Saloni Kantaria Mathur is an arbitration lawyer turned fitness entrepreneur. In an age where technology is king, Saloni has found a way to fuse technology with high-quality fitness.
Your LinkedIn profile says you’re an arbitration lawyer at Herbert Smith. For those of us who have no understanding of the law, what is it you do exactly?
Until 2015, I was practicing as an international arbitration lawyer (with a focus on large-scale construction disputes).
International arbitration is a private form of dispute resolution between parties or individuals from different states conducted before an impartial tribunal consisting of 1 or 3 tribunal members. To further explain the type of disputes I focused on, here’s an example: a government signs a contract with a contractor to construct and commission a train within 5 years and the contractor takes 7 years to complete the construction and commissioning of the train. This means there’s delay on the project and if a loss has been made on this project, the government may then hire my law firm and ask us to file international arbitration proceedings against the contractor if the contractor does not agree to pay back any losses made by the government on this project.
In 2015, I took a break from the law so I could focus on my dream to build and develop my fitness studio, Reform Cycling and Strength Studio, which opened its doors in December of the same year.
Going through your personal history, I also saw that you played tennis in the 1990’s. Why tennis?
My dad introduced me to tennis from the age of 6 as he had a passion for tennis. His dream was that I would play for Kenya and continue to play throughout my life. I loved the game and loved spending time with my dad on the tennis court. After playing several junior tournaments in Kenya, in 1992, at the age of 11, I represented Kenya and continued to do so until I was 18. I also obtained a junior world ranking in this period. After playing in Kenya, I then went on to play division 1 tennis for Cornell University in the United States. I continue to play tennis and still compete in various leagues, but it’s now for fun and a way to meet new people.
Is this where your love for fitness begun?
The short answer is yes. I define fitness as keeping the body healthy by moving and staying strong. People can keep fit by playing sports, going for a walk or a run, swimming, going to the gym and working out on machines, attending fitness classes or even dancing. Initially, my fitness regime incorporated playing tennis all the time which I’ve been doing since I was 6. Over time, I have engaged in different forms of fitness other than tennis, but fitness has been incorporated into my everyday life since I was young and I thoroughly enjoy it. In fact, it feels completely foreign to sit all day long and not do any form of fitness.
Let’s talk about the studio, why the name reform?
Reform means some form of positive change whether that be physical or mental and that’s why I named my fitness studio Reform Cycling and Strength Studio. It’s a Kenyan brand which is why I put the colours of the Kenyan flag on our logo.
“…fitness has been incorporated into my everyday life since I was young and I thoroughly enjoy it.”
Was it your love for fitness that inspired you to begin Reform or was there something more to it?
Most successful business leaders say don’t start a business unless you have a passion for it. Money is a by-product and should not be the sole focus of running your business. I was getting paid very well at my law firm in Dubai as a senior associate but since 2012, I had been thinking about starting a class focused fitness studio concept in Nairobi. I had always loved group fitness exercise classes and there was an obvious gap in the Nairobi market for a high-quality fitness studio solely focused on a blend of cardio and strength-focused classes which integrated performance data technology into them. I went back and forth about leaving my job to do this but in 2015 I finally decided to take my chances and give my concept a go. I figured that if my concept failed, I could always go back to practicing law. My dream was to have a fitness studio offering a variety of technically focused cardio and strength themed classes where the young, elderly, healthy adults and aspiring or elite athletes could attend classes and incorporate performance data technology into it. I’m fortunate to say every one of these categories has come to Reform for classes. Whilst it is hard work running Reform and I sometimes feel that it is much harder than being a lawyer, I also have a greater sense of satisfaction seeing a concept I have a passion for come to life.
How many trainers do you have and are they all trained athletes?
We currently have 3 full-time instructors but are in the process of recruiting more instructors to teach specific classes that they have specialized in. One of our cycling instructors was with the Kenyan Riders before he joined the Reform team. However, all our instructors were trained by master cycling and BOSU instructors who came from London and Paris. I did this because the type of indoor cycling we offer is technical and incorporates performance data technology which nobody offers in East Africa, and BOSU is a new type of class to Kenya and we needed expertise from overseas to teach local instructors how to teach this class.
Are you one of the trainers?
I teach only barre and pilates classes from time to time as my focus is on managing Reform’s operations.
