Can we be happy and healthy? Perspective of Arab women on health and wellness

He who has health has hope; and he who has hope has everything.     
Arabian Proverb

Is living healthy sustainable? Or just bouts of living healthy and binge eating? Are there realistic options that one can follow consistently? Does one have to choose between being happy and being healthy (or can we have both?) What is the definition of a healthy life?

Yoga and Wellness celebrates Women’s Day on 8th March by speaking to women across frontiers – from Sheikhas, to sportswomen and young mothers, to smart successful women running public relations companies – each has her own individual take on health, fitness and how she copes with stress – all the while eyeing the next step on the ladder that she must take.

With a background in Business Administration, Sheikha Maytha bint Hasher Al Maktoum (founder of BeYou Group which owns BeYou boutique, BeYou coffeeshop and BeYou land) is the second cousin of the ruler of Dubai, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. She encourages local talent in the region over multinational brands by liaising with 100 young, emerging designers to showcase their creative work in the BeYou boutique in Jumeirah. Sheikha Maytha says: “On the physical level – exercising in the gym, going for classes like soul cycling, boot camps, cross fit, spinning and high intensity workouts helps me remain fit. More than yoga, I prefer weight training and sprinting. For a 360-degree approach to wellness, I have taken classes in holistic healing as well. When Dr. Eric Pearle visited UAE –  I understood fitness without boundaries. But above all this – I would say being happy is the top fitness tip. Everyone should connect with themselves – if one feels like going for a swim or a run, by all means –  do so! A glowing skin comes from happy thoughts – and not just from food or exercise. The emotions contribute vastly to the health of an individual. So if anyone feels a turmoil in their emotions, first fix that. Locking emotions and pushing them under the surface is not healthy. Some tips to avoid emotional ups and downs would be not to judge people, trying to put oneself in the other person’s shoes, doing things that make you happy on a daily basis, deal with situations by looking at them objectively – these small but important changes reset us and give fresh perspectives of situations. Nutrition wise, reducing dairy and gluten has helped me stay more focused and energetic.”

Good health is more than just exercise and diet. It can be defined as a point of view and a mental attitude you have about yourself. Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

Professional figure skater Zahra Lari as the first Emirati woman to compete internationally has broken many gender barriers and rewritten rules. Along with her professional prowess, she has won acclaim as the first international figure skater to compete in a hijab. The 22-year-old ‘Ice Princess of the UAE’ has also attracted the interest of global sports giant Nike, who picked up on her growing prominence and included her in a Middle East campaign that highlighted Muslim women competing in sport and wearing a hijab.

Following a punishing fitness regime for the past 8 years (and she is only 23, mind you!), Zahra recounts her journey: “My fitness regime includes a 5:30 am warm up off-ice: stretching, skipping rope, resistance bands, jumps and rotations. I will then have a 15-minute warm up on-ice that includes steps, spins and jumps. From that point I will train on-ice for jumps and complete several programme run-throughs. My training session is one-and-a-half hours with my main coach, Alexandra Ievleva. I repeat this again in the afternoon session. This will then be followed by off-ice running, strength and conditioning and core exercises for an hour. Then onto stretching and foam rolling to end that day’s session. Some days, I also have physiotherapy deep tissue preventive sessions and other days I work with a personal trainer Arnes for specific muscle exercises. As far as nutrition goes, I eat healthy and balanced meals and remain conscious about the value of food that I put in my mouth. My dream is to become the first UAE athlete at the Winter Olympic Games. This March, I am traveling to Russia to compete at 2019 Winter Universiade. I am very excited about the trip and looking forward to raising the UAE flag at the Opening Ceremony. This is the first time a UAE athlete will be competing at Winter Universiade. For me, it is another step towards the ultimate goal – the Winter Olympic Games. I think that mental and emotional health are both important elements of wellbeing. The body needs nutrition, rest and a fitness regime to work properly, while peace and tranquility will contribute to emotional wellness.”

According to Buddha ‘to keep the body in good health is a duty, otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear’. For working women, it’s a constant juggle to ensure enough ‘me time’ is allocated for health and fitness.

