Beating a new drum: The growth of alternative therapies in the UAE

Increasingly, more and more of us are turning to more “alternative” ways of improving our mental or physical health and shunning traditional, clinical routes.

The Dubai-based alternative healer Flordeliza Pesigan. Antonie Robertson / The National
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As the world becomes increasingly connected and people's lives become more stressful, many of us are turning to more "alternative" ways of improving our mental or physical health, shunning traditional, clinical routes.

In the UAE in the past few years, there has been a substantial growth in the number of alternative healers and therapists offering to help residents and citizens improve their well being.

Dubai’s Flordeliza Pesigan is farther along the “alternative” spectrum than some other practitioners. She moved to the country 18 years ago and spent the first 15 of those years working various jobs, including as a secretary and as the manager of a craft market.

Three years ago, she gave up everything, including her apartment and lots of her possessions, and moved to Bali to concentrate on herself and her art.

“I was really depressed and felt lost. I went to Bali with no ­direction, but it was pulling me. I needed to live somewhere as an artist, so for the first time I decided to go with the flow.”

For years before her move, Pesigan had suffered intestinal problems, visiting one doctor after another to try to fix it.

In Bali she says she had a realisation that changed her life, one she now tries to share with others back home in Dubai.

“I started realising that our physical diseases are often caused by mental, soulful and spiritual problems,” she says. “It’s just a manifestation of what is wrong with the mind and heart.”

Pesigan now splits her time ­between Dubai, Goa and Bali.

The growth of alternative healing modalities has “mushroomed” in the Emirates in the past year, she says, with more and more people offering services and wanting a healthier mind as well as a healthier body.

“Holistic healing here is growing like grass,” she says. “A lot of specialists are coming here to offer their services, and the ­demand is really high.

“I think people here feel they aren’t connected to nature – that might be why.”

Pesigan herself runs various courses when she’s in town. Her most popular are the Five Elements ceremonies, which use meditation, dance, music and art to take people “on journeys into their heart, inner truth and soul calling”.

She also uses Tibetan sound bowls to take people on sound journeys, a sort of meditation-­to-music exercise.

Pesigan does a lot of her work at the Life’n One wellness centre in Jumeirah. Set up in February, the centre hosts health coaching workshops, yoga, Pilates and barre classes, meditation sessions, hypnotherapy, inversion therapy and theta healing.

It hosts some of the world’s most respected alternative therapists, and is just as popular with Emiratis as expatriates, according to the centre’s founder Eda Gungor.

Gungor moved to Dubai specifically to set up Life’n One after leaving a senior job in the corporate events and gifts sector in Istanbul.

The 32-year-old had a vision for a centre where people could go on journeys of improvement and better their physical and mental well being.

“I said: ‘I’ll start small.’ I thought one room for meditation and one room for yoga and Pilates, in a flat.

“The corporate life made me successful, but it didn’t make me happy.”

Gungor found a supportive business partner and rented an old but character-filled villa in Jumeirah with a large garden space that she has turned into an indoor and outdoor vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free and sugar-­free cafe.

She says she relied on friends and family to help with the centre’s design and the finishing touches.

“It was very difficult opening, but I believed in it,” Gungor says.

“I wanted to create a space where people could come and have a class, then go do some meditation, then come and sit in the cafe for a few hours with their laptops if they wanted.”

The demographic and transiency of Dubai can make people quite vulnerable, she says, and in need of some “rebalancing”, mentally and spiritually.

“They become very materialistic or very spiritual here. I have never seen this anywhere in the world. This much materialism and this much spirituality doesn’t happen anywhere.”

There are various Facebook groups dedicated to those wanting a more spiritual or psychological way of healing, rather than doctors’ surgeries and prescription pads.

Alternative Healing Events Dubai has more than 1,500 members. It posts regular updates on events that include everything from the healing power of ­crystals to aura readings and meditation groups.

Some of the most recent workshops include “holotropic” breathing, which according to its creator “activates the natural inner healing process of the ­individual’s psyche, bringing him or her a particular set of internal experiences”.

There are alternative practitioners operating at every end of the spectrum, from reiki, aura readings, gong bath meditation and crystal healings to the more traditional approaches that have psychology and psychotherapy at their foundation.

Even hotels are getting in on the act and some now offer special wellness weekends that include yoga, meditation and mood-management workshops, while The Inner Space Centre for Training in Meditation and Self Development in Abu Dhabi offers beginners’ meditation courses in English and Arabic.

Nicki Anderson, a British expat, practised as an occupational therapist in the United Kingdom and Germany, before moving to Dubai 20 years ago.

Most of her work focused on trauma resolution, often dealing with children and young people who had been the victim of serious traumas, such as sexual abuse.

She used a lot of play therapy techniques, as well as family therapy and group work to help her patients resolve their issues and be able to move on with their lives.

After relocating to the UAE, she expanded on her work to move towards a more transpersonal psychology approach (to contact her, visit

She uses transpersonal therapy to help people look back at their own experiences as a child to work out what might be negatively affecting them as an adult. Quite often, she says, it’s not what people think it is.

“Transpersonal therapy is the idea that we can rise above the limited condition patterns. The higher self is running the show as opposed to the limited ego.

“It blends eastern philosophy with western psychology, and looks at the fact that we are all whole and complete and perfect as we are, we have just simply forgotten it. As opposed to traditional psychology that assumes we are broken and we need ­fixing.”

She works according to the “Wave” principal, which stands for Witnessing, Acknowledging, Validating and Empowering.

At her workshops and one-to-one sessions, Anderson encourages participants to find out what is causing them to feel or behave in a certain way, and to acknowledge and validate this, before finding ways to change their mindset and empower themselves to change unwanted behaviours.

In her conscious parenting workshops, for example, some parents will say they are triggered by their child’s behaviour to react in a negative way.

“They automatically go into flight, fight or freeze mode, and it’s always coming from unresolved material of their own.

“They may have wanted to seek help before, but now it’s coming through to their children, they have the desire to fix it.”

Anderson, herself a mother of two, wants to work more with pregnant women and says not enough is done to encourage ­expecting mums to have a healthy mind as well as a healthy body.

Most women are at their most creative and reflective during pregnancy, she says, and it’s an ideal time to work on unwanted fears or behaviours that are likely related to their own childhoods, before they themselves become parents.

“Feelings they are being told are just hormones are actually legitimate material that they may not want to take forward. There is a huge creative process going on for that woman; she is ready to birth a new life,” she says.

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