It wasn’t until we stepped off the plane and onto the sandy Saudi Arabian soil that the reality and challenges of teaching yoga in such a culturally unfamiliar country started to settle in. The willingness, hard work, and anticipation for this unique journey had been present with us for the past year as we prepared for the trainings. Applying for visas into this secretive country, preparing our lesson plans, co-authoring our first book and imagining our future Saudi students were all part of our process leading up to the moment. As co-facilitators, we balance each other’s energy to create a cohesive and well-adjusted experience for our students, yet these next trainings would challenge us beyond familiar facilitation. Among other cultural differences we would be adapting to, Saudi Arabia is gender segregated, meaning that Bridget would be leading the women’s training, while Dakota would lead a separate training for men. Yoga was only recently legalized in Saudi Arabia, and women specifically, have long been denied the right to exercise publicly. Prior to the legalization of yoga in the conservative Muslim Kingdom, practicing and teaching could result in severe criminal charges from the government. Progress prevailed in 2017, when the government recognized yoga as a sport, opening the door for all Saudis to practice without fear of prosecution.
When we were approached by Bethany Alhaidari, owner of Om Zaina Yoga in Riyadh, to bring our 200-Hour iLa Yoga teacher training program to Saudi Arabia, we were excited for the opportunity to participate in global inclusion, a deeper sense of tolerance, and support of anyone anywhere interested in studying yoga. We had received permission along with the rare invitation to offer our iLa approach to yoga in the Middle East, yet unsure of many things, like how to offer the complete teachings of yoga including energy, koshas, chakras, and freedom of expression into a strictly Islamic country. Further, it was communicated with us that elaborating on these topics was still illegal and could land us in trouble with the law. Our next question was then, how do we stay true to our teachings and philosophy, yet respect and honor the differences of this country? With no prior Interdisciplinary trainings having taken place in Saudi Arabia, we had no resources to turn to, no reference or guide on how to embark on these trainings. What unfolded was purely an adaptation to our teachings in the moment based off our experiences as they were happening.
The teachings were well received, and for the most part, we were able to stay true to our teaching philosophy. Having created a safe place for our students to explore their hearts, minds and bodies, we were able to witness the remarkable realization that many of these students were having about their lives and the impact that a highly regulated lifestyle has had on their overall sense of self. Saudi is changing, and though the process takes time, there are now at least seventeen women and five men in Riyadh who believe in themselves and each other, and know what it means to inspire love and authenticity.
As a photographer, Dakota uses imagery to capture sacred moments and emotions during our yoga retreats and trainings. This imagery offers an idea of what our experiences are like for future students, as well as give our students the gift of memories that they can reflect back upon. The approach to taking photos during this training offered the opportunity to be more creative due to Islamic customs and our desire to honor our Muslim students. Dakota was not permitted inside the studio while women were practicing uncovered (without an abaya), however there were a few occasions that we did receive permission to capture some images so long as they did not reveal the identity of the women.
As yoga continues to grow in the Middle East, it is our hope that the ripples we have created in our trainings will grow into waves, and that those waves will empower our students and our students’ students to affirm everyone’s individual truth and rights, creating change in their communities, positively impacting everyone’s approach to how we treat ourselves and those around us.
Saudi Arabia has far exceeded our expectations as an eye-opening, perspective-shifting experience that has allowed us a more expansive understanding of what it means to be human. Technology is allowing people all around our planet an invitation to better understand one another, yet it is apparent that most of us exist in our physical bubbles of comfort. Those physical bubbles form barriers created by a lack of understanding other cultures, resulting in a sometimes fear-based approach to those different from us. Our minds swirl with thoughts of the unknown, creating harsh scenarios of reality, and we develop a protective shield between one another. While history has shown that the wielding of such shields have resulted in the rise and fall of civilizations, countries and peoples, it is evident the more we travel and teach that we are all one despite our differences; differences created purely by when and where you were born on this planet, and who has taught you about life.
As the world becomes more interconnected, it is up to all of us to value each opportunity we receive to greet our encounters with openness and appreciation for the diversity they bring to the planet, to share a perspective of acceptance and love, and to collectively contribute to the beauty and vastness of the human experience.
- Bridget and Dakota Shae
iLa Yoga Founders
To find out more about iLa Yoga Retreats and Teacher Trainings visit iLaYoga.com, follow Dakota @viadakota, Bridget @bridgylovesu, and iLa Yoga @ilayogastudio on Instagram for updates on retreats and trainings around the world.