Lockdown Economy Canada in Wellness and Movement with Malak Sharaf

The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Tapasya Das

Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.

In this interview, we meet Malak, Founder of Malak Sharaf Movement, Movement & Wellness, in Canada. Mindful movement, conscious breathing, and inward connection building are key in Malak’s practice. She loves and enjoys teaching, sharing her knowledge with other members, focusing on key alignments, empowering others through progress and practice. It was in the early 2020 period of COVID-19 were Malak, in the beginning, took a break to focus on her own practice, later she joined a community to a year full of challenges, impact on business and income, and on the brighter side the pandemic she has turned to online teaching and got to package programs tailored to the members. Social distancing measures and sanitization protocols were mounting and quarantine suddenly became the new normal. Malak taught at many studios in Toronto almost all of them shut down and members’ cancellations quickly rippled in the community and throughout the city. Everyone was going through so much pressure during the pandemic and lockdown measures have turned work-life balance upside down and Malak looked for inspirations and ways for collaborations among the members in the community to help each other during these times of uncertainties and isolations.

Watch the video version of the interview.

My guest today is Malak Sharaf. She is originally from Egypt. She worked in the Middle East and many years back she left the corporate world and decided to go on a venture. She had a degree in Engineering, Communications and Electronics. Of course, that was challenging become what she is today, a Yoga Teacher! So finally she listened to her inner voice and ventured finally into the Yoga Space. Now she has founded “Malak Sharaf Movement”. So it is very inspiring when someone comes from corporate life and who has worked behind coding tries new things to become someone different. Working on body movements, practising breathing etc. is a completely different world. So tell us what you do as a business and how long have you been doing this business?

Malak: So as you said, I teach yoga, pilates and sometimes restorative yoga. I started this journey back in 2017 when I signed up for the yoga teacher training. Then in 2018–2019, I officially started this business and registered it. It was in the end of 2019 when I started taking on clients myself and teaching at various studios around the city. So my business is between teaching at studios, private clients and now I teach online.

That is interesting and we are gonna just talk about this in a bit. You mentioned that in 2019 you started picking up your business, to become an entrepreneur and have your own collaboration with several stakeholders and partners of studios. So tell me about your customers. What were their profiles, who were you teaching your techniques in order to give them serenity?

Malak: My clients are mostly women belonging to different age groups, like my age, younger or older. A small percentage of them is men, which is normal. Everyone loves moving, they come to feel good and to improve their breathing. It was all an in-person experience at different studios in the city, be it east or west. Some work in the corporate world, some are teachers and there are pregnant women as well. I also teach pre and postnatal actually. It is normally like women coming together, moving, making some nice connections. Essentially you meet a lot of women who did the same thing. They change their careers. So there is usually some small chats after or before class. You talked about this or you mentioned that you are an engineer. I always joke around that I can’t count even though I’m an engineer! So that is basically like fact that my client base is women belonging to different ages and who want to feel good and move.

So I understand the profile of your clients is basically from the mixed-gender with a concentration of female clients. They relied on the three things you were offering, which are wellness, health and movement. Let’s step back to eight months ago. The lockdown happened and I’m sure Canada and Toronto had a piece in that. They were affected by the pandemic and this might have changed a lot of plans. So tell me how did the lockdown affect your business? Did you have challenges and what were the steps you took to overcome and solve them?

Malak: So Toronto and the whole of Canada of course had its share. We were delayed and we had a lighter share than Europe and America. Thank God. I remember quite well that it was March 16th when we started our lockdown. It started in two weeks. Then it was for a month and it went all summer till August. So at the beginning when we were probably three or four weeks in the pandemic, I lost a couple of studios which had to close forever. They were small boutique studios run by women as well and the rents are high in Toronto. So they had to close because they could not keep up and pay the rent if there are no members coming in.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I didn’t teach online. I said, “Okay, we are gonna take a break and I’m just gonna practise for myself.”. At that time there was so much of online offering on Instagram, on Facebook and in fact, everything was free. With the exception of a couple of studios who flipped to the online mode but asked the members to pay less than what they used to pay for the in-person sessions. But for me, I said, “Okay fine! This is a break”. I didn’t know how long we were gonna stay home. So I said, “I’m gonna just focus on my own practice. Let’s see what’s up and take a holiday.”. And then a month in I lost half of my studios as they closed. That got me thinking, “Okay, I’ve been thinking of teaching online!”. I met teachers who were teaching online. They loved it and they were saying, “You know it has its perks!”. So I have to admit that it was covered and it pushed me finally to take the step and teach online. I joined the wagon and I started teaching live on Instagram three times a week for free to see like what’s happening. I started having like one or two people at first, then a couple of friends and then I started five or six people more online. I was doing pilates, pilates fusion, restorative and so on. I was offering everything I can do.

