For the International Day of Yoga on Tuesday June 21st, we headed out to the calm of Ardi to sit down with its founder, Shereen Malak, to discuss yoga, its history in Egypt and why you should give it a go. About an hour’s drive south of Cairo is the picturesque area of Dashur. With King Farouk’s old hunting lake below the Dashur pyramids on one side, and date farms and quaint country life on the other, Ardi sits hidden beneath palm trees as a place of rest of retreat.
Sheltering from the sun, amidst the palm trees and delicate mud-brick arches of Ardi, we sat down and I began by asking about the history of yoga in Egypt.
Yoga has become incredibly popular in the world, with yoga classes opening up in nearly every city and even mobile applications that have been incredibly successful, but yoga still seems quite foreign to Egypt. Is there a history of yoga in Egypt?
If we define Egypt as Cairo and Alexandria and the bigger cities, I would say it is definitely no longer foreign. I started practicing yoga in Cairo over 30 years ago. So, it actually has been around for quite a while. And one of my close friends, Mira Shihadeh, started a yoga studio twenty years ago called Ashtanga Yoga Self Practice Studio, which was the first in Egypt, and the first in the Middle East actually.
Additionally, there’s a whole school of yoga that is called Kemet yoga, and they are inspired by the old pharaonic drawings on temples. They argue and believe that Egyptians over 5000 years ago were already practicing yoga. Many African Americans practice it because they consider it African yoga. There is an ancient philosophy and rich history behind it that really allows a relationship with the land, which I think is what is being built upon in this school. If I’m not mistaken, Kemet means the black, fertile land of Egypt, and that originally was the name for Egypt.
Personally, what I find interesting is that it seems most ancient cultures had their own way of practicing some form of yoga. Of course, in India, we know it’s very, very old and it seems that in Egypt this is also true.
Can you tell me a little bit about the current yoga scene in Egypt and across the Arab world?
Well, I think that the yoga scene in Egypt is burgeoning right now. It is super trendy and it is everywhere. If you and I tried to make a list of all the yoga studios in Cairo and Alexandria and Sinai and the Red Sea, it would be almost impossible. I would say there are maybe at least 50 to 70 yoga studios. So I think it’s growing, I think it’s being increasingly practiced.
Most Egyptians live in pretty busy and hectic cities, what can practicing yoga offer them?
I think essentially, and this may be true for any form of exercise, but particularly for yoga, it’s very grounding. So, it brings you into the present moment. It’s also relieving of stress and that’s partly because when properly done, there’s a whole breathing aspect to yoga.
I mean, what we see mainly today in yoga, which is people doing these fantastic postures, but this is just a form of yoga. Yoga is fundamentally about, and the word originally means, the unity of body, mind and soul, and it is supposed to be a journey of self-discovery and of finding peace with oneself and with the world. So in that sense, I think, if properly practiced, it would definitely, you know, give every single person practicing it a respite from the kind of hectic stressful lives that we tend to live in big cities.
What is Ardi and why did you decide to launch this project?
I didn’t ever decide to launch Ardi, it sort of just happened, you know. It was like this project decided to launch itself through me. I never set out, thinking, oh yeah, I need to build a retreat centre. Absolutely not, it sort of happened. We started properly doing this about eight years ago and it is the only retreat centre in Egypt I think until today.
I wanted Ardi to be an inclusive, open space that at its essence would like to provide a space for self-discovery, grounding, pleasure, reflection, going back to our roots, finding our ourselves, and If I’m really lucky, shifting consciousness, adopting better habits, breaking patterns, and in many ways, essentially maximising the experience of life.
But an unintended aspect to Ardi is that a lot of young people come here and say, you know, I don’t know why we don’t build places like this, instead of all these big developments that are completely foreign, and instead turn to our traditions. For example, the younger people they have a different relationship with food, but here, what we cook is very traditional and by going back to our roots, it’s like a recuperation of our past, in a sense, and appreciating what we have and what we had. I hope that Ardi plays a role in this.
Why did you decide to call it Ardi?
