Weam Zabar, founder and owner of holistic wellbeing center Namaste Bahrain, shares more about her fascination with ‘filling the gap’ through yoga and her resulting creation of an internationally-recognized yoga school.
Would you mind telling us about yourself?
I had a really indirect path, I must say. In high school, I studied sciences and at university I studied computing, and then I graduated and I was programming for a while. A year later I moved into a sales job, so I was doing cap management and doing multi-million dollar sales.
And traveling around. That got old very, very quickly. What I realized very early on is that we spend most of our time at work, and if you are in a job that is draining, even the time you are not at work, you are stressing out. So life goes by very, very fast, and I think I realized that by seeing how quickly my daughter was growing.
I wanted to be doing something that I actually enjoy. I had by then started doing a lot of meditation practice and things like that. To me, that was kind of the sweet time in my day. And I began thinking if people don’t have that time to spend on themselves where they can just calm down and breathe and relax a little bit, then there is a gap.
There is a need for that. We just run through our days and most of the time we are not present. We don’t even know what we are doing. So if I can create a space where people can actually practice that presence, I fill the gap.
Just slowing down.
Slowing down and just being in the moment. If you think about any time in your life that you are completely happy, there were times in your life where you were completely present, where you just were there and there was this “Ah” moment where nothing is missing. And it’s not that the external situation was perfect; it’s that your internal state was perfect. So if you can re-create that when things aren’t perfect externally, you are there. That was my aim for this space.
And you started this in 2011?
2011 in April, yeah. I started practicing yoga. I started about over 7 years ago and I was doing healing as well, Reiki healing. I thought if I could practice those two things on people, with people, then that would bring joy to me. And the healing just slipped with time. It was very clear that I just needed to focus on doing yoga. Namaste is the only internationally-recognized yoga school in Bahrain.
Why did programming or sales not work for you?
Programming was fun for me. I did not mind it. After that, the sales department head-hunted me to do that job. I thought, well, why not? I went with it. But it did not feel real. It felt like the end result of my work did not make a difference in the world, and that tormented me. I did not actually see the direct effect of my work.
You could not feel passionate about it.
I could not. I was good at it, but I did not enjoy it.
It wasn’t utilizing my strong points. It wasn’t speaking to me. It did not give me satisfaction. So very quickly it grew old. I was traveling all around the world. I was staying in 5 star hotels. I was meeting the big shots. And, I was the youngest person in the whole company in that position. Yet it remained unreal to me. It felt like a play, like I was putting on an act. It did not feel real.
Yeah, I think a lot of people who are in your position who end up starting their own business feel they would like to contribute to something much bigger than themselves.
It’s quite interesting. When I was a child, I kind of knew I wanted to work with something around the human mind. I actually wanted to become a psychologist when I was younger.
You know the Bahraini culture. It’s like, “No, it’s going to affect your psyche. You don’t want to do that to yourself.” And things like that. And at some point in my life I was really fascinated with gymnastics and it is like yoga is the perfect combination between the two. It’s working with the human mind; it’s working with happiness. And at the same time it’s working with amazing capability of the human body to do things that animals wouldn’t think about. It’s kind of the best of both worlds to me.
Is Namaste your first business? Have you started anything in the past?
You are going to make me reveal the big dark secrets, aren’t you? Well, I had an online clothes shop at some point. That lasted less than a year. I don’t regret doing it because I learned so much from it. But the market wasn’t ready for online orders then—this was 6 years ago. Nobody wanted to order clothes online.
Again I wasn’t passionate about it. I knew that I wanted to do something for myself, but you know I was lying to myself because fashion does not really click with me at all. I really don’t care about it. And I think that’s the key point: If you are not willing to live it, it shouldn’t be a part of your identity for it to work. If you want to be an entrepreneur, but if you just want to work your hours and then go home, it’s not going to work.
You have to dedicate your full time to it, more or less?
I’m not saying become a slave to it, because that’s not healthy either. What I am saying is you have to really passionately, be crazy in love with it. Because if you are not, don’t even bother. You really have to believe in it because it has to be your play time. Your work has to be your play time. If it’s not your play time, forget about it.
Yoga is obviously an important idea or concept. And it is going to be a little unique to a lot of people here. What were some of its misconceptions?
A lot of people thought it was sitting in meditation, which of course is a part of the practice, but it isn’t all of it. There was the misconception that it’s related to specific religion. There are a few unfortunately religious clerics that refer to yoga as demonic, things like that. There were a lot of misconceptions. There still are.
A lot of people walk up to me and say, “I can’t practice yoga because I’m inflexible.” And I’m like, “Guys! That’s why you practice yoga!” So a lot of people who don’t know what it is still remain. I feel like it grew a lot since I started. I feel like it became much less intimidating than it used to be.
And do you feel like you were responsible for starting this trend?
I would like to think so to be honest because it is the dedicated yoga school in Bahrain. I have never seen classes this big in Bahrain. I have never seen people graduating as teachers in Bahrain. Namaste is the only place that can do this now. You know, from what I hear from people, they believe that. Namaste kind of started the trend of making it for everybody.
And I’m sure you woke up one day and started seeing others who have started doing the same thing. Do you feel proud of that, flattered I would say? Or frustrated?
You know what? If people practice yoga, I’m happy. If we all awaken to the benefits of it, my job is done. I don’t feel like yoga is one of these fields where it is a competition. Businesses complement each other and we are both working toward the same aim.
Would you say this is what makes Namaste different? The fact that it is one of the first and dedicated yoga classes?
