If any two people can be credited with creating a yoga, Pilates and dance culture in the capital, it would have to be mother-and-daughter duo Sharifa and Nadia Sehweil.
The owners of The Bodytree Studio, a serene space set up in an unassuming villa in Al Karama, will next month celebrate 10 years since the opening of their holistic wellness hub. The studio has become a household name among those in the capital seeking a more balanced lifestyle. "We always had a vision for an integrated wellness facility that offered way more than just yoga and Pilates," says Sharifa.
"We started with offering just three classes." Today, Bodytree has more than 30 different classes on its roster.
It all began with a diagnosis of colon cancer for Sharifa, who practised Pilates and yoga in the United States during her chemotherapy treatments, to aid her recovery. "My mother was the influence," admits Nadia. "She was the one who discovered Pilates and yoga, fell in love with them and then brought them into my life."
The duo began applying themselves to the two disciplines, with Sharifa becoming a certified yoga instructor, teaching at a studio in Montreal. Nadia trained to become a Pilates teacher. When Sharifa, who is Palestinian but born and raised in Columbia, chose to return to Abu Dhabi, where she had been living for years with her family, she brought her love of yoga back with her. "I was teaching prenatal yoga from home, conducting classes at the Hilton, I began teaching Pilates as well, and hatha yoga. Helping people discover a love for yoga and an understanding of their bodies became a passion for me."
This was just over 10 years ago, when only a handful of qualified yoga teachers were scattered across the emirate, and no yoga studios had been set up yet. Classes were held sporadically at fitness clubs, and there was no Pilates to be found anywhere, notes Nadia.
"It was so different back then," she recalls. "Abu Dhabi has changed by leaps and bounds in that regard; there are so many more studios opening these days, and we love that. We think it's amazing because the more there is on offer, it will drive this type of lifestyle more and make it become entrenched." The type of "lifestyle" she is referring to, is one that both mother and daughter describe as "holistic and aware".
"It's choosing to live a life that is inclusive of elements like meditation, exercise, movement, and healthy and mindful eating. You need this combination, all these elements, to lead a healthy life, and you need to be proactive about it," says Nadia.
That was the premise Bodytree was founded on. It started off as two studios – the Soma Pilates studio and the Yoga Tree Studios – and offered only a handful of yoga and Pilates classes. The organic growth of the space's offerings, coupled with the expanding interest of a client base increasingly concerned with incorporating fitness into their lives, allowed Nadia and Sharifa to turn their original vision into a reality.
In 2009, the two studios merged to become Bodytree. "We were able to start bringing in other things," explains Nadia. "We were all passionate about dance, so we searched for dance instructors and launched our dance classes for children and for adults. We began addressing the spiritual side of this lifestyle. We incorporated pre and postnatal classes. The evolution had started." From Zumba to an accredited ballet programme for children, and from dance cardio classes to adult ballet, Bodytree began to expand.
"We added a fitness component that's a bit more vigorous than yoga and Pilates," explains Nadia. "Myself and one of my good friends, who is a dancer, started a high intensity interval class that incorporates toning, and is very focused on women's bodies, which is what people were looking for. We added things we felt people would like to come in and do, from gentle yoga to more vigorous yoga to yoga for children, from meditation and Kindermusik classes for little ones, to free workshops on everything from babywearing to nursing to getting back into shape after having a baby."
Slowly, the community space that the ladies had originally envisioned began to take shape, with clients also providing their own ideas. Now, Bodytree is known for everything from a Baby 101 class called Baby Confidence for expectant mothers, to an annual yoga festival and an annual baby market, to a constant stream of international instructors visiting from abroad to hold a series of classes for fitness enthusiasts. Nectar, a healthy juice bar and cafe has taken up residence inside Bodytree, and become a place where clientele can congregate before or after a class. "If we think something is a good idea, then we make it happen," says Nadia. "But it's not about following trends. It's about offering what people are asking for."
An awareness of the body, a growing understanding of mindfulness and the various components of a healthy, aware lifestyle, are all concepts that both Nadia and Sharifa feel are becoming entrenched in the varied cultures that exist in Abu Dhabi.
"Over the past 10 years, we have seen how things have changed in Abu Dhabi when it comes to this sort of thing," says Sharifa.
"Now, they want and demand more. They want more yoga, more variation in classes, more awareness of themselves and their bodies, more ways to understand the emotional and mental side of things and address that part of themselves, more opportunity to take responsibility for themselves," she notes.
Bodytree Studio has long been on hand to address these needs. "We have become a home away from home for someone who is new to the city and wants to know what Abu Dhabi has to offer," Sharifa explains. "It's what we always wanted to become, a community that informs, that shows you how well you can live your life, that provides you with tools to make the most of life."
The studio's noticeboard is testament to that aspiration. It is a melting pot of event details from around town, offering a glimpse of just how much is on offer in Abu Dhabi when it comes to leading a healthy, fulfilled life.
"Bodytree started from a place where there's a lot of pain," admits Nadia. "It was rocky when my mum got sick, but she's so positive, she has always found ways to heal herself and heal us, and she always seeks help, and never feels sorry for herself. The studio was just a natural evolution of what my mother stands for. It felt like our life calling. It feels like home here."