When Mumtaz Haque first began teaching yoga in Nottingham, students would often be “shocked” when she walked in the door and saw a woman in a head scarf.
Many of her students were used to seeing “white, middle class women” in teaching roles and not a Muslim woman in gym kit and a head covering.
“It’s always been a predominantly white, middle class practice, if you practice yoga you are from a certain background,” she said.
“Somebody from my background walks into a class, heads would always turn.”
Mumtaz began practising yoga in 1996 and has been teaching for more than a decade, travelling to gyms around the city before setting up her own studio, at1.Space.
She’s also conducted bespoke workshops in the UK and has collaborated with renowned figures in the well-being industry such as Mr Motivator, as well as travelling globally with her work.
Now, the 45 year old has become the first ever Muslim woman in a hijab to appear on the front cover of the international Om Yoga magazine, a move that was “spurred on” by global Black Lives Matter protests.
It has been a huge step in her career and what she described as a big step forward for an industry that has often “not been the most welcoming place” for a person like her.
She said: “When I was teaching classes in gyms, it wasn’t the most welcoming place, I would have comments made about my head scarf, whether I was forced to wear it.
“I was open to those questions because no one had met someone from my background. I acted nice about it but they were confused by the whole thing.
“On my teacher training course, I was the only Muslim and when I went to the temple to learn, people would ask why I was there.
“Ironically, yoga is from my own heritage, a lot of that makes sense to me because it’s something that is coming from my culture.”
While she was teaching in gyms, Mumtaz said students would often be shocked to walk into a classroom and see “someone who was covered up”.
She would be met with “trepidation”, students deciding whether “they should stay or go” and some didn’t even know whether she spoke English.
“People would be relieved that I spoke it, I would just smile and continue to teach,” Mumtaz said.
“I was expecting it because I know I’m different, I knew what I was doing, I challenged myself.
“I had a job to do, I didn’t want people to be put off yoga because of the way I look, it’s about educating people.”
It hasn’t been an easy journey though and Mumtaz said she receives prejudice from both sides, with some Muslim peers feeling that a woman “using her body to practice yoga” is not appropriate.
While on the other side, she is faced with misunderstanding from both yoga students and teachers, in an industry that is “dominated by one type of person”.
She said: “I get it from both sides, I’m excluded from the fitness community and I have the Muslim world that has an opinion on me, I’m a bit like Marmite.
“What I’ve learned as I turned 45 is that I’m not here on this earth to please anybody, I’m here just existing as I am – yes I’m British and I’m a Muslim woman, too.
“I am going to embrace all my backgrounds, wouldn’t the world be a better place if people saw the whole package and not just a person?”
In the wake of George Floyd’s death, and the increased awareness of anti-racist movements across the globe, Mumtaz said she decided to take her own action.
After contacting Om Magazine in July, Mumtaz received the news they would like to feature her on their November issue, which was released today, October 26.
As well as taking steps in her own journey, Mumtaz reached out to the black community to “ask what they needed from me, how I could help”.
She said: “It’s been a long road to get here but it has finally been recognised that Om Magazine do need diversity and the fact that I’ve been able to do this and hopefully do more is great.
“It would be nice to give hope to people and not give up, if you feel passionately about something, keep going.
“But that can’t just be it, there has to be more.
“For example, I live and breathe in yoga clothes because it’s my job, but if you look at yoga brands they don’t cater to people like me that want to be more covered.
“I want to see models with my background, hopefully this front cover will open up doors that will say you can be more modest, wear whatever makes you comfortable.”
Using “the tool of yoga to connect people from different backgrounds”, Mumtaz has dedicated her work to “breaking down barriers” – while having a “good giggle” at the same time.
Two years ago, Mumtaz decided to take the plunge and set up a yoga studio, at1.SPACE in Nottingham, with business partner Yasmin.
Although they “look very different” and come “from two different worlds”, the pair connect on a “soul level” that has enabled them to create their own special place in the yoga industry.
Mumtaz said: “Our two different worlds have come together and our space reflects that, people that would never exercise come into a space and feel secure.
“It goes back to how I wanted to be made to feel those years ago, and it’s something we both felt was lacking – why should it be like that?
“I have the most diverse classes, I’ve got lots of men that come, people that don’t really speak English, I’m a TEFL teacher too so I adapt my classes to make them more visual.”
Yoga isn’t just for the able-bodied and one of Mumtaz’ students lost his hands and one leg in an accident but he still comes to class and “goes for it”.
“When people see him going for it, it helps them to feel they can do it too,” she said.
Mumtaz described at1.SPACE as “a modern day urban sanctuary” providing yoga classes, wellness treatments, retreats, workshops, yoga teacher training and online access for members to stream the classes from their own homes.
She said: “The at1.SPACE is a safe and inclusive place for anyone of any background, ability or identity to come and practice yoga within a community free of judgement.”
In the wake of the pandemic, which has had a huge impact on people’s mental well-being, Mumtaz said she is going to focus on reaching out to more minority groups.
She said: “It has been a real struggle, there have been some real low points, I’ve definitely struggled and I’ve gone online to do a class and broken down, but it made me more real to my students.
“Covid has been as real as it gets, I’ve had clients who have lost people and it’s been really intense because you aren’t just a yoga teacher, you are a support.”