Photographs: Mohammed Rasheed
Fifteen years ago, in Dubai, yoga wasn’t a healthclub fad. The ancient practice that promotes mind-body harmony wasn’t hijacked by high-flying yogis or healthclub therapists.
Yoga, then, was a personal passion for many, some initiated into its postures since childhood. There were others, including Western expatriates and Arabs, quickly won over by the simplicity of its philosophy.
KB Madhavan, managing director, Astic General Trading, Dubai was already familiar with yoga. He has always believed in three simple essentials for human life: Food, sleep and exercise.
If no one doubts the necessity of food and sleep, he wonders, why do they feel exercise can be avoided? He discovered in yoga, with its written history dating back to 5000 to 2000 BC, a total exercise that kept the body fit while ensuring total harmony of the mind too.
Derived from the Sanskrit word “yuj” (meaning, to yoke), yoga in common parlance has come to denote the integration of mind and body through a series of breath and physical exercises.
Moving in from Mumbai, India, Madhavan had initially confined his exercise routine to early morning walks. He met KB Rai, a yoga practitioner, during one of those outings, and that meeting was to change the lives of many hundred people soon.
Together they decided to do open-air yoga sessions, in which any one was free to participate — for free. Teaming together under the banner of ‘Friends of Yoga,’ they had started off with a handful of people. Keeping a low profile, the friends’ circle grew through word of mouth publicity. Today, Friends of Yoga work to promote yoga in 13 locations in six countries including the US, the Philippines, New Zealand, Singapore, Oman and Pakistan.
In the UAE alone, Friends of Yoga practise yoga at pubic parks in Dubai (two), Sharjah (four) and Abu Dhabi (one). And all of the Friends of Yoga classes in the rest of the world are founded by former UAE residents, who used to practise here.
Dubai residents would be familiar with the sight of the Friends of Yoga classes at the park near Deira taxi stand, the very first venue of the group. The yoga classes are held every day from 5.30 am to 6.30 am and 7.30 pm to 8.30 pm. Madhavan says the classes were rarely suspended and that too, only to mark events of national mourning. All other days, come summer or winter, the ‘Friends’ meet for yoga lessons.
No money is charged for the lessons and every one is free to join and leave, according to his or her will. “There is no discrimination on any grounds,” adds Madhavan.
A typical Friends of Yoga hour starts with a prayer (according to one’s faith), followed by warming up exercises, yoga exercises and breath exercises for lungs and heart. Madhavan says that individuals improve on any given yoga posture as time goes by.
On any given day, about 200 people take part in the yoga classes held in any given location, says Madhavan. Over the years, some 7,000 people have benefited from their association with Friends of Yoga. At least 11 members who had joined in the 90s’ continue to practise yoga at the Friends of Yoga get-togethers in Dubai.
He says many people join the yoga classes after they are identified with some health problem. Once they recover, many of them leave only to return again. It is not uncommon to find people in wheel-chairs attending the Friends of Yoga sessions.
Madhavan says yoga has been found to be particularly effective in people with stress-related problems, asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, insomnia, depression and even obesity. “In fact, we even have dozens of doctors, allopathic practitioners, who endorse the health benefits of yoga,” he adds.
One trend Madhavan has observed over the years is the increase in awareness of the efficacy of yoga. The acceptance of yoga as an effective physical and mental exercise is reflected in the participation Friends of Yoga has fetched.
Apart from its multicultral composition of children and adults, men and women, including those from the Sub-continent, Friends of Yoga has Western expatriates, UAE nationals and other Arab expatriates. “They come from all walks of life: From chief executives and business tycoons to blue-collar workers,” says Madhavan.
Personally, Madhavan says, yoga has helped him tremendously at work and in his personal life. “I can tackle any pressure. I have no mood swings and I can take any ups and downs with equal calm,” he says.