For Alaa Abonomi, wellness and yoga was always a calling. As a child, she was drawn to examining the human experience, recalling how she saw herself as someone with the “disposition of a philosopher, an adventurer, an athlete and a musician,” someone drawn to meditation and spending time outside. But yoga and wellness are only now becoming mainstream in Saudi Arabia; at the time, those inclinations didn’t translate to something that was a viable career. Or even viable practices.
So Alaa went into banking.
But as often happens when investing in a career path that isn’t sustainable to our wellbeing and our sense of self, Alaa began to experience burnout. Yoga started as a refuge and grew into not just a career, but a new trajectory for her life.
In 2014, Alaa co-founded the first dedicated yoga and wellbeing center — Sukoun — in Saudi Arabia. She wasn’t just the first; she was an advocate of this element of wellness when the climate was not one that welcomed yoga practices. It was considered “weird,” faced a stigma and was not viewed as a practice for everyone. But Alaa believed in the physical and mental benefits she found, and her sense of purpose has proven correct.
Since its founding, Sukoun has also hosted several renowned international speakers, including Deepak Chopra and Max Strom. Most recently, Alaa founded Emtinan, a wellbeing consulting and event management company, which is working to promote wellness within Saudi Arabia.
Beth Doane: Your journey is both powerful and inspirational. What was your path from pursuing a career in finance to becoming a renowned wellness expert?
Alaa Abonomi: I turned to yoga for refuge and relief, and I found so much more. I practiced diligently and studied everything I could get my hands on to understand more. There was a vast ocean of knowledge and I just wanted to go deeper and deeper. At this point in time, yoga was a fringe practice and wasn’t heard of in the Kingdom. People didn’t know that it offered so much.
After a while of self practice and study, people started noticing the difference in me whether it was my appearance, energy levels, calmness or outlook. They started coming to my home to practice and learn with me. More people started showing up and I realized I needed a bigger space to accommodate them. My family had an old building, and I created an underground studio there. This was in 2009.
In 2014, Sukoun was born of the need of a professional and public platform to allow and welcome more people and to raise awareness. It was well-received, though with a little skepticism. It was a refuge for many where they could practice, learn, grow, find like-minded people, find calm in a busy city and touch inner stillness.
Doane: What have been the most unexpected wellness benefits in your life?
Abonomi: I started yoga to move, heal my body and have some kind of discipline, but it ended up being a life-long journey of growth and self-discovery. Everything in my life has improved. Dare I say that yoga helped me understand my religion more. Because of the clarity it gives and because it’s all about self exploration. There is a saying in Arabic that goes: “He who knows himself, knows his God.”
Doane: What has been the biggest challenge for you to overcome personally and professionally, and how did your practice help?
Abonomi: I have had many challenges in my life. From personal loss, to depression and navigating motherhood, difficult relationships and work-related stress. My practices give me tools to release the stress from my body, allow for breathing space, and inner calm, with which I could regain the right perception.
Life comes in waves and when we can learn to surf and master it, it can be a beautiful ride.
Doane: Emtinan is creating unique experiences in Alula, an ancient land in Saudi Arabia. How has spending time in spaces like this impacted your practice and your approach to wellness?
Abonomi: I have been exploring ‘Alula’ for the past three years. It’s magical, stunning in nature and still untouched. The people there are amazing and there is just something ‘otherworldly’ about it. I haven’t meditated like I have in its silent desert. No noise pollution. No light pollution.
Doane: What are three travel and/or wellness tips you swear by?
Abonomi: First, make time to open up spaces in your body and breathe! My everyday practice is a coherent breath — a six in, six out pattern for five minutes — to balance and ground or an energizing and releasing pattern, like 20 connected circular breaths for three to five minutes.
Take frequent ‘stop moments’ throughout the day to regain energy and recenter. These are a few minutes of centering to reconfirm our position as a witness of our experiences, our thoughts and our emotions instead of being lost in them.
Slow down and do something that stimulates that parasympathetic nervous system. I love putting my legs up the wall for 20 minutes. It’s an inversion and it’s grounding. It gives the legs and heart a break, brings circulation to the upper lobes of the lungs and the brain. I do that after flying and anytime I feel unsettled and a fast pace or anxiety has begun to creep in.
Doane: What is your favorite quote?
Abonomi: “Wisdom says I am nothing, love says I am everything and between these two my life flows.” — Nisargadata Maharaj.
*Photo credits: Beth Doane