Neli Merris has been a mainstay on the Abu Dhabi yoga scene since she first arrived 12 years ago. Now the Bulgaria-born yoga teacher, soundworker and mother-of-two has joined forces with two Emirati sisters to open Seven Wellness on Reem Island.
“I taught one of the sisters yoga and it’s how we got together, but they had been working on this project for two years before I met them and so it was all in their head,” Merris explains.
It’s the first center of its kind for the island community. The setting is idyllic, looking out on to mangroves from the back of Marina Bay 1, by the promenade in an area dubbed City of Lights. “I love that it’s here on Reem Island,” says Merris.
A member of Lightworkers Abu Dhabi, a group comprising dozens of wellness practitioners, she also founded Raw Yoga (which she has now stepped away from) and was part of the team that brought Yogafest to Abu Dhabi in 2019.
Merris and her partners wanted to create an urban retreat, form a community and offer affordable classes at around 60dh a time. And the light and airy center – think wicker, bamboo, colourful tiles and lots of plants – fits the bill. Look left on entering and you will find a vegan bar offering superfood drinks, smoothies and kombucha. A cosy sitting area beckons to the right, while floor-to-ceiling windows cast a soothing light in the upstairs yoga room. Downstairs, there are rooms for massage, reiki, reflexology, acupuncture and one-on-one sessions.
“The intention is that for people to walk through this door and feel the healing process already happening, to elevate the vibration of this place to such a level that just being here feels like healing,” explains Merris. “Just coming here and sitting, doing nothing, not even drinking the mushroom coffee.”
There are plans for a variety of yoga and meditation classes, sound healing sessions and even documentary nights. Most of the teachers will be based in Abu Dhabi, augmented by international instructors dropping in to offer training and instruction in everything from Ayurvedic medicine to Kriya yoga to Tai Chi. Seven Wellness will also offer the first 5Rhythms dance classes in the capital, swing baby yoga and prenatal sound healing sessions. And at lunch-time, quick-fix mobility drop-ins will target hunched over desk workers.
“I want to really share with everybody that it’s not just a movement, it’s the mindset,” says Merris. “It’s the breath. It’s how you are with people. Who are the people you’re surrounded with? It’s what you put on your body, what you put in your body, all those things. Everything that contributes to your well-being.”
There are a number of reasons behind the center’s name: Not only will it be open seven days a week, but the number seven has special symbolism in multiple areas and religions, including Islam.
“For me, it’s really the seven main chakras,” explains Merris. “Seven is a very auspicious number. It’s always a beautiful number.”
The wellness scene in Abu Dhabi has exploded from a decade ago, when Merris was one of the only people teaching classes on the beach at the Corniche. A long-time vegan, she has witnessed the growth of the plant-based movement and in the last year, with the establishment of the Lightworkers Abu Dhabi, with more than 60 members, there has been even more of an energy shift.
“We’ve been really focused on anchoring that, on elevating the vibrational frequency of the whole place and just anchoring more love and light here,” she says.
People are gradually becoming much more conscious of the fact that they are not to be defined by their job or profession and they they create their own experiences, no matter where they are living or what is happening in their lives, says Merris.
“You come to the Lightworkers and it’s just love – literally love and acceptance. Everybody, when they see you, they see you at soul level. They don’t see your clothes, your shell. It really is going beyond.”
Ann Marie McQueen
Ann Marie McQueen is the founding editor-in-chief of Livehealthy and host of The Livehealthy Podcast. She is a veteran Canadian digital journalist who has worked in North America and the Middle East. Her past roles include features editor for The National, trends writer and columnist for the Canadian newspaper chain Sun Media, and correspondent for CBC Radio.