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Meet the Emirati sisters who are transforming Abu Dhabi's yoga scene

Khaleej Times logo Khaleej Times 20/06/2021 Rasha Abu-Baker
Gaelyn Mendonca standing in front of a store: Meet the Emirati sisters who are transforming Abu Dhabi's yoga scene © Provided by Khaleej Times Meet the Emirati sisters who are transforming Abu Dhabi's yoga scene

When it comes to the journey of self-development, sisters Fatima and Shamsa Al Qemzi never stopped exploring their options. A shared love for travel, meeting people, and trying new things has led them to fall in love with an ancient practice which not only became their go-to method to connect with their inner selves, but to also connect with others.

And through Seven Wellness, their boutique-style yoga studio tucked away in Abu Dhabi's Reem Island, they hope to build a like-minded, supportive community and raise awareness about the mental and physical benefits of living a holistic lifestyle.

It was during their university days in Switzerland that the Emirati entrepreneurs first tried yoga, which they said boosted their overall wellbeing and helped 'centre' themselves.

"I discovered yoga in this small hidden studio where a Brazilian instructor conducted vinyasa yoga classes," Shamsa said. "It helped relieve the extreme anxiety I used to have for a long time. It also helped me gain confidence with who I am," she added. Her sister, Fatima, said that the practice helped her have more patience in everyday life. She explained that practicing yoga was a relatively natural progression as they were brought up on a healthy lifestyle from as far back as they can recall. Their parents, themselves interested in alternative medicine, holistic therapies and clean eating habits, have been nothing but supportive of the sisters' first entrepreneurial endeavor.

Seeking more

After returning home, the sisters who are today in their early 30s were encouraged by their parents to find jobs and become more independent. "We had to come back, start a job, and that kind of robotic routine triggered something."

The sisters then sought out yoga to remind themselves of who they are and relive the feelings they discovered in Switzerland.

However, the sisters admitted; "We still wanted to seek something else." So Shamsa started signing up for retreats in places like the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, and Peru.

"When I went to these retreats what I really enjoyed is that the retreat itself did not only focus on yoga all day, it was just a segment of how you were getting treated.

"Other elements of the retreat included eating clean, juicing, eating raw or vegan."

The retreats in Sri Lanka and India are also often ayurvedic and vegetarian, she explained, serving spice-infused foods and drinks packed with antioxidants that have multiple health benefits like fighting inflammation, improving immunity and reducing blood sugar.

"What you put in your body also affects how you centre yourself. It is not just by movement or meditation with yoga."

A third element, she said, was also the treatments on offer that go beyond working out knots; helping with issues like blood circulation and lymphatic drainage that contribute to a more complete feeling of wellbeing.

"We will feel refreshed, great, my eyes will be glowing, my hair will be growing," Shamsa said. "And then you come back and you start to relapse a bit because you are back in this concrete jungle, back to the system." It was when they would feel this backslide that they really felt Abu Dhabi needed a full service retreat.

Birth of an urban retreat

With this realisation, the sisters decided to venture out to create a space that offers a holistic experience where people do not just walk in to take a class and leave, but can also relax and let it sink in. "This is where we came up with the idea of creating our own version of an urban retreat.

"We were inspired to create an authentic space, not luxurious but rather somewhere where people can walk in and feel like they are home, integrated with nature as well," explained Shamsa.

Its interior has a welcoming, cozy and calm feel with lots of natural light and earthy textures, overlooking the Abu Dhabi mangroves peeking through the sea. The arabesque elements on the floor tiles add a local flare and visual cue that you are in the Middle East.

Seven Wellness represents the seven chakras and was also inspired by Baha'u'llah's Seven Valleys. It opened in January 2019, right before Covid-19 hit. But the sisters believe that might have been a blessing.

"A lot of people started looking inwards when they were quarantining and focusing more on their mental health and wellbeing, it kind of rebooted them," she pointed out.

The studio was forced to shut down for a few months, and began offering virtual classes, and thanks to an already established following, people were committing to its online programmes.

Today, the centre offers a full, holistic integrated experience, through a wide range of services from yoga classes, sound healing, spa treatment, massages, and reiki to a vegan offering of raw foods and fresh smoothies.

With the assistance of the Khalifa Fund For Enterprise Development, the sisters were able to realise this vision and the organisation still plays an instrumental role in guiding and mentoring them.

The sisters spoke highly of the Khalifa Fund, and said: "They are very supportive. They have helped us open the business. They also [continue to] offer courses and have meetings with us on a quarterly basis, especially during Covid just to see how we are doing."

Fatima pointed out that furthermore: "They have been giving us financial and entrepreneurship advice."

It's not just a business, it's a community

Shamsa and Fatima said one of their biggest objectives early on was to expand Abu Dhabi's yoga community. "We do not have a big yoga community in Abu Dhabi and this is one reason why we opened," noted Fatima.

While there are some established yoga and wellness centres in the city, the sisters hope that together, they will collaborate to build a strong yoga base and raise awareness about the benefits of the practice.

"It's all about the bigger picture and not about the grind and making money," said Shamsa. "We do not see other yoga businesses as competitors, we see them as partners. Let's all support each other, let's create a community and grow together," added Fatima.

Emirati yogis

While the space attracts much of the neighbouring expat community, the sisters observed that there were Emiratis coming in from all around the city to participate as well. "It is beautiful to see that they are really getting into it and are regulars. So it's not really just a trend for them," Shamsa said.

"What is also beautiful is that we recently launched our vegan meal plan and there are a lot of Emiratis, especially from government jobs that signed up for it. We are realising that people are really getting into it. It's beautiful to see and makes us so happy.

"But it's not only because of our space but because our community in Abu Dhabi and the UAE are becoming more health conscious."

Shamsa added that they are seeing more male participants - "Especially men who are not just into muscle building but turning into more mental wellness and sound healing."

A sustainable future

Abu Dhabi is an attractive hub for many reasons, and perhaps a new one on the list will be yoga and wellness retreats. The sisters aim to expand and cheekily stated that, "We are just getting started, we want to expand and create a self-sustainable retreat."

They currently have a second kitchen in the works and with the experience they have gained through their first studio opening, who knows they may very well become known for blazing the trail, if their vision is realised. In any event, it is evident in speaking with the sisters, that they truly want to share the lessons and lifestyle they have known to be so beneficial, with anyone who comes through their doors.

rasha@khaleejtimes.com

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