In most cities, the opening of a yoga and meditation studio would prompt a ripple of intrigue, perhaps a few raised eyebrows – not a visit from the authorities. “I could tell they were undercover inspectors,” said Shadi Enbashi, co-owner of Dubai’s SEVA Experience, recalling the “two guys” who turned up during one of its first events many years ago: a lecture on cosmology and energy flow. “They asked, ‘What are you doing? What’s happening upstairs?’”
Shadi laughed as I grimaced, assuming that despite the UAE’s progressive outlook, the open practice of astrology, tarot reading and energy healing would have been controversial. “No – they listened to the lecture,” he continued, “and afterwards they came downstairs and said, ‘This is incredible.’ They loved what they’d heard. Now we work with the government on team-building and wellness events.”
I’ve been visiting the city for almost 15 years, during which I’ve witnessed its reinvention from flashy expat playground to cultural powerhouse, with an abundance of fine museums and galleries. But quietly, Dubai’s attention has also shifted from the hedonistic to the spiritual, with full-moon ceremonies, energy healing and breathwork classes popping up all over the city. I’ve followed the trend from afar, snooping on friends in my former home-city as they swapped boozy brunches for sunrise yoga and reiki – and looked all the perkier for it. But can this city of excess really do wellness? And if so, how can holidaymakers tap into it too?
I’d expected SEVA Experience to be a smart-yet-standard yoga studio, but this white-washed villa is an oasis. In its courtyard garden, pink bougainvillaea blossoms fluttered in the breeze, and the roar of the city – the honking horns and construction noise – dulled to a distant whisper.
SEVA was offering holistic treatments long before they were trendy: Shadi’s wife Eda Güngör founded the centre in 2014, in Jumeirah, a quiet neighbourhood known for its low-rise homes and long sandy beach (yet the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall are just 15 minutes away).
As I chatted to Shadi, barefoot folk drifted out of a yin yoga class, and an assistant wafted the empty studio with smouldering sage – a cleansing ceremony known as smudging. “Many people say this is an escape from Dubai,” he smiled, absent-mindedly gathering his legs into ​​sukhasana, the cross-legged yoga pose. “But we say no: it’s not an escape, it’s an extension, a possibility. Something different.”
That afternoon, I joined SEVA’s “sound bath” session – and it melted me into a puddle. Maybe it was the deep vibrations of the gongs, and the low, omnipresent tones of Tibetan singing bowls, whose sound frequency reportedly soothes the body at a cellular level. Or perhaps it was simply lying down in a darkened room for an hour, deep-breathing and stretching under the guidance of certified hypnotherapist Prem Amit. Either way, I emerged bleary-eyed and Bambi-legged: more dribbly than perky, but tension-free nonetheless.
This year, SEVA’s workshops will include astrology and tarot readings, past-life regression and full-moon kundalini yoga – featuring chanting, dancing and breathwork. But for a lighter touch, many city attractions are also exploring wellbeing in a more “traditional” Dubai setting. At the glamorous DRIFT Beach Club, you can try sea-view yoga, pilates and floating HIIT classes on paddle-boards in its pool. And look out for pop-up meditation and yoga classes at the likes of Aura Skypool (the world’s highest 360º infinity pool), the Burj Khalifa’s 124th-floor terrace, and the 150m-high Dubai Frame – whose glass floor would definitely spice up your downward dog.
From sky-high to sea-deep, my next wellness date was in the depths of The Lost Chambers Aquarium, at the ocean-themed resort of Atlantis, The Palm. “And relaaaax…”, urged Katrina the yoga instructor, as a gaggle of stingrays shimmied over my head. “Flow like the water, find space in your body…”
Usually, I’m irritated by yoga-speak, but there was something hypnotic about the bubbly blue view through the aquarium glass, a window into a world of swirling fish and shafts of early-morning sun. Four times a week, these hatha yoga classes take place before the aquarium opens to the public, a chance to stretch beside – and then explore, at leisure – its 65,000 marine residents, who are fed restaurant-quality seafood and tended by over 100 aquarists, vets and water technicians. During the cool-down, I watched as scuba divers cleaned the other side of the glass, under the gaze of their pampered charges.