Owner of public relations company Think Smart, Syrian national Lina Husri adds: “On my first visit to Dubai, I chanced upon the pranic healing meditation class in Karama. Not really knowing what to expect, I attended the class out of curiosity. It made me feel calmer and I proceeded to take more classes and progressed in pranic healing meditation, even turning vegetarian for 18 months. I am from Syria and therefore meat, chicken and fish were part of my staple diet. The vegetarian diet that I chose made me feel cleansed and lighter from inside. It came so naturally to me, that I felt completely rejuvenated and happy. Even now, I do not indulge too much in meat or fish. I had then progressed considerably in the pranic healing course and reached the teacher training level.  At some point, I was still hungry to explore more, which brought me to the doors of reiki. During this spiritual journey, I reached a point where I now wanted to share my knowledge with others. This turning point made me design my own Intuitive Meditation programme – which is a combination of meditation, reiki, pranic healing and other methods of energy healing, which I now teach other women at Soul Art Center, as part of their Women Empowerment session. The programme aims to help women find their own expression – help in healing, releasing, empowering, positive thinking, connecting to their souls. I believe in group meditation – what I learnt on my spiritual journey while in India and Dubai was how to live in the material world, and deal with people and yet reach for your goals. My passion was always public relations which I believe is the soul of a business. Starting my own company Think Smart, I infused it with a vision. My mantra is amalgamate business and spirituality. Jogging and weight training are also part of my fitness regimen. For any fitness goals to be sustainable – consistency is the key according to me. One must also try to go beyond their comfort zones and reach higher.”

Nadia Ali Almamari, a volleyball player from the UAE national team, explains: “A healthy mind needs a healthy body; and vice versa. The best fitness system is to maintain good nutrition, exercise regularly and strengthen the muscles of the body to protect against diseases (prevention is always better than treatment). For a sportsperson like myself, I need to pay special attention to physical fitness and therefore need to exercise 5 days a week. My regime includes strength, endurance, fitness, mental and strategic skills. I train at Al Wasl club and represent the women's volleyball team, winning many local and Gulf tournaments. As part of the UAE national volleyball team, we have won 7 consecutive Gulf Cup titles. Our next goal is to participate in the Asian Championships. I aim to be the first Emirati coach for volleyball and the UAE national team. Fitness regimes need to be consistent. For example, I play volleyball throughout the sports season and at the end of the summer season, I sign up at the gym with my friends so that we encourage each other with healthy competition. The environment in Dubai encourages a modern sports lifestyle and the vision of the leadership is to make sport a lifestyle”.

To say everybody these days is busy is an understatement, and when we speak of working moms or 24/7 moms, this phrase brings with it a multitude of ramifications. Young children need constant care and attention, taking a toll on the parent caring for them, usually the mother!!! The constant multitasking, time management requirements lead to comfort foods, bouts of self-pity or guilt, using spare time to catch up on sleep…leading to dire consequences - overweight mums…

Certified integrative nutrition health coach and personal trainer, Lebanese national and UAE resident Nadine Shibly shares her story: “I gained weight post-pregnancy.  I was working full time, had two children a year and half apart, moved three countries in 13 years and went on scores of fad diets, oscillating between loosing kilos and piling them on once again. I was big, always sick, tired, my back and knees hurt from the weight they had to carry, and I was headed on a one-way street to depression. I suffered from scoliosis in my back, and every doctor advised me to get rid of the excess kilos. My weighing scales tipped to 98 kilos and I had reached a blank wall. I was in my early thirties but felt like 50!! In the 8-year journey post pregnancy, I would lose 15 kilos and gain 18. This constant see-saw made me an emotional wreck. With young kids to look after and a husband who needed to constantly travel due to work, binge eating became a norm. When I share the story of my journey during the health coaching classes with other women, many of them would come up to me and say it was so similar to their own story. They can relate it to the same internal demons they were battling. Then one day on 4th September 2016, I just decided that I would get a hold on my life. My mother had lost one daughter (my sister) to cancer, and she will not lose another (me). I needed to cleanse my emotions first and then work on the physical aspect of my health. Bottling up feelings, being sad, bored or even stressed leads one straight into the arms of comfort foods. Meeting people, positive thoughts and gratitude for all that has been given to me helped me handle my emotions. While earlier I would go to the gym only about once a week, now my newfound interest in indoor cycling helped to shed kilos and keep them away. What I have observed is that people are never motivated before the workout (I need to push myself to go to the gym), but we feel better during or after the workout. I love doing high intensity workouts, body pump, TRX, Tabata, spinning. Fitness changed me.  My message to other women is wake up, dress up, show up. Only if you feel good about yourself can you contribute to your health, workplace, family and relationships.  One must primarily take care of food and nutrition; and only then can exercise tone you internally and externally. There are two types of pain: one that hurts you and one that changes you. As for me, I can say without a doubt that the pain of being overweight is far worse than the pain of working out. All I can remember from being overweight was the pain I used to feel all the time; My ankles hurt, my knees hurt, my back hurt, and that was just the beginning. I was tired, lazy, and unmotivated. To put it simply I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Nadine has since lost 28 kilos naturally. She actively shares her story on her Instagram account that has 34,400 followers, while also giving health tips.

