A yoga journey from illness to happiness

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A woman in one of her yoga poses. (Shutterstock)
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Saudi Arabia has approved Yoga as a sporting activity. (Shutterstock)
Updated 29 July 2018
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A yoga journey from illness to happiness

  • Nouf Marwaai’s health was one of the keys for entering the yoga world
  • Marwaai, an entrepreneur, is also the founder of the Arab Yoga Foundation

“Yoga is just a well-being system that has a traditional background. The values of the yoga tradition are not different from our culture’s values,” said the first Saudi certified yoga instructor, Nouf Marwaai.

Marwaai, who enhanced awareness of yoga in the Kingdom, was awarded the Padma Shri award, India’s fourth highest civilian award, by President Ram Nath Kovind in March this year. She was given the award, which is rarely given to foreigners, because of her efforts to make yoga accepted as a sports activity in Saudi Arabia and to popularize it. The event was held in New Delhi at the president’s house.

“The celebrations we had on the yoga day this year and previous years were organized by the Consulate General of India in cooperation with us, the Arab Yoga Foundation group. We started in 2015, when the UN approved the international day of yoga based on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He is the greatest promoter of yoga and wellness for the welfare of people and society. I and the entire yoga community are very thankful to him for this initiative, as the whole world celebrated yoga on that day,” she said.

Marwaai is an entrepreneur who has lived between Saudi Arabia and India for almost 11 years and has some businesses in both countries. She is also the founder of the Arab Yoga Foundation.

After practicing yoga for seven years and being certified, she started teaching it and founded SAY school, which became the Arab Yoga Foundation by 2010. She has been practicing yoga now for two decades.

Her health was one of the key reasons for entering the yoga world. Since her birth Marwaai has suffered from many health issues and was not diagnosed properly until she was 17. During that year she was diagnosed with undifferentiated connective tissue disease and possibly rheumatic disease.

She said: “I was underweight, tired, and suffered from malnutrition due to the extreme diets they put me on for my allergies and digestive problems. Symptoms that I had suffered from were joint pain, weakness, chronic fatigue, skin rash, allergies, loss of focus, sleeping problems and stiffness.”

Marwaai had to leave school because of her constant fainting and illness. She decided to search for a sport that fitted in with her health condition.

She found one of her father’s books which talked about yoga. Her father was founder of the Arab Martial Arts Federation in the Kingdom, Tunisia and Egypt from the late 1960s. She continued her yoga learning process by buying books as well as DVDs.

“I also started a vegetarian organic diet. I was anyways vegetarian due to my severe allergies. I went back to finish high school in 1999, then went to university and graduated with high honors,” Marwaai said.

Her college years were a turning point for her while she was studying psychology and learning more about yoga.

“I could see a lot of connections between sports and well-being. Mental and physical health connections, the effect of gentle exercises and breathing control while performing exercises and relaxation. I understood the effect of stress on the health development of diseases, especially immunity and psychosomatic diseases. I decided then to study yoga, not only to read and practice,” she added.

Marwaai traveled to India for treatment and study. Today, she has a master’s degree in psychotherapy from India and a bachelor’s in psychology from King Saud University.

She said: ”The kindness of people in India impressed me. I felt at home. I also studied Ayurvedic medicine there while getting treatment for my disease. I was diagnosed with (lupus) finally after a septic shock in 2001, when I was admitted to hospital and my survival was at risk. I learned yoga and fell in love with the Indian culture. Living in Kerala taught me how to take care of my health. The culture is somehow similar to Saudi culture in family aspects and values. I felt at home and I can easily say that India is my second country.”

When Marwaai was asked about the struggles she faced during her journey of discovering yoga, she said it was difficult to find a yoga teacher or a center, so she decided to make people aware of yoga.

“Another struggle that I faced was the confusion of what license I can apply for to open a yoga center. But luckily now things have changed a lot when it comes to women’s sport, and thanks to Princess Reema bin Bandar, the president of community sports federations, who guided me and helped my initiative,” she added.