The stingrays weren’t the only ones scoffing seafood: at Twiggy by La Cantine, the beachside restaurant at my hotel, Park Hyatt Dubai, I devoured pesto-drenched squid, garlicky gambas and truffle-topped seabass carpaccio – and later returned for a feast of sushi and sashimi. I’ve stayed in countless Dubai hotels, but there is something particularly soothing about the lush gardens and Arabian-inspired architecture of the Park Hyatt, while its Ahasees Spa delivers decadent treatments: think crushed-pearl body scrubs and gold-enriched massage oils.
For many years, celebrity-endorsed restaurants dominated Dubai’s dining scene, but a new crop of venues are championing wellness instead. Teible, at Jameel Arts Center, holds a Michelin Green Star for its “no-waste” menu, which features foraged herbs and home-fermented kohlrabi, kombucha and dates. Even the most reluctant pickle-eater can boost their microbiome deliciously; ask nicely, and executive chef Carlos Frunze might even show you his fermenting cupboard, filled with bubbling jars.
I ended my trip by escaping the city, to a place I’d long-hankered to visit: the World Islands, a man-made archipelago loosely shaped like a map of the globe. Located in “South America”, Anantara World Islands Dubai Resort is a haven of thatched seafront villas, infinity pools and toes-in-the-sand dining. A vast vegetable garden supplies its restaurants, and peacocks strut through the flowerbeds. It’s glitzy Dubai, but with a laid-back Maldives-style vibe.
“This is a place of pure serenity,” enthused the resort’s spa director Galina Antoniuk, as we discussed the resort’s wellness offering over tea. Alongside “regular” spa treatments, it includes crystal rituals, herbal poultices and magnesium baths (“to rebalance the body”), all devised by Galina, for whom spirituality is key. I tried the latter, and it was indeed fabulous: a deep-tissue massage and a long, hot soak in petal-strewn brine, followed by one final yoga session – on the beach, naturally.
As I teetered on one sandy foot, stretching my arms high into tree pose, I anchored my eyes on the horizon – on the silver shard of the Burj Khalifa, glinting in the distance across the water. Of course I felt perkier. How could I not? Yes, there’ll soon be another trend in town, but I’m with the incognito inspectors: this one’s worth tapping into.
Hazel was a guest of Visit Dubai. For more information, visitdubai.com. Emirates (0344 800 2777; emirates.com) offers direct flights to Dubai from seven UK cities – from £535 return, based on London Heathrow departure. Kingsize rooms at Park Hyatt Dubai (00 971 4 602 1234; hyatt.com) from AED595 (£134) per night, including breakfast. Ocean View Rooms at Anantara World Islands Dubai Resort from AED885 (£200) per night, including breakfast; anantara.com.
Dubai from a different angle
Four more alternative trends to explore
Guided by a professional astronomer, Platinum Heritage’s Private Night Safari includes stargazing and storytelling deep in the desert, plus a moonlit wildlife walk and three-course dinner (from AED2,500/£563 per group). Al Thuraya Astronomy Center features cutting-edge telescopes and tours.
A “Middle Eastern Food Pilgrimage” with Frying Pan Adventures puts authentic dishes from Iraq, Syria, ​​Palestine and beyond on the menu, in a four-hour walking tour (AED435/£93pp). For street-style Lebanese fare, head to Al Mallah (Al Dhiyafa Rd); for local fish and seafood, book Bu Qtair in Umm Suqeim (+971 55 705 2130).
Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary is a ten-minute drive from Downtown Dubai, yet its marshes and mangroves are teeming with flamingos, kingfishers and eagles (free entry and tours). To spy desert foxes and Arabian oryx, visit Al Qudra Lakes (free).
Alserkal Avenue is a thriving hub of small galleries, arty cafés and independent shops – ideal for an afternoon’s mooching (free). Jameel Arts Centre showcases talents from across the Middle East, with workshops and talks offering a deeper dive into the region’s creative scene (free).