Then we stayed closed till August. I kept doing the online sessions and then I stopped for a bit. Everything mellowed down because I didn’t have the same motivation levels. Then summer started and we started teaching at the park and so on. So instead of doing online, I started to teach at the park three times a week. But the thing is, as I mentioned, some studios were offering their online sessions for free, some were offering for money and I was stuck in between. I didn’t know. I am not a big studio, I’m just by myself. So I obviously asked myself, “How do I charge? How much can I charge?”

We are all staying at home and none except the corporate people are not working. That helped because I was offering lunch hour classes. So that they can do the classes at lunch hours. However, there was a challenge. I have friends, I have other members but they are not making money. It was like, “Do pay what you can or let’s trade!.” I was willing. I cook, I teach. It got me really creative and at the same time thinking about the fact that we are all in the same boat, we are all not working, we are all not making money got us in the position to help. We are left with the same thing but I need to pay my bills. So there was the struggle.

Then we went back to teaching in August. But only one studio was left. That was able to open again and teach. So really the pandemic had a negative effect as I lost studios and as a lot of businesses had closed. That really affected my income for 2020. But the other thing is, it gave me the push to start online, build my presence and meet people. There were challenges as well to get the people. We transferred from Instagram to Zoom. But people didn’t like Zoom. They don’t want to do accounts, then there are glitches and there was like a lot of hassle to get the people to commit for the online classes. There was always one extra step, like telling them that a zoom account is free.

So there was this struggle between this and that. But that has its perks. I don’t deny that teaching from home has great perks. You don’t deal with traffic, you are not running around from this studio to that studio, you set your own hours. The perks are great, especially for someone who has kids or whatever. So you can run your business and take care of your kids. That is good. So now it is one studio and as I mentioned we are in a total lockdown that’s gonna be for a duration of 28 days, starting from Boxing Day.

So now I am gonna focus on online offering so that we can all stay moving, keep moving towards a better state of mental health. But the in-person connection was then when we got back in August, I can tell you that everyone was so excited to come back to practice at the studio and just see people. Of course, we had to minimise the number of classes. We used to have 20 people in the class and now it is 10 to maintain the spacing. We also increased the timid between the classes for cleaning. So there were like added tasks that we had to do in order to keep it all safe and sound for everyone, including the teacher and the student. But it was worth it because we finally had the in-person touch again and teach. So it has its challenges but overall the virtual bit is very good. I know that for some people, transferring to an online class was very difficult but either way, the online is happening. It was probably going to happen in twenty years but it just happened now. Thanks to COVID that’s what happened.

Basically, what you are emphasising on and what other people have stated as well, is the fact that COVID has unintentionally accelerated the process of familiarizing oneself with the digital world and social media platforms. Many businesses that were not previously used to it are embracing this. Besides, the clients also started to teach themselves how to go online and benefit from the services. It is also easier to maintain the social distancing norms, cope with the uncertainty and deal with the pandemic this way. What you highlighted during the discussion and what caught my attention was the fact that it was difficult for you to explain the technical bits to your customers. You prepared like a kit for them to move them to class. I want to ask, how did you try to stimulate your online business and teaching to reach their segment. You were maybe known to the clients who came to the studio and you already opened in 2019. So the business was picking up. It was either an advantage for you to create this brand awareness about what you do in the social world via social media platforms. So tell me how did you try to stimulate the business and attract customers doing that period?

