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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

FIELD OF DREAMS

Fitness entrepreneur seizes on hot new trend

By Sharon Aschaiek
Editor


Some people say its too hot, some say not hot enough," Natalia Brajak Matthews.

We know she's definitely not talking about the weather. Rather, Matthews is talking about a business endeavour that has proven to be a very hot idea.

She is the founder of Bikram Yoga Toronto, at 25 Merton St., which teaches a system of 26 yoga postures performed in a room heated to about 40*C. In this intense 90-minute routine, developed in India in the '60s, every part of the body is exercised, and your body experiences a prolonged sweat.

"The skin is the body's largest organ. Through sweating, you can eliminate a lot of toxins," says Matthews, 31. "It's an amazing way to cleanse your body."
Through the intense sweating induced by bikram yoga, "you can eliminate a lot of toxins. It's an amazing way to cleanse your body," says Natalia Brajak Matthews, co-founder of Bikram Yoga Toronto. (Photo, Bikram Yoga Toronto)


Her website, www.bikramyogatoronto.com, lists a host of benefits that can be derived from the practice, which include: detoxification and expulsion of waste chemicals; an acceleration of metabolic processes; increased blood flow in the body, and a feeling of relaxation and well-being.

The body and mind buzz participants get from bikram yoga is exactly what drew Matthews to the profession in the first place. In 1997, with her gym membership having just expired, a friend took her to a class at the Bikram Yoga College of India in the Annex, the first such studio in Canada one of the very few offering it at the time. She took to it instantly.

"I loved the physicality, the completeness of how it felt, and because it had what was missing at the gym -- it focused on the emotional and spiritual body."

It was so enjoyable, that it prompted Matthews to leave her job in securities at Canada Trust and pursue a lifelong interest in self-employment.

She cashed in all of her savings and her RRSPs, and in the spring of 1999, headed to Los Angeles to undergo a nine-week, $4,000 US (it now costs $5,500 US) training program. She estimates that, with the cost of her flight, accommodation and food, she spent about $12,000 in total -- but she doesn't have a single regret.

"I loved it -- it was the best thing I could have done. It was very intensive, and you're with the same

50 people all the time, which was intimate. I learned a lot about the postures."

But while she became educated about the practice, she still had a lot to learn about starting her own business.

At first, she taught at the same Annex studio where she first discovered it. A year and a half later, she decided to start teaching out of her own home, converting a room in her then two-bedroom Toronto apartment into a mini studio with two space heaters and a mirrored wall.

But running her own full-fledged studio was still a dream. She began searching for a suitable space, and faced many confused landlords before settling on the 2,500-sq.-ft. Merton Street studio.

"Hardly anyone knew what bikram yoga was," she says. "You have to practise in a heated room, but most landlords didn't get it."

She also got to work on what turned into on of the biggest challenges for someone with no business background: creating a business plan.

"I learned along the way!" she says. "The Internet came in handy. A year and a half later, it was done."

Along the way, she'd also forged a partnership with Ted Grand, a Toronto trainer on the same path as Matthews. In the spring of 2001, they saw their hard work pay off.

"We pooled our resources, created an e-mail list about the opening, took out ad in Now magazine," she says. "It was well-received from beginning."

The classes immediately struck a chord with a health-conscious public looking to get in on one of the newest fitness trends. And the growing demand since then has led to a handful of other bikram yoga studios popping up around the

city , increasing competition for Matthews. She has since opened a second studio, at 2640 Bristol Circle in Oakville (www.bikramyogaoakville.com).

Matthew's journey has had its shares of ups and downs. Managing the business side of it required a huge learning curve, and she admits much of her day-to-day work features the usual stresses of running a business: paying bills, making phone calls and sending e-mails, and meeting deadlines. She also estimates that the start-up cost for the first studio was about $150,000, which included renovating, purchasing furniture, rent, advertising and marketing.

But at the same time, the healing effect of performing bikram yoga, and the joy she gets from sharing it with others, has been highly rewarding.



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