Nouf Mohammed Al-Marwaai: Saudi yoga instructor
The quest for knowledge has not ended for yoga instructor Nouf Mohammed Al-Marwaai, even though her bachelor’s degree in clinical psychology from King Saud University took her to Australia and later to India to learn about yoga and Ayurveda.
Thirty-year-old Al-Marwaai is the first certified Saudi woman yoga and Ayurveda expert and the co-founder of the Riyadh-Chinese Medical Center in Jeddah — the first center providing alternative medicines and treatments in the Kingdom. She is also the regional director of the Gulf Yoga Alliance.
Yoga was not a new concept to her, unlike the rest of the Saudi society, as her father Mohammed was founder of the Arab Martial Arts Federation in the Kingdom, Tunisia and Egypt before the 1980s.
She started practicing yoga at the age of 19, but remained dissatisfied with the meager resources and experts in the Kingdom, which persuaded her to travel abroad.
“I started to practice yoga just because I was interested in some slow and therapeutically exercises. I desperately searched for yoga classes or teachers but couldn’t find any,” she said.
“So, I started self-practicing with the limited resources I could access. I found an Indian teacher and started practicing with her for a year. Very soon, I realized its benefits for the mind and body.
“Continuing the practice regularly for years, I found that the practice and the knowledge are linked with many facts in psychology and science. Practicing it is not just an exercise, but its effects are far reaching, more than our brain can imagine.
“This made me serious and I wanted to study the science behind it, for which I started traveling and educating myself in different colleges, medical centers for yoga and Ayurveda clinics in different countries at the age of 24.”
So, why India?
“I traveled to many places like Australia first to obtain a graduation diploma in physiology and anatomy. I also studied Hatha yoga practically and theoretically with two other types of yoga, weight management and stress release therapy,” she said.
“Also, I studied some of the Ayurvedic medicine theories and its nutrition. This gave a deep insight about yoga and its functions in a body. After that I felt the need to go to India — the original land of this knowledge and learn more about the philosophy and therapy of yoga, where there are many colleges and universities of yoga and access to Ayurveda medical training and teachings.
“While studying yoga, I found it interesting to study Ayurveda because they are sister sciences and they use the same theory of mental and body energies, physiology and psychology. I heard and read about Ayurveda a long time ago before I start practicing yoga. I went to India to study more about both.”
In India, she also studied the management and diagnosis of disease through yoga and Ayurveda. After that she did higher studies in yoga therapy and medical approach, yoga psychotherapy research and higher academic studies in the field. Also, she wanted to understand the conflict between yoga and Islam.
For a long time, Muslims had shunned yoga because of the perception that it is linked to the Hindu and Buddhist religions. She argues that yoga was the practice of people living in the pre-Buddhist era, over 5,000 years ago.
“It is more a lifestyle and a science than a religion. Especially Hatha yoga, which involves physiotherapy, lengthening and stretching exercises with breathing techniques which affects and stabilizes the nervous and endocrine systems deeply and creates harmony in the brain,” she said. “Treatments should be taken without considering the religious background. There are many books which Muslim scholars translated from other cultures and made use of and vice versa. There is nothing that involves worshipping anyone other than Allah in yoga.”
However, Al-Marwaai claims she was lucky in getting good media exposure, which helped her get established. She received a breakthrough opportunity when she was invited by the King Abdulaziz University to hold a three-day stress buster yoga workshop, which was a big hit among female students.
She also conducted mental enhancement programs for gifted girls under the supervision of Ministry of Education from time to time. This brought her into media spotlight and many television channels including Saudi Channel 1, Rotana, Iqraa channel, Oyoon Jeddah and others interviewed her.
She then started receiving frequent invitations to address seminars and lectures about yoga and Ayurveda. She also received offers to spearhead awareness programs from multinational companies like Unilever and Proctor and Gamble in the Kingdom.
“After I was made the regional director of Yoga Alliance International (YAI) in 2009 in the Gulf region by Swami Vidyananda, the founder of YAI in India, people started to know more about yoga and enquired more about it and its health benefits,” she added.
In Dec. 2009, she started her center for yoga and other alternative medicines. She also conducts a certified professional yoga-teaching program. So far, 40 women have completed this diploma in and outside Jeddah.
“Around 20 of them are very active in teaching others yoga,” she said. “I also have more than 400 women students in Jeddah alone. I have a kids’ yoga program too and my five-year-old boy is one who has learnt many poses!”
When asked what made her explore yoga despite achieving a bachelor’s degree in clinical psychology, she explained that the link between yoga and psychology is very strong and known by every practitioner.
Yoga is a body and mind exercise involving control of the central nervous system, somatic system and autonomic nervous system and harmonizes all three together.
The central nervous system controls the mind, the somatic system governs the body and the autonomic nervous system controls the emotions.
Practicing yoga improves stability and endurance for the three systems, resulting in strong physical health, a focused and balanced mentality and balanced emotions. Physical, mental and emotional endurance improves, so practitioners experience less diseases and pain, less mental disturbances and disorders, plus enhanced and insightful emotions.
Talking about her family and background, she said that her father has been her biggest source of inspiration.
“Being an achiever himself, my father believes in achievements. He received the King Fahd Prize in 1990 for his self-defense program, which was implemented in almost every military force in the Kingdom,” she said.
“He is now an adviser to the Interior Ministry and the government has been very supportive to him for his services to the Kingdom by introducing martial arts here. My parents are my biggest supporters who are always there for me. My husband was with me for a year in my three-year trip and traveled with me twice. My sisters and mom take care of my child when I am at work or traveling.”
Al-Marwaai asserts that her stay in Southern Indian state of Kerala was a comfortable one. “I love the people there for their kindness, hospitality, sincerity and friendliness. Their food, culture, music and dress are lovely. I miss the family I lived with in India, who were so caring and treated me like their daughter so that I never felt homesick. I would love to thank them so much for all they had done for me,” she said.