Malak: So basically, it was easier when I was doing live sessions on Instagram for free. It was easier on Instagram because people come and go. Tracking on Instagram was kind of tricky. You see people coming and watching. You have a lot of people coming and you have a lot of viewers. Then you are not really sure. But when I flipped to Zoom, I saw the number of people who came for my own thing. Maybe I had like 30 or 100 or 200 viewers for my video or for my life. But actually, the people who came to the virtual session were like five, two, three or one in number. So then that shows you the situation. I started working with a marketing and strategy company at the end of 2020. Because from April of 2020 I started teaching live on Instagram. Then the holy month of Ramadan came and I took a break and later started with the park. The people online are different from the park people. That was my neighbourhood for example. So in order to get customers, I used Facebook groups of the neighbourhood, I stapled flyers in the park area or on the streets so that people can come to my classes. So there was a hustle and a struggle. I was trying to get customers or members from anywhere. After I finished the park season, I had to build up the virtual sessions again. So this is when I teamed up with this marketing agency so that we can stimulate interest through Facebook and Instagram. It’s not easy to bring customers. You have to offer a lot of free things. So like my first class is free and I have a Facebook group where I go live every week. The test is always about what is coming up because I’m launching a fitness program in January. I did it on myself during the pandemic when I stopped practising and then built up the practice again. It started with zero pounds to five and ten pounds. So I said, let’s do this fitness program. I tested it on myself. So now we will see. It’s launching in January and I’m very excited. It’s geared towards women building a habit and practice and so on. This is why as well the reason why I teamed with the marketing agency. So really in order to stimulate and bring clients, there is not one formula. We have to use every idea we have. We have to provide value so the people can know what you can do, if you are good or bad, if you are worth it or what’s happening. That’s why the Instagram lives really helped in giving me exposure. So people can see that not only at the studio but they can see what you can offer and do from anywhere with their family or friends and everyone. The word of mouth plays a good role here. But it’s not an easy learn, especially because everyone is teaching online now. There are big studios that are offering for peanuts. So the competition here is very difficult. You have to keep going and not give up. It is easy to give up but ups and downs will happen. That is what I am going to say. Just keep going.

Having to deal with all the changes and also shifting a business model is challenging. Years ago we didn’t think that physical activity and exercise would move to a virtual reality. It needs some push and a community around us to create this awareness, to encourage us and for us to embrace and have this mindset. Yes one can practice what they love even though the platform and the environment has changed. That’s okay because we are going to live somehow. We have introduced the digital world to our life and it’s no harm if we try to derive some benefits for our sanity, our mindfulness and health, while we are living and working from home. We can continue to do what we love and take part in our hobbies. The tools have changed but you tried to figure out the best tools to execute your strategy with the marketing department and create communications or brand awareness. It won’t be easy for the user or the client who loves yoga to realise that there is a platform for them. If they resonate what you are bringing to them that would be a success. We doubted for many years that it would happen but now as you mentioned we are already there and we are moving forward. I am sure that we keep learning as you said and even if we fail we cannot call them failure. It’s the way of perfecting what works best for the businesses that we are trying to build. I would wish to show my best in any endeavour. So you mentioned a little bit about the competition and how they are doing. Do you work in communities together? Tell me a little bit about this area and how are your customers engaged with all the synergies and collaborations that are happening?

Malak: We have a lot of talk between us teachers. I have friends of course and some of us teamed up and made a platform to teach online. We are working on hosting some lives, so that we can talk about our experience and how we are doing it. There are some other studios that teamed up as well to discuss the effect of the lockdown and how they can work with the government in order to open and save the whole industry. When you look at the small scale with teachers like me, we are all doing the same thing. We are all promoting our classes, we are all hustling and we are all trying to keep it as affordable as possible for our clients or members or so on.

The competition or the struggle comes from big studios who offer you a month for 10 dollars with a variety of classes a day. Then you look at your offering which is like four or five classes a week by yourself but you are not charging 10 dollars. But what we are seeing between us and the way we are working with the clients, we are all offering the “Pay-what-you-can”, “Weekend-Trade” or “Monthly subscriptions”. I have to tell you that there are clients who pay you more than what you expect. So it balances the one who cannot pay for example with someone who can pay you more.

