UAE entrepreneur Rama Al Jayoussi talks body and business

Rama Al Jayoussi’s passion for yoga and Pilates inspired other Dubai residents to follow suit. From being the second yoga studio in town, Exhale is now the benchmark other studios strive to become. Find out what fuels her to spread her message.

When did you start your business here in UAE?

I have been living here in UAE for 40 years. I started Exhale with a close friend of mine back in 2008. It was she who initiated the idea. She thought there weren’t enough studios in Dubai that offer Pilates and yoga. That time, there was only one Pilates studio and one newly opened yoga studio- this despite the expansion of both practices in Western countries. The market and potential was already there; it’s just that people lacked awareness on the importance and benefits of yoga and Pilates.

The industry is growing since people are realizing that things like yoga and Pilates can help with their overall wellness.

How did you find this period between 2008 and 2017?

Fitness in general has quadrupled in terms of awareness here in UAE. I think that has a lot to do with government policies that encourage and raise awareness on the importance of fitness, especially on the youth. This region has the highest rate of child diabetes in the world, so there’s been a lot of support from the government- cycle tracks, running tracks. Ten years ago, there was only one yoga studio. Now we have 15 or more than 20 in town.

The good thing about having a yoga studio is it’s not just a challenge or a quick fix. It’s a method to sustain a healthy lifestyle. Our clients are very mature in terms of body awareness and overall lifestyle changes and this is what we’re trying to promote. It’s been difficult to get people to realize that not everything is a quick game, it’s a journey. We’ve already won awards: Fitness Studio of the Year and Ladies’ Facility of the Year so the fact that there are entities supporting our cause and encouraging people is very important.

What does yoga do to the body?

There are a number of studies that show yoga helps with diabetes, hypertension, and even stress. It’s not so much as people perceive it to be. We don’t just sit and meditate throughout the class; it’s quite a rigorous exercise and you do break a sweat.

You mentioned that our region has a problem with diabetes. What do you think causes these complications in the UAE?

There’s lack of awareness and junk food is still widely accessible. I was once one of those victims because I didn’t understand back then. Thankfully, manufacturers are now forced to put full ingredients on the labels. My 10-year-old child can now check just by picking up products from the shelf. Also, social media influencers are now promoting outdoor activities to increase awareness of the need for lifestyle changes.

I have a friend who works as a psychiatrist. She says that 50% of the cases she handles are on child anxiety. This generation is engrossed in social media and being in the digital world can add to the stress they already experience in school because they want to keep up. That’s why you see yoga being practiced in school now, so they can de-stress and learn how to manage their time.

Do you cater exclusively to women or do you target men as well?
Our concept is based on women but yoga and Pilates is open for everybody. These exercises are just more specialized because they’re more comfortable for women. In Pilates for instance, we work with posture that activates the pelvic floors. We also have prenatal Pilates.

What’s the age range of your clientele?
You could be twenty years old and already fully aware of your body. Yoga is for all ages. For Pilates they’re mostly 30 to 50 years old. We have regulars for the past 10 years who come two to three times a week that are 60 years old and above. You do what you can in the class, no one’s competing. It’s not a show-off kind of exercise. That’s the beauty of it.

How about children?
We also have activities for kids, we have yoga and gymnastics. We previously worked with patients with Multiple Sclerosis through an NGO. We did pilates-based exercises to help with their balance, so we focused on building their core strength.

What inspired you to make a living out of Pilates?
Until you try it, you won’t know it. The creator of Pilates originally created this for army men to rehabilitate them. It creates awareness in your body so you’ll be able to do all sorts of things.

Do you also have to change your diet when doing Pilates?
All fitness lifestyles are nothing without the diet. It’s a big factor, but people who pursue Pilates and Yoga are not in it for the quick fix. They seek a lifestyle change so it’s literally a part of their lifestyle. We don’t promote that you’ll lose 10 pounds in ten weeks but we have high retention and commitment because it affects you long-term.

How do you see UAE in terms of its business potential?
I graduated from the UK. I have an international marketing diploma and Dubai is a nice place to start a new business. It’s a really healthy environment. Sustaining the business is a challenge, that’s why entrepreneurs have to stay on top of their game. It’s a hamster wheel. You always have to add value. You have to keep innovating. Dubai is getting more competitive. When we started we were just the second yoga studio. The next ones followed our structure. We’re proud to say that we sort of set the standards. We’ve been collaborating with 5 other studios to help develop the industry.

Do you offer services outside the studio?
Yes, we have clients who prefer to have the classes at home. There’s also this trend where companies want employees to work on their wellness so we do workshops about wellness and even classes in their facilities.

How do you reach potential clients?
Social media is really convenient. We’re also in a populated area so there’s word-of-mouth. Our website helps too. If you search for “Pilates Dubai” on Google, we’re on the top listing.

What would you like to say to people who want to start their own business?

Don’t enter a business if you’re not passionate about it. You have to solve a problem to be able to flourish. You have to keep going, even in small increments because it’s not gonna happen overnight. Don’t get demotivated if the campaign you’re working on now doesn’t work tomorrow.Most of the time, it’s the little changes that make a long-term impact. What keeps me going is the satisfaction I’ve seen in my clients’ faces every time they come out of class. The mental wellness our facility provides makes this all worthwhile. At the end of the day, there’s always gratification. I feel like I’m doing things right.

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