Catch the coastal chic of Biarritz

Biarritz is one of the best surfing locations in Europe. (Shutterstock)
Updated 24 June 2019
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Catch the coastal chic of Biarritz

  • The French seaside town mixes old-world glamour with a very modern surfing scene
  • This patch of Basque Country — less than 20 miles north of the Spanish border — has a windswept, relaxed charm all its own

DUBLIN: It’s hard to put a finger on what makes Biarritz so special. Maybe it’s the faded charm, maybe it’s the sprinkling of stardust that the numerous guests (the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Frank Sinatra) brought to the city, or maybe it’s the low-slung surfer’s vibe, but this patch of Basque Country — less than 20 miles north of the Spanish border — has a windswept, relaxed charm all its own. It’s something of a hidden gem, with surfers, Parisian hipsters, retired French tourists and a smattering of in-the-know Europeans descending here every year.

Its most recent heyday was during the 1950s, when luminaries including Sinatra and Coco Chanel visited. From the 1960s onwards, Biarritz’s star fell, with Hollywood and the European elite favoring France’s Riviera as a holiday destination. Yet recent years have seen the town emerge back into the spotlight — although these days you are more likely to see surfers rather than film stars, as the town has embraced its position on France’s rugged southern Atlantic coast.

There are countless surf schools, and Biarritz is the birthplace of the sport in Europe. The (reportedly) first surfer here, appropriately enough, had Hollywood connections. Peter Viertel, a screenwriter, was in town as the movie he had co-written, “The Sun Also Rises,” was being filmed there in 1957. The long, wide sandy beaches provide the perfect place to learn, with the crashing Atlantic surf offering ample big waves to ride.

The town is small enough to explore in an afternoon, with countless cafés and restaurants dotting the narrow streets. There’s plenty of shopping too, with local boutiques such as Jox & An (which sells rope-soled espadrilles) next to the likes of Gucci and Duchatel, which features labels including Nina Ricci and Belenciaga. Indeed much of the town’s charm is seeing moneyed old French couples in their designer clothes rubbing shoulders with dreadlocked surfers in board shorts.

It might officially be in France, but Biarritz is Basque country, something very much apparent at Caroe, which mixes Basque and Nordic cuisine. This minimally designed pintxos bar specializes in local seafood and serves up everything from monkfish foie gras, smoked eel and trout gravlax. If you prefer a venue overlooking the water, head to Alaia, an ultra-stylish beachfront joint on Socoa Beach, 30-minutes south of Biarritz. You can enjoy lamb, mashed-potato pancakes, and hake and cabbage in front of the bobbing fishing boats. If you prefer to eat on the go, or grab something for a picnic on the beach, head to Les Halles market, which is filled with stalls dishing out sumptuous fare: from local goat’s cheeses and anchovies in olive oil and vinegar to limoncello jelly and hazelnut bread.

The most salubrious lodging in town is the Hotel du Palais, the brainchild of Eugenie de Montijo, the wife of Napoleon III, who chose a patch of hillside overlooking the Bay of Biscay for the Imperial residence. The hotel became the center for France’s elite, who holidayed at the sumptuous building and held balls, picnics and fireworks displays, while welcoming world leaders and royalty from around the world. These days the hotel retains all its old-world glamour, and its breakfasts are worth the room price alone.

There’s not a whole lot to do in Biarritz, but that’s sort of the point. It’s a place to while away the hours in a café, or to take long walks on one of the numerous beaches. It’s a place to relax in, not to do too much. If you do want to exert yourself, then there are a number of surfing schools where you can learn to ride the waves. Most offer similar courses (and prices), with La Vague Basque being the best reviewed. All ages and nationalities come here to learn to surf, so don’t be shy about getting that wetsuit on.

After a reviving dinner, head to the promenade and grab yourself an ice cream. One of the great French pastimes is people-watching, and the cafés along the promenade offer the perfect place to watch the world go by. Part French, part Basque, and with a wonderful mix of elegance, cool and Fifties chic, Biarritz might just be the best beach town in France.