How a cancer diagnosis inspired Abu Dhabi family to set up a fitness studio

A mother and daughter became an entrepreneurial team to set up Abu Dhabi's first yoga, Pilates and dance studio.

Nadia Sehweil, with her mother Sharifa Sehweil, owners of the Bodytree Studio in Abu Dhabi. Ravindranath K / The National
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Palestinian Sharifa and her eldest daughter Nadia Sehweil pride themselves on their different approach to business; they say they put community spirit ahead of profit in the running of their yoga, Pilates and dance studio. The Bodytree Studio, in Al Karamah, is the first studio of its kind in Abu Dhabi.

“Our mission is to offer something for expats, to help them feel empowered rather than feeling lonely – this studio is where they meet up”, says mum Sharifa, 60, who has lived in Abu Dhabi since 1979. “If you have the intention of offering a service, you get a big reward. But if you think of money only, you’ll fail big time. Because it’s not going to bring you happiness.”

“Of course, it still has to make business sense”, adds Nadia, 35. “If I were to do something completely not for profit, I’d be helping out in Palestine – that’s my passion. But do we make a tonne of money off this? No, we don’t. It’s very fulfilling though.”

Sharifa first discovered Pilates 14 years ago, when receiving chemotherapy treatment in the US to beat cancer.

“My yoga teacher suggested Pilates to strengthen my core,” she recalls. “It became a big part of my healing process, helping me to find myself and confront my issues.”

Sharifa, who had spent the previous two decades being a stay-at-home mum to her three children, decided to then train as a yoga and Pilates instructor in Canada, later offering some of Abu Dhabi’s first yoga classes – at her home, then at the Hilton and InterContinental hotels.

Nadia had also become a Pilates fan. In 2007, she quit her corporate job to team up with her mum and the Finnish yoga guru Elina Rozycki to launch Soma Pilates and Yoga Tree Studios.

“At first we were hesitant as we weren’t sure if Abu Dhabi was ready for a stand-alone studio,” says Nadia, who adds that the trio’s initial investment was Dh200,000. “A car would have cost the same – that’s how I rationalised it. So if we failed at this, at least it wouldn’t be a huge financial loss.”

In 2011, the three business partners combined under one license to form Bodytree. (Ms Rozycki left last year to focus on other projects.)

The business was initially based in an old villa in Al Bateen with one room for yoga and another for Pilates, but they envisioned a bigger space.

Nadia is married to an Emirati businessman she met in high school, and they have two children.

The family spend summers in Los Angeles, and the city influenced what Nadia wanted for the business. “There are places in LA where you can access a bunch of fabulous things in one location. We wanted to provide a place you could drop your child off for an activity, take a class, grab a juice and shop for yoga clothes.”

The entrepreneurs spent two years looking for a new location, but rising rents were a deterrent.

They eventually found a villa in Al Karamah still under construction that allowed them to make adjustments to the building plans; expanding the main studio space with special flooring, and adding a locker room.

The name Bodytree was chosen to reflect how all family members are catered for. “People come here pre having kids, then through pregnancy, post-pregnancy, they bring their kids in for classes, attend workshops and husbands come too. That’s happening more and more.”

Nadia now divides her time between managing the studio’s 30 members of staff and her family. “I manage the financial side of the business, but I look to mum for advice. She helps with programming, and maintaining the villa.”

Bodytree now has contracts with the Rosewood Hotel and Emirates Palace to provide instructors at their facilities. They also work with Imperial College and NYUAD to offer fitness incentives for staff and students.

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