the price for diet and lifestyle-changes.”

Some anecdotes are encouraging — even to the sceptics. A person who took to Bikram Yoga as a last ditch effort to cure her acidic peptic ailment, trainer Neha Shewani is a testimony to how the decision changed her life in a positive way. Shewani battled nausea, indigestion and chronic stomach aches when she was 22. Six years of Bikram Yoga has led to this once shy young woman travelling around the world, teaching the routine to many.

Yoga isn’t limited to those who can bend like a pretzel or dazzle in metallic leggings. A typical Bay Yoga session has people from every walk of life, and suprisingly, of all ages, lined up together, mat to mat, working towards fitness.

Andrew Thomas, a 60 plus British construction project director, also known as ‘Jessica’s (trainer) dad’ at Bay Yoga, vouches that “No ‘natural ability’ is required, there are no limits on size, shape, age, and no barriers to entry. It is not a competition. All in the room are equal (except the teacher, of course) You meet a lot of people, from all nationalities and walks of life; yoga appeals to all”.

Thomas began practising yoga in Indonesia in 2016, to improve his flexibility. Now, one of his best moments is watching both his wife and daughter teach at Bay Yoga, where he practises.

Research shows that yoga’s popularity is growing by 20 percent every year. In the US alone, a whopping 24 million called themselves yogis in 2013.

That is NOT a big stretch.

Why this steady groundswell?

You get so much out of it if you give in; even if you don’t give your best, you get an excellent workout. Seeing all her students work hard as a team on the “30-day challenge” (where they practice everyday, for 30 days) has been amazing for Jessica. “It can be very hard some days and they are all doing FANTASTIC. And I am a very proud teacher”.

Yoga was once forbidden for women in India. It was only for men. Today, females make up 70 per cent of the body-stretching pie, according to surveys.

Are women more patient than men and more committed to finding “their yoga?”

“Men are quicker to say, ‘It is not for me,’ and move on. It is hard for majority of men to be vulnerable, step out of their comfort zone and try something that is not as aggressive as say, kickboxing,” says Ahmad Khalil, an IT professional. But Sam Cheslyn, the newest trainer to join the Bay Yoga team says, “The males I know personally who practice yoga have a love hate relationship, they don’t love the yoga when they are in the room but they certainly love the benefits that follow. It’s the secret success story behind every aspect of the yoga man’s life.”

Whatever the numbers, a committed group of men and women, appreciate the benefits of this age-old exercise. It may be for you, it may not. But one thing is for sure. Yoga corrals folks in unique ways, breaking down barriers. To quote a sweaty yoga practitioner, “The best part about practising yoga in Dubai is that it brings together people who might never have been friends otherwise.”


Linda Joseph is a writer based in Kerala, India.