Even people who aren't sick may not have optimal wellness. They might appear healthy from the outside, but unable to cope with internal issues due to stress. How does one cope with stress? Since each one of the interviewees was constantly expected raise her own bar, we asked them this all pertinent question? Are there realistic options that one can follow consistently?  Ancient Greek philosopher Plato said: ‘The part can never be well unless the whole is well’.  

Sheikha Maytha explains: “Good health comes from happy thoughts. Even though I arouse curiosity as I belong to the royal family in UAE, I am a person first. Everyone has to deal with situations that may overwhelm them, and different people take the help of varying therapies that potentially work for them. On my part, I meditate, use theta, reconnective and pranic healing as stress busters. This helped me gain strength on the mental and emotional levels, and I would recommend these therapies to family, friends and even my staff. Work and life bring with them their own challenges and stress factors. Alternative therapies have helped me gain strength on the mental and emotional levels. There is no religious dimension to meditation, and even the Prophet used to meditate daily.”

Carrying the burden of huge expectations on her young shoulders, Zahra says: “I go through different levels and different types of stress and I cope with them in different ways. For example, if it is the day-to-day general stress, I go to the ladies’ beach or pool, and swim. I love the sun and the water. They are very soothing for me. This may be because I am always training in a very cold environment. For pre-competition stress, I do ‘self talk’ to boost my confidence and that really puts me in the right mindset. An hour before stepping on the ice for competition, I listen to calm music or motivational speakers using my headphones. Stress is always in the mind but we just have to find what works to keep it at a low level and not become overwhelming.”

Adding perspective Lina says: “For me it’s my faith in God, that rides me through. I believe that God protects you and whatever happens, happens for the best.  Retrospectively, all stress that I have faced has been good for me. Investing in relationships and find the right partner to complete you is another tip that I would like to share with everyone. Once when I was about 29 years of age, all of a sudden I started experiencing palpitations. The doctors that I consulted said the reports were normal and there was nothing seemingly wrong with me. However, over a period of two weeks I would experience fear every single day. I was afraid to leave my house, always wanted to be at close call to a hospital or some rescue service. I was sure that my heart will stop beating and I will die. From my online search, I found out these were classic symptoms of a panic attack. On one occasion, I even stopped my car on the road near Rotana and called my sister. I was crying inconsolably as I described my symptoms to her – telling her I am sure to die now. In a bid to help myself, I went for meditation at the center in Karama. I was crying then as well. I then tried to delve into my faith in God and my family to help me heal. Suddenly, just like that the panic attacks were gone and never returned. Looking back retrospectively, I feel it was a kind of cleansing. My healing came from my faith that God will protect me.”

Nadia takes comfort in relationships while dealing with stress. She adds: “Stress is one of the main causes of many mental and physical diseases in modern times, even though people might not acknowledge it. Therefore, we must fight tension and try to overcome it with the simplest of things. I handle the weight of expectations by going to the sea for fishing with my mother and feel the value of family relationships and spiritual communication that helps me cope. Always remember that the closest people to you are the source of your happiness. One must draw a road map for themselves with clear goals and elements of flexibility to a create a balance. Stay away from the negatives in everything and try to get closer to the pros and think about the positive things, so even if there is loss, one learns from that. As Nelson Mandela says, ‘I never lose. I either win or I learn’.”

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