It was the first. What makes it different, I believe, is the teachers. The teachers here are very passionate about what they do. And there is a sense of community. I can’t tell you the number of friendships that happened here. People just walk in and it feels welcoming. It does not feel intimidating the way sometimes yoga classes feel. It’s very chill. It’s laid back and I feel that is what makes it what it is. The teachers and the fact it is accessible.
And do you have a good mix between males and females?
Did you feel any collective hesitation from the males?
The funny thing is, males normally walk in here dragged either by their wives and girlfriends, and after a couple of months, the girlfriend disappears and the man continues to show. And so I feel like men really feel the benefit of it, to great extent. To the point that they really become addicted to it. And they have a really long attention span with it. So it’s really beneficial. I feel like it’s really easy for women to tap into spirituality. They’re more intuitive naturally. They are more with the heart and all of that. And men don’t get the chance to experience that in everyday life. And they do through yoga. And it becomes their outlet in that sense.
Can you tell me a little more about the challenges you had in starting this business in Bahrain, something more specific?
I don’t know. I felt very blessed from the very beginning. I felt the universe was conspiring for it to work. When I was looking for this space, that was a difficult one. To find a space that is right and not too risky. I did not want to spend all my capital on setting up in the beginning. So finding the right space in the right area with the right rent was a little bit tricky in the beginning, but after that it kind of fell into place.
When I started, I obviously did not have enough students but then that falls into the misconceptions about yoga. I feel like as soon as I relaxed about it and did not stress too much, it just worked.
How were you able to get more students to join? Was it marketing or word of mouth?
You know what, Bader? I really can’t put my finger on it. It kind of happened nearly overnight. Where there was this struggle in the beginning where I did not get the students and suddenly they showed up. It was a combination of a few things. Most of my students came through word of mouth. I was doing marketing through magazines and things like that. But there was a gradual growth because my students were bringing in more students.
It nearly happened over time. The first two years, it was slow, gradual. And then it just spiked up for some reason. I feel like it just hit that tipping point that everyone talks about. And then it just … I don’t know. I know it sounds really ridiculous for an entrepreneur to not to be able to tell you exactly what happened. It’s divine grace. I’m going to call it divine grace. I was ready to receive more, and then I did.
Are you planning on expanding beyond Bahrain?
I am partnering up in Ryadh with another studio there. I run teacher trainings there and I run a few workshops there. I would love to work around the GCC in the area. I feel like there is a lot that can be shared in the area. I see beautiful yoga spaces happening in the GCC and I would love to share my knowledge in those areas. Branching out, you know. Franchising? I’m not sure yet. I’m quite content for now. I feel like I’m managing the growth that came in the past couple of years. Maybe. If divine grace comes. I’m not going to say no.
Did you have any mentors along the way? Someone who influenced this line of work and helped you start the business?
Fawzia Al Sindi who runs the meditation Bahrain Reiki center. She was my first official spiritual teacher if you like. She got me into the meditation and introspective practice. Looking within you. And finding out what bothers you and how do you deal with it in life. So I owe a lot to her.
But you know the Chinese saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears”? As I move along, teachers show up on my path.
Is there a risk that you have taken that really helped your business jump forward?
I took the risk when I quit my job and everyone thought I was crazy. Everyone thought I was absolutely bonkers. But I don’t feel like that was a risk. Because it is just a job and any job can be replaced. That’s my simple answer. I don’t think I have. I think I play it quite safe, and I always test the waters before I take any big leaps.
Okay. Did you get any support or financial support from organizations in Bahrain like Tamkeen?
Yes, tons. Tamkeen mainly. I did my marketing scheme through them. And I have the Enterprise Support fund in the beginning. I did the courier progression program with them.
What are the challenges of working with Tamkeen or any other organization?
I have been actually quite happy with it. The only thing I felt could improve is education of people who are working in Tamkeen because they encourage entrepreneurs to do new things, but when they do new things that are not in line with what is already set up, it’s really difficult to convince them.
For example, I was trying to get some new equipment that is not in Bahrain, no one uses them. And they’re in line with yoga. But they had very specific details about it. It either has to be software or machinery or something like that. I’m like, I don’t need that stuff. I need yoga props. And this is what my business is. So I felt like they weren’t trained enough to handle new ideas and explore and see if they actually fit with the business to approve it. It’s the same with the training. It took me a really long time to say, “Guys! This is my full-time job. I teach yoga. I need to go on more training to teach better.”
How do you manage having a family and taking care of your family and your full-time job/business?
It’s tricky. It’s not easy. I’m blessed because my family is very supportive of what I do. They understand it. My daughter comes to yoga class. I’m very blessed in that sense. It took me a while. When I first started, I was a complete slave to my enterprise. And I learned with time that actually I need to take time off, I need to do the things that I enjoy as well. I need to move away from it. It’s very easy to move yourself out very fast when you are doing your own thing. So it’s very important to stop yourself. I used to go on for months without a day off. And now I force myself to take holidays, to take weekends. To not look at my email the whole time.
And do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs who are starting their own businesses?
I personally believe that the internal work is as important as the external work. If you just focus on setting up your business and doing all of that, and you don’t focus on managing stress. Don’t focus on working with the belief systems that are holding your back. If you don’t do the internal psyche work, your job will be much harder. You might think, “Oh, I’m too busy to do this stuff. I just need to set my business up.”
But actually you end up saving tons of time by working on your mind. You think about the number of entrepreneurs who give up too quickly because they feel like it won’t work, they don’t believe in themselves. Or entrepreneurs who quit too quickly because they get too stressed out or burnt out. If you are going to do something this big, make sure you are internally solid. I think that’s one of the most important things you could do as an entrepreneur.