If you google Shaeeda Sween, images of a well-made-up fashionista will pop up on your screen. And if you visit her social media platforms on Instagram and Facebook @westindianbella you will be greeted by stylish images of her in various yoga poses, with her workout clothes matching her hijabs and headwraps and not an eyelash out of place.
Sween has been a yoga instructor for the past four years – a love affair that was born out of the sudden and heartbreaking end of another.
“In March 2017 I was a very dark place in my life. My boyfriend had broken up with me via a text message. Who does that? Imagine I was looking at him as my future husband. I was emotionally and mentally damaged,” Sween said.
As she was trying to cope with her heartache, an online image of a woman doing a head stand caught her attention and it looked calming. She attempted to do it but couldn’t.
“I googled head stands and found yoga. I was intrigued. I followed the yoga prep poses and was able to do the head stand in two weeks.”
She wanted to do more and practised the split until she was able to do it.
“I fell in love with yoga and had to get into it. I did research, looked for an accredited school and purchased an package online. So you see, in the end it all it worked out perfectly. If he (her ex-boyfriend) hadn’t done what he did I would have been focusing on a wedding instead.
Sween, 36, teaches Vinyasa yoga, a style of yoga that focuses on flexibility. It is characterised by stringing poses together so that each one moves seamlessly into another. She completed her certificate in a year from Aura Wellness in the US and has been continually updating her training.
“Every two years instructors are expected to update. I chose Vinyasa because I didn’t want anything too traditional. I just wanted to inspire women to lose weight over time and get the benefit of flexibility.”
After that the former executive assistant and logistics co-ordinator at a government ministry gave up her eight-to-four job and opened a studio on Henry Street, Port of Spain.
“I wanted to do something that I loved and that could pay the bills. I also did fashion blogging, but it was not an income earner.”
With so many women seeking ways in which to practise self care, Sween was able to attract them with her flexibility plan.
“That’s how I sell it – improved flexibility in three months. I don’t have a dance or gymnastics background and I was able to do it, so I really push women to be flexible and try to make them feel comfortable about themselves, whatever their age. I let them know consistency is key.” She places no age limit on who can join her classes, with the youngest in her class being eight. She also offers training for men on a one-on-one basis.
Last year when she was forced to close the studio because of the pandemic, Sween panicked because she was anticipating a financial rough patch.
“But then I saw everyone offering online classes and I decided to take mine online. It was one of the most progressive things I’ve ever done. It was more accessible and convenient for people,” and opened the doors to international students from London, Abu Dhabi, Lebanon, Iraq, and the US. She has had to add an additional class to accommodate the demand.
Sween uses the Zoom platform for her classes.
“I now have three classes with over 40 students in total. One for moms on Thursday at 10 am, flexibility on Wednesday at 7 pm, and international Saturday flexibility class at 7 am. There are a few locals in the Saturday class, but the majority are international students. I also offer complimentary Sunday at 5 pm. It’s my way of giving back.”
The international students, she said, started contacting her after she posted photos of herself on Instagram. They were screenshotted and shared to the Inflexible Yogi Instagram page.
“That page has 1.2 million followers and opened me up to more people from around the world. Also, they (Inflexible Yogi) emailed asking if I wanted to be part of a book they were publishing called Yoga for Inflexible People. It is sold on Amazon and my photos are on page 13. One of them is me doing the The Lord of The Dance pose,” she beamed.
She said the fact that she is a Muslim was what may have attracted the attention of her Middle Eastern students. But they were not the only ones paying attention. In 2019 she found love again with someone from the US whom she met on social media.
“He was on Instagram, saw my pics and ‘liked’ them. He looked cute and I ‘liked’ his pics back. He sent me a private message saying ‘great progress’ and ‘you inspire me.’ We got into a relationship and in December 2019 he came to TT to see me. He met my family and proposed to me on Maracas beach. Soon after he left, the borders were closed so he’s there and I am here.”
As soon as she can, she plans to get married and move to the US to begin a new chapter of her life in her new yoga studio. She also has a retirement plan in place – making flexibility videos and selling them online. As she looks back on the past four years of her life she sees her pain from a different perspective.
“It hurt, but it was the beginning of something great.”