* Photo by Haley Withers
How and when did you start practicing yoga?
In 2007, my sister took me to my first class at the YMCA. It was very difficult for me; I was overweight and I found it to be very challenging. I couldn't breathe properly and I was very stiff. It required a lot of patience, which I didn't have at the time, but I did recognize that there's something special about this practice. It was years before I came back to it; though I read and heard a lot about its benefits, it wasn't until 2010 when I started revisiting yoga and then settled into a regular practice the following year.
What do you think it was about yoga that finally got you to maintain a practice?
It was very grounding for me; it gave me that bit of stability that I was lacking after the revolution and after the upheaval in Bahrain. I had moved from Bahrain to Cairo over the summer and then off to Montreal, not really knowing where home was going to be. With yoga, that dose of grounding was what I was looking for but didn't actually know I needed it.
What made you decide to become a teacher?
Five years ago, I was in India staying at an ashram. I was studying philosophy, eating Sattvic food, and listening to different teachers, Mooji being the most prominent of them, and something started to shift. One day at the end of meditation, I had this moment of clarity and I remember coming out of it thinking it's so simple: there is nothing I really need that's outside of myself and this is it! So, I applied for the teacher training, flew to Nepal to renew my visa, and came back and started right away. I usually take time making decisions and I look at all the different factors but this was a decision that was sort of taken by the heart.
You do several retreats around Egypt and abroad. What do you think is special about them? What do people gain from them?
I like retreats because it's an opportunity to get a breath of fresh air, quite literally, to get out of the polluted city and see some of the endless beauty that we have in Egypt. I was just in Siwa for the first time and what a pleasure it was to be working in a place so beautiful. So, whether I’m in Siwa, Aswan or Sinai, it's a great blessing to be working in these places. For the people I take with me, I think it's important, not necessary but if you can then why not, to get away from the place that you call home, the people who know you in a certain form, all the responsibilities, all the usual triggers, and start to work on connecting with what you are, beyond all that. So, we go away and for the 2, 3 or 5 days, we’re focused on ourselves and we're looking beyond the idea of what we are. Being amongst a group of strangers with the same intention, a group of people who don’t know us in a certain way and don’t have preconceived notions of who we are or expectations of how we think or act, frees us from the burden of having to be the person everyone knows us to be, the character we’ve played for so long. And, as we work on this practice of growing our awareness, we’re able to see a little more clearly than we usually do, we start to understand our ego or personality type with all its’ limitations and how it’s keeping us from being as we are, before all the conditioning. Yoga, on retreat, becomes not just that thing you do for an hour once or twice a week, but the central purpose of your day. Yoga, meditation, connecting deeply with yourself, being aware of how your mind ticks and how the body reacts; going on retreat is an opportunity to go deeply into the practice.
*Photo by Abu Samra
People often wonder if yoga is a religion, what do you have to say about this?
Yoga is not a religion, it's a spiritual practice and it's complementary to any religion or any system of faith. it's not dogmatic and not sectarian; you take the practice and you interpret it as you like. It's really about connecting to a greater source, call it what you will, Allah or Rama, Christ Consciousness, or the Cosmic energy, it's up to you. But the idea is to surrender yourself to something that's greater and this we have in all religions.
In regards to teacher trainings what do you think of taking them here in Egypt vs taking them in India?
I think the quality of any program is important, I think people need to research that well. The location isn't nearly as important as the teacher and the program itself. You can have a brilliant teacher who doesn't have a great work book or vice versa, a great series of texts taught by someone who doesn't have a deep knowledge. But, going abroad especially to India has the benefit of bringing you away from your kids, your friends, your family, the normal everyday stuff that you're so entrenched in and you get to work. You work on learning, you work on yourself, and I think this allows you to be a little more immersed in the teachings rather than stepping in for a few hours then coming back out of it all. Again, the quality of the teachings, teachers, and the method is more important, it’s worth investigating well, and then comes the importance of the location.
What to you is a yogic value that you cherish and would like to share?
For me yoga is about self-love. I think it's important for you to make peace with yourself as you strive to connect to your Maker. If you believe that there is a divine, that you have been given this life, then it's your responsibility, even your duty, to love yourself. By that I mean: appreciate yourself, bring awareness to yourself, give yourself the time of day to be patient and attentive enough to get to know yourself, to accept what you find and be proud of who you are. Then, you realize that what's inside you is the same thing that’s inside all people, so you extend that love to others, you see the Spirit in all things, people, mountains, and trees, and you nurture them all as you do yourself first. And when you have that respect, that appreciation, that love, everything else kind of just sorts itself out.
*Photo by Ehab Azab
What is yoga not, to you?
Yoga is a union, so there is nothing outside of yoga really. But yoga as a practice, it's not exercise, it's not a sport, it's not a game though it's certainly playful, and yoga is not attachment to the physical side of things. I see people who are so obsessed with doing the splits or standing on their heads and this is not yoga. Although, if you have a well-balanced yogasana practice then working on opening the hips and inversions is something that would be involved in your practice. But, yoga is not superficial so it can't be only body-oriented, there must be an outlook on what the body connects you to. We have to seek to understand the mind, our emotions, the energetic sheath and then what’s beyond even that – the essence of our being. So, yoga is holistic, it’s the sum of the parts, but it’s no longer yoga when we become focused on one detail and forget the rest.
I'd also like to add that yoga is for everyone, yoga takes so many different forms and it's something that's been handed down throughout the ages from one generation to the next. It's expressed and comes across in different ways, sometimes more traditional sometimes more contemporary. When I say yoga is for everyone, I really truly believe it. if you can breathe, you can do yoga. It's just a matter of finding a practice and a teacher that suits you and if you look well enough, you will find just that. So, be a little patient, put your expectations and preconceived notions about yoga aside, and then from there invest little bits and pieces of yourself, commit more time, make it consistent, make it regular and then it really and truly does revolutionize the self.
*To practice with Yogi Ali, visit his page here for his upcoming classes and retreats.