Elaine Kelly, founder of Yogafest, reflects on yoga’s rapid development in Dubai and what this means for studios, businesses and the government.

Remarkably, there were only three yoga studios in Dubai eight years ago. Yoga’s explosion in popularity has been a relatively recent phenomenon and with 60 studios now operating in the emirate, it is clear that there is a booming market for meditation.

Elaine Kelly knows this better than most. The founder of Yogafest ME has been gathering her growing community since 2010 and this year marks the biggest event to date, with more than 5,000 people expected to attend at Dubai Internet City from November 15-17.

“I saw that in Times Square in New York they hosted a free yoga event every summer and so decided to try to bring it to Dubai,” Kelly recalls to Sport Industry Insider. “The first event was eight years ago and we had about 200 people there – a lot of passers-by looked very confused by what was going on! “

“Since then it has expanded as a response to the demand here. Yoga is by far the most popular form of wellness-related exercise in the region and we’ve managed to grow with that trend.”

Surprisingly, given its current popularity, Dubai’s yoga story began somewhat by accident.

“The longest running studio in Dubai is Zen Yoga,” Kelly explains. “They opened in 2007 because of the owner, who was a very successful Syrian businesswoman here. She had some health issues and what helped her control them best was yoga.”

“She hired four top teachers from the US and brought yoga out here. She basically set it up for herself, it wasn’t done as a business – but from those roots has sprung the yoga community we have now. And there are still three Zen Yoga studios in Dubai.”

While interest is at an all-time high, making money from yoga is not easy. Despite an increased governmental focus on improving wellness, there are no financial incentives for companies in the field to start operating. It means studios need to be increasingly creative to attract and retain customers.

“The economy has been pretty tough and studios, particular smaller ones, are finding it more challenging. There is such a transient population in Dubai, people go away for the summer so you don’t have that constant flow of people coming in to classes.

“Still we see new studios launching, though. Karma Yoga in the Marina and Kintsugi in Business Bay are two new ones that will be at Yogafest. In fact, Kintsugi is opening on the same floor as Urban Yoga.

“I’ve seen salt yoga, boxing yoga – there are some very unusual variations out there as studios try to stand out. And it certainly seems that the more variety you offer, the more people you can attract. But I also think increasingly we are seeing a trend of yoga as part of a wider fitness offering. So you might have yoga alongside functional training.”

Given the humble roots of yoga, there are many who feel that financial gain should not be the driving force behind the practice. Kelly certainly appreciates that viewpoint.

“It’s a lifestyle business; you are doing something that you care about. You can usually cover your costs but making profit is hard so most people do it for the love of yoga.

“I do think that can sometimes be forgotten and I feel there could be better collaboration between studios in the yoga community, for the good of the yoga community. That sort of environment would be more reflective of what yoga stands for. It’s become a little too business oriented.”

For Dubai, the business of wellness is a major talking point at the moment. With a Ministry of Happiness and more engagement in workplace initiatives, the emirate has some lofty goals.

“We have lots of overseas retreats exhibiting at Yogafest. They recognise that people in Dubai love to travel. This is a captive market.”

“The real growth market is mindfulness right now,” Kelly says. “Particularly we’re seeing in the corporate world, businesses are more interested in putting mindfulness classes into their office than yoga classes. A focused mind helps foster a more productive and healthy workforce.

“Moving forward from this, I understand the government has a vision to make Dubai a health and wellness destination. It certainly isn’t that yet but that is the long-term plan. I think we will see more events like the Dubai Fitness Challenge and the Happiness Festival to try to encourage this.

“I can see the appeal. We have lots of yoga retreats exhibiting at Yogafest from all over Asia and we have a wellness centre coming over from the UK too. They recognise that people in Dubai love to travel and so this is a captive market.”

That market appears to be showing no signs of slowing, and Kelly is proud that Yogafest is playing an important role in bringing the industry together.

“It is the only time and place where the yoga community really comes together. The industry is so large that there isn’t really anywhere where they can meet each other, catch up and hear about and talk about the trends. Hopefully we can continue to provide that space for some time to come.”