Tamara Hachem realised there was a market for online fitness classes long before restrictions to curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic shut gyms and yoga studios.
As a professional in the mergers and acquisitions advisory industry, her work hours were long and not conducive to keeping a regular fitness schedule.
“I sometimes had to travel for work and I personally struggled to maintain healthy habits or have regular physical activity,” says Ms Hachem, co-founder of ShalaOnline.
“So, I turned to online classes as a solution.”
She was inspired to start a platform connecting teachers with fitness enthusiasts after yoga – an ascetic discipline that originated in India – had a positive effect on her personal health.
Once ShalaOnline – which she founded with Yazid Erman – was live, Ms Hachem sensed a significant gap in the market for yoga and meditation classes in Arabic.
“Most people will be able to follow a class in English but they found better engagement when they spoke in Arabic,” she says.
“And that is when the idea started ... maybe people actually want to have this content in Arabic.”
Meditation proved to be popular in Arabic with fitness enthusiasts. Hearing instructions in a student’s native language improved focus and overall well-being.
Wellness is a booming global industry that is expected to grow by up to 10 per cent a year to $1.5 trillion, according to McKinsey. About 79 per cent of respondents surveyed by the consultancy earlier this year said that they considered wellness important while 42 per cent said it was a priority.
The research also found a “substantial increase” in the prioritisation of wellness over the past two to three years. The industry received a boost from the Covid-19 pandemic as people stuck at home bought exercise bikes and switched to online classes to stay fit during prolonged lockdowns.
Meditation apps also registered a boom as people began to pay attention to their mental health during long periods of isolation. The apps also evolved to cater to the needs of people who were coping with loss, working from home and overwhelmed by growing sense of loneliness.
To help many pull through, ShalaOnline made all its content free for a certain period.
“We felt that everyone was dealing with an added level of stress. People were really stranded at home; basically, it was a stressful time. So, we decided to support the community this way,” says Ms Hachem.
The company charges $16 for a monthly subscription that provides access to all the content on the platform. The fee is about the same price as that of one standard class at a yoga studio.
The price point encourages students, particularly beginners, to not only practise at home at their convenience but to also to seek out an actual studio when they need one.
“You can have that membership, so you can have the access every day and still be able to, from time to time, go to the physical studio,” says Ms Hachem.
The growing popularity of online yoga is expected to continue, with physical studios encouraged to add packages to entice a new and growing online audience.
“I think the two will coexist in the future and each has a different experience. Obviously, the energy of the group class is incredible but you know it is not always feasible for a lot of people to be able to go to a studio every day,” she says.
ShalaOnline currently has eight yoga instructors on the platform and has recruited three more. It is now looking to add variety, with different styles of yoga and various teaching styles.
The platform offers gentle flows for beginners, which are simple sequences to warm up the body, as well as the more strenuous vinyasa and ashtanga styles. The instructors also offer yoga courses to help ease back pain and address specific posture-related issues.
ShalaOnline also plans to add other forms of exercise that require minimal equipment and allow users to work out from home.
Plans are also afoot to forge a stronger bond among yoga students by creating a community of users.
The platform is also leaning into the power of artificial intelligence to create a more user-friendly experience for its students.
It is in the process of building its in-house technology team to hasten its evolution and cater to the growing and diverse needs of students.
Ms Hachem declined to comment on the company’s overall funding so far but says it is currently looking to raise seed finance in the next few months.
ShalaOnline intends to expand across the GCC region, particularly into Saudi Arabia, where there is growing demand for yoga and meditation classes.
We want to “improve our product by integrating AI and giving our users a better experience and we want to expand our team”, she says.
Q&A with Tamara Hachem, co-founder of ShalaOnline
What is your vision for the company?
Our vision is to expand beyond the region and to become a reference point when it comes to physical and mental wellbeing.
Where did you raise funds from?
In the beginning, it was personal savings. Then funding came from a mix of investments and grants.
What are your plans for expansion?
Our focus for the next year is on really accelerating our growth in Saudi Arabia and the wider GCC.
Why is ShalaOnline so popular in Saudi Arabia?
Our biggest audience is women. This is our main target market. It is a big, young population. I think they really appreciate the convenience of the content that we are providing.
Do you have plans to add products to your website?
We will be working and [forming more] partnerships with, for example, yoga prop brands making products such as bolsters, straps, mats, etc. For the moment, we will only focus on the classes.