Ardi in Arabic literally means my land, but it also means my planet, the Earth. I wanted that for anybody who says the the word to feel that the place belongs to them. There’s that sense of ownership for everybody that’s here, so it’s not just a place, it is your place, you know. When you when you say Ardi, it’s Thomas’s Ardi, and when I say Ardi, it’s Shereen’s Ardi. So I think the purpose of the name is this idea that it belongs to everybody and yet it’s your own.
I heard that Ardi has an ethos of sustainability and respecting its natural surroundings. Can you tell me a little about this?
I hope to be doing that and we do try very much to be conscious of our environment and use as many natural products as possible, beginning with our building materials and even mosquito repellents. If there is an effective natural method or object, or whatever, we definitely try to do that. We’re also sensitive to the environment in the sense that the people that we work with are all from the community. Of course, we also minimise the use of plastic, we encourage people to be conscious of water consumption, which is why we don’t have a lawn, and most of our food is farm-to-table and sourced locally, for example the cheese is from a lady next door.
There are a few decorative plants like the bougainvilleas and flowers and things like that, but we try very hard to make sure that everything that we plant is edible and that when we water something, it’s going to be something that, you know, people can benefit from as opposed to being purely aesthetic.
Can you tell me about the design of Ardi?
Ardi was designed by Olivier Sednaoui who has done some other emblematic projects in Egypt like an ecolodge in St. Catharines, La Maison Bleue in Gouna, Al Moudira Hotel in Luxor, and his own house in Luxor, where he actually lives. The architecture is very traditional, there are these very thick walls, and we tried very much to work with natural material. Parts of Ardi have been built with bricks made on site from the the earth here, and all of the plastering that you see has been done by hand. We tried also to introduce binding agents such as mud and limestone, which are very traditional. This is like in Ibn Tulum, which is a mosque that was built in the 14th century.
What is usually done here is that they’ll take a piece of land and they will raise the trees, and we tried very much not to do that. Over the years, we have maybe taken down five trees and two of them may have been because they were actually going to be dangerous. You can see from walking around that there are some trees that are actually within the building, so we actually built around the trees.
Where is Ardi and what is special about this location?
So Ardi is in Manshayet Dashur technically, but most people know it as just Dashur. The word Dashur actually means sacred. So, in many senses I do feel that we are in a very special place. We are also facing the Dashur pyramids, so I think that makes the place special and I would say that there’s a very good and interesting energy here, for sure.
Does Ardi put on any other sessions or activities other than yoga?
It’s funny because some people think of us as only a yoga centre, and think that’s what we do all the time. Of course we do yoga and have at least one event that involves yoga every month. But, for example, this weekend, we’re doing an acting workshop with Michael, so we do a lot with the expressive arts. I believe very much in being in the body and being present, so we also do dance therapy, art therapy and singing workshops to discover your voice. We also do psychotherapy, we do drama therapy, we have done silent retreats here, and we offer many other things.
How can people find out more about Ardi, especially if they’re interested in any upcoming retreats?
Well, essentially, the best thing to do is to follow us on Instagram and for those who do not have social media or who don’t have Facebook and Instagram, we also have a mailing list and we try to keep people abreast with our activities by publishing a monthly calendar with all the activities that are happening.
And finally what advice would you give to those interested in starting yoga?
I would say two things. Essentially, one is get on the mat, you know, just start. And the other thing is, which I think it’s very important is to really shop around because there are so many types of yoga. There are so many different places to practice yoga, and for me, the teacher is essential and ideally you should resonate with the person and the place. Like, you go to a place that is convenient for you, where you feel there is relationship, and it’s ideally where you also feel good. So those would be the two pieces of advice, I would give to get going. Do it and and take the time to really check out different options.
You can check out Ardi on Facebook and Instagram. You can also check out some of the yoga centres and teachers in Cairo that have put on workshops and retreats at Ardi in the past, including Maadi’s The Breathing Room, Zamalek’s On the Mat, Sue and Pink Batta, Movement with Megan, Holistic with Osman, and Ali El Alfy.