It’s been a year since Reform opened its doors, how’s it doing so far?
Reform’s doing very well and the word has spread very quickly in the Nairobi market about us. We have clients who are professionals who want to stay fit, outdoor cyclists who train with us and ladies in their 70’s who do classes such as pilates to focus on building their postural strength and improve their joint mobility. We even get visitors on holiday or business coming to do classes with us.
I try to keep things fresh at Reform by introducing typical high and low-intensity cardio and strength-focused classes which are not offered elsewhere in Nairobi. I accept most people don’t prioritize fitness in their daily schedules and so it’s important that our classes are fun. We don’t want our clients to necessarily feel like they’re exercising. We want them to look forward to it and incorporate it into their daily schedule.
Is there anything you’d like to achieve by the end of the year with regards to Reform?
My goal is to continue bringing more clients and to focus on expanding Reform into other locations outside of Kenya but I don’t want to rush this and compromise the quality of our services and the classes that we have right now.
“Each of our bodies is different and great instructors are ones who take the time to understand your body/goals/injuries so they can advise you on what to do during class.”
What’s your day-to-day workout routine?
I like to do something different every day. For example on Monday and Tuesday I play 2 hours of tennis, on Wednesday I do reformer pilates, on Thursday I like to focus on cardio for 45 minutes, on Saturday pilates again, and on Sunday barre. I don’t like doing the same routine every day as my body gets used to it and I get bored.
Is there any kind of workout routine you can’t stand?
Workouts which have no structure or logic, and ones that don’t focus on form or technique. Each of our bodies is different and great instructors are ones who take the time to understand your body/goals/injuries so they can advise you on what to do during class. At Reform, I take safety and form very seriously. We make sure we know if any of our clients have injuries so that we can advise them which exercises during class to stay away from or try.
Which workout has changed your body the most?
Pilates. I have had a back injury for several years now. I got introduced to pilates in 2002 and at first, I didn’t like it because it’s slow. I felt like I hadn’t got a “workout” by the time I left class because I didn’t sweat. Pilates focuses on control, improving core and postural muscle strength and strengthening smaller muscle groups that we typically don’t focus on in regular classes. Having seen a significant improvement in the condition of my back from continuously doing pilates for the last 16 years, my view is you need a strong core to do any form of fitness and pilates is, therefore, a necessity for everyone – young, old, athletes and adults simply trying to stay fit.
Working out takes discipline, what keeps you motivated?
I enjoy fitness first and foremost so it doesn’t take much to get me motivated to workout. I admit I have my lazy days when I don’t feel like doing anything but that’s normally once per week when my body is urging me to leave it alone! I say to Reform’s clients, “stick to the classes you enjoy then it won’t feel like you have to exercise but rather you want to exercise.” Don’t do anything you don’t enjoy because you won’t do it well.
“Balance is the key. I don’t believe in extremities. Learn to be able to balance your working life/family life / social life and incorporate exercise into your weekly schedule and preferably with a family member so that you spend time together and get fit at the same time.”
Saloni’s Philosophies of Life
Food: Don’t go to one extreme or another. Balance your diet so that it’s sustainable in the long run. Be sensible about what you consume. It never hurts to have a treat (junk food/desserts), just don’t make it a habit.
Gym: Go to the gym only if you will push yourself hard and use your time efficiently. Don’t go to the gym for the sake of being able to tell others you went to the gym. Be honest with yourself as your body is the only one being cheated.
Fitness: Do a form of fitness you enjoy: whether that’s sport/running/swimming/dancing / going to group fitness classes or the gym.
Health: Make sure you make time for your body each day. There’s plenty of evidence that exercise is no longer an option but a necessity for our bodies as we are sitting more, sleeping less, eating more junk food. If you don’t take care of your body and your health, it will catch up to you. Take at least 45 minutes to an hour a day for you to do any form of fitness you enjoy and call it “me time”.
- What do you hate most?
I don’t like fake and disloyal people i.e. people who say one thing to your face to please you and do another behind your back.
- If a movie about your life was written who would you want to play you?
Gina Torres (specifically because of her role in Suits).
- What’s your must-have fashion item?
Matching necklace and earrings
- When do you feel your best?
After playing tennis (as long as I’ve played well!)