In one of the rooms of the Maulana Azad Centre For Indian Culture (MACIC) in downtown Cairo, Bharat Singh is busy teaching a class full of enthusiasts the benefits of the lotus position. In attendance are a bunch of children, ranging from five to 10 years, young women and a couple of men. Sara’s face is scrunched up in concentration as she follows Singh’s monosyllabic instructions. Sara, 32, had been grappling with anger management issues since her late teens until she discovered yoga a few years ago. To her delight, she realised, practising asanas made her feel more in control of her life. “I think it helped me get in touch with my spiritual side. I have always been very passionate, quick to anger. It has made me calmer,” she says.
Sara, who works as a yoga teacher in one of the many gyms that dot downtown Cairo, is not the only one to have woken up to yoga. More young Cairenese are now getting hooked to the discipline; the yoga classes organised by the Indian cultural centre has seen one of the highest enrollments in recent years. “It was the International Day of Yoga (June 21) last year. We were a little apprehensive about it, because in 2004, there was a fatwa against yoga (by the then Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa). There were 14 local yoga teachers, so we got all these people together and the uniform voice was that fatwa or not, we don’t care. We love yoga and we will do it,” says Sanjay Bhattacharyya, India’s ambassador to Egypt.
Ever since the BJP came to power in 2014, it has consistently promoted yoga as India’s soft power. In fact, following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal, the United Nations General Assembly declared June 21 as the annual International Day of Yoga last year. Bhattacharyya says he organised an inaugural session at India House last year and the turnout was much more than he’d anticipated. This year’s co-ordination session has shown a sharp increase in the number of yoga centres in Cairo alone. “Within a year, it has grown from 14 to 42, so you can imagine the level of growth,” says Bhattacharyya.
This year’s session will be held at the Al Azhar Park, a huge public park restored by the Aga Khan Foundation, located in Islamic Cairo. “We will have a main stage where we are going to have our group session and we are setting up four small sub-stages where we are giving an opportunity to all these yoga gurus… This is despite the fact that this is going to happen during Ramadan. It’s a very big thing here, so we do it in the evening, but we are expecting thousands,” says Bhattacharyya.
Last year, the Indian diplomatic mission in Cairo also introduced yoga for the 35,000-odd Egyptians who work in Indian factories in Egypt and circulated video tapes to help them practice. But that venture met with limited success.
A teaching assistant at the British University in Cairo, Radwa Saad, 24, had always been a fitness enthusiast, but it was her selection as an IDEX 2015 (a global leadership programme) fellow that got her interested in yoga. While she lived and worked in Bangalore during the six months of the fellowship, Saad attended Vipassana courses, learned meditation and experimented with various schools of yoga. “It’s so much better than going to the gym because you can balance out your fitness training. There’s also minimal risk of injury,” she says.
Roughly half the population in Egypt is below the age of 25 and Cairo has seen a spurt in fitness-related activities over the last few years. In particular, the Cairo Runners, a group that meets every Friday in different neighbourhoods of the city for a run along its streets, now boasts of over 2,500 members.
Yoga, though, is more popular among women and children. “Men have this idea that they need to build muscles and attend a gym. At our centre, the ratio of men and women participants in the classes is 1:4,” says Singh, the Delhi-based instructor who joined MACIC last year. He holds a three-year contract to teach yoga at the Indian cultural centre.
Singh says what has helped in popularising yoga among the young Cairenese is improvisation. He encourages his students to look beyond the traditional and devise newer, more vibrant ways of learning. So, once his class finishes routine asanas, he encourages them to work together to create choreographed performance pieces set to instrumental music.
Rym, 28, has always been slightly overweight and uncomfortable with the idea of going to the gym. When she got to know of the yoga classes at the MACIC on Facebook, she knew it was a good shot at getting fit without resorting to training on machines. In the seven months since she has joined the classes, Rym says she has grown in confidence and fitness. “I am not sporty, but I obviously want to be fit. This seems like the perfect thing for someone like me,” says the art teacher at a nursery school.