Yoga’s status in Saudi Arabia has been controversial due to concerns that it goes against Islamic teachings. However, yoga is not outright banned and its practice has been gradually increasing in recent years.
Background on Yoga in Islam
Saudi Arabia follows a strict interpretation of Islam called Wahhabism. Some Islamic scholars have argued that yoga is prohibited in Islam because:
- It involves chanting mantras which may go against the Islamic principle of worshipping only Allah.
- Some yoga postures resemble prayer and worship which are only permitted for Allah.
- It originated in Hinduism which Islam considers polytheistic.
However, yoga itself is not specifically prohibited in the Quran or Sunnah. Opponents argue it leads to idolatry while supporters view it as simply exercise and meditation.
Official Stance on Yoga
There is no law banning yoga in Saudi Arabia. However, the government has restricted yoga practice in the past. In 2009, the former head of the religious police banned yoga outright as it was against Islamic teachings. This was part of a broader crackdown on what were seen as un-Islamic practices.
The stance has softened since then. While not officially legalized, yoga is increasingly tolerated. Fitness clubs discreetly offer yoga classes. In 2017, the annual Janadriyah culture festival even featured a yoga display by an Indian teacher. However, there are still concerns among conservative clerics. To avoid controversy, yoga studios avoid overt Hindu elements like chanting and tend to rebrand it as ‘stretching’ or ‘meditation’.
Yoga’s Growing Popularity
Despite the lack of clear legal status, yoga’s popularity has risen in Saudi Arabia over the past decade.
Western compound residents were early adopters in the 2000s. But it has since spread to Saudis, including women who tend to practice gender-segregated classes at home. Yoga instructors estimate over 50 studios and thousands of practitioners nationwide.
Several factors underpin this growth:
- Rising health consciousness for fitness and mental well-being
- Stress relief from a fast-paced Saudi lifestyle
- Increasing social media promotion of yoga as a lifestyle
- Ongoing reforms to make society more open and fun, enabling yoga for exercise and flexibility
The yoga market, estimated at $150 million in 2017, is projected to grow steadily. This shows substantial underlying demand despite the lack of legal clarity.
The future trajectory of yoga in Saudi appears positive but remains uncertain due to competing influences:
|Drivers of Growth||Obstacles to Growth|
On one hand, top-down reforms, a public health focus and economic diversification could make policies more yoga-friendly. Yoga as a women’s fitness activity may also gain support as gender restrictions ease. However, conservative Islamists argue this erodes traditional values. Public opinion remains divided on yoga as a questionable practice.
Yoga exists in a gray zone of unofficial tolerance in Saudi Arabia. While not fully outlawed, it lacks explicit legalization and faces sporadic backlashes. Yet its popularity keeps rising as a modern fitness and wellness activity. The future remains uncertain but gradual liberalization and reform support seem likely to enable yoga’s continued cautious growth in the Saudi market.