This is good when you have different streams of members, like the ones who are still working and the others as well. Because a lot of people lost their jobs. The one who is still working can afford the sessions and they keep me going. You also have the ones where they pay what they can or trade or so on. So from my community of teachers, we are all doing the same thing because we all follow each other and we are all talking or motivating each other to keep going. I feel there will be a lot of collaborations in summer. We are in winter in Toronto now and it’s really cold outside. It’s really tough. We cannot really collaborate in person because of the lockdown and the procedures and so on. But we are working on a lot of collaborations in the summer so that we can get creative with our offerings and we can do different stuff. The members and the clients are actually appreciative. The level of complaints before and after the pandemic is a lot less truly, at least in my experience. So this is something as well, that we have to mention.

I think it brought a compassionate element in us and we are all able to relate and see others from their perspective. People started to engage and listen more. This is a new factor that has been introduced to our life. All conversations revolve around this nowadays and the only thing people talk about is, “How to deal and overcome all the challenges we have in our daily life?”. So you mentioned that there are projects that are going to happen in summer. So I want to ask a little bit further if you can dive deep and give me some scoops or insights on what you have for the coming future and the Malak Sharaf Movement. What are your plans for the coming few months?

Malak: Let’s start with the coming few months. It’s winter and the lockdown is there as well. I am continuing with my weekly online offering. I’m also adding my new fitness program for women. Then come spring and the period after Ramadan, the holy month, because the holy month is downtime for me. So after the weather will be nicer, I will start working for the boot camp. That will be in summer as well and that would include both men and women. We are also planning some collaborations on doing some hosting with teachers, so that we can talk, explain and share knowledge with the members. There is another thing I am working on. There is a second program which will be online as well because I would like to keep that in-person and the online sessions going together, if possible. So for the online one, there would be two fitness programs. One would be launching in January and the other one would be launched in spring-summer and that would have more offerings. This is all geared towards women’s health, strength and cardio. As I mentioned, I am in the late thirties, we women have to take care of our health and we have to keep moving. This is a must and that’s my focus for my future plans and the present. So that’s it, focussing online and doing my park boot camp for the neighbourhood.

I read on your website that “Mindful Movement, Conscious breathing and Word connection and building” are the key practices that you focus on. These are all that defines all your value propositions and influence people who come and join the Yoga and other training sessions that you are offering. So for Malak Sharaf Movement to continue, can you tell me three things that you need help with?

Malak: The main help I would be required would be in reaching people. As I said, I teamed with the marketing Agency but there is need to bringing the client and working together. There is a need for more exposure. I really have issues with the pricing. I try to cater to my client’s needs. I really want to help as many people as possible. I really want women to take care of their health because us women, we always put ourselves at the end. Like, “I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do that” and then leave herself in the end. So I really need help in exposure, reaching and having more women to work with me and move. Other than that, working from home and doing the virtual stuff has been a really good thing. Thank you COVID 19 for the push to do it!

You are the first one to openly thank COVID on screen and that is a great thing because you see the bright side of what happened and how it shaped us to grow and adapt to the changes. We were comfortable in our zones and we repeated our daily activities out of habit. There are people who are growing and have the courage to follow their dreams. COVID has forced the reality that they were redundant or hesitant to accept. So there is no more fear or doubts. So let’s go ahead and do what we have never tried.

Malak: COVID reminded us of something really important, “Things can change, just like that, no matter if you make all the plans in the world”. I worked as a senior project manager and everything was based on a plan but it never stuck to the plan. COVID just reminded us that we never know what will happen tomorrow. I had a trip planned last year but I couldn’t, even though I had tickets, hotels and so on. So it was COVID that reminded me to appreciate the small things and it reminded me to just do it no matter what happens.

You are not only passionate about what you are doing but you enjoy teaching and empowering others. You inspire them to embrace and accept themselves.

About the Guest

As a former engineer, she spent years climbing the corporate ladder convincing herself that the “hustle” culture was the only way to live. Yoga and breath helped her through the corporate working years to manage her anxiety & insomnia. BARRE helped her manage and strengthen her lower back issues. In 2017, she finally listened to her inner voice and ventured into taking the 200 hours at Yoga Space to become a Yoga Teacher and start her business, Malak Sharaf Movement.

Website: https://www.malaksharaf.com/

The UN-registered nonprofit social initiative that helps small businesses and self-employed professionals to overcome the challenges of the pandemic.