July 18, 2015
Handstands in paradise: Instagram phenomenon Rachel Brathen, aka Yoga Girl, on keeping it real, despite her perfect-looking life
There is no shortage of ‘yoga girls’ on Instagram, but 26-year-old Swedish-born Rachel Brathen has 1.4 million followers
‘When I started three or four years ago, there wasn’t a lot of yoga on Instagram. It exploded and all of a sudden there were these yoga girls everywhere and everything just looked so,’ said Rachel Brathen
On the face of it, it’s difficult to fathom where ordinary mortals are supposed to start with the book Yoga Girl (‘as seen on Instagram’), a manual for ‘finding happiness, cultivating balance and living with your heart wide open.’
Especially when the cover shows Yoga Girl in her signature pose – a combination of handstand and splits.
For most of us, that’s realistically one for the next life. Plus she’s doing it on a paradise island, smiling effortlessly. She might as well have stepped off Mount Olympus.
A flick through her Instagram – with 1.4 million followers, the largest yoga account in the world – reveals more of the same.
See her retrieving a sand dollar from the azure shallows of Aruba (home).
Or on a stand-up paddleboard, in a bikini. Only she’s not standing up, she’s upside down in headstand lotus – which is tricky enough on dry land.
There is no shortage of ‘yoga girls’ on Instagram, but 26-year-old Swedish-born Rachel Brathen is a phenomenon.
The reason why people connect with her is not for the stunning holiday island photography or the fitspiration, it’s for her honesty about her life, which is very far from perfect.
Rachel on the beach near her home on the Caribbean island of Aruba.
For the past four years she has chronicled it all on social media, and now in her book, which is part yoga ‘how-to’, part memoir.
She writes not only to inspire (‘Be realistic. Plan for a miracle’) but to share down days and body insecurities: ‘I’m feeling tired and inadequate today’, she begins one post.
More searingly, she also talks about death, intense grief, her fractured family and piecing her life back together after a traumatic childhood.
Take this post, for example, from March, which accompanied an idyllic-looking Aruban sunset (glass of champagne, two pairs of bare feet): ‘I think about everything that has come my way during these past 12 months.
‘I travelled to over 30 different countries, my best friend died in a car crash, I had surgery, I married the love of my life, my grandmother passed away, we went on the most amazing honeymoon, our baby Sgt Pepper [their dog] died unexpectedly, I wrote and published a book, my mother tried to commit suicide, I got to relive pain from my past that I didn’t know still existed within me…’
But with characteristic Yoga Girl resilience, there’s always a lesson.
‘Basically life keeps unfolding and happening in exactly the way it needs to. And in the midst of it all I get to experience such overwhelming love, I can barely believe that this grand adventure is all mine.’
Speaking on Skype from Texas where she is midway through her book tour, Rachel reflects on that post, which was ‘liked’ by 36,000 people.
‘It was a really intense year, a lot of high highs and a lot of low lows. I think for many people 2014 was a rough one.
‘I decided to be honest and share that, as opposed to pretending everything was great when it clearly wasn’t.’
Her mother is now in recovery, says Rachel, although it’s a constant struggle with depression.
Losing her best friend Andrea, who was due to be her bridesmaid and whose car crashed just as Rachel herself was having an operation for an emergency appendectomy, was ‘the worst thing I have ever had to go through’.
But she insists that much good has come out of it, namely that people now come to her classes ‘through grief, because they have lost someone and have the courage to be honest in public with their pain as I was with mine’.
Rachel grew up on the island of Lidingo just outside Stockholm and after high school bought a ticket to Costa Rica, to spend time improving her Spanish. Everyone expected her to stay for only a few weeks, but she never went back.
‘I lived in a hut in the jungle for three years – I was every parent’s dream,’ she chuckles.
It was there that she discovered yoga, which cured her back pain caused by scoliosis.
On a short hop to Aruba in 2010 she met Dennis Schoneveld, 29, a handsome shaggy-haired Dutch Aruban who worked in a surf shop.
Their wedding at Lejondal Castle, Sweden, in July 2014
Having spent only five days with each other, they moved in together on the island, with Rachel – and later Dennis – training as a yoga teacher.
The video of their wedding in a Swedish castle, Rachel looking every inch the boho Persephone, has been viewed on YouTube almost 92,000 times.
Even their Italian greyhound Ringo the Gringo has an Instagram following of 86,000 and counting.
It’s surprising, given that Rachel’s Instagram consists almost solely of to-die-for pictures showing her athletic body in exotic locations (her videographer and photographer Ben Kane always travels with her) that she is vehemently opposed to the lookist culture of image sharing sites.
‘On social media everybody shares only perfect things, the really good angles or the filtered photos, it’s like a highlight showreel of all the great moments – we never share the normal or the sad. But sometimes those times can be inspiring as well.
‘When I started three or four years ago, there wasn’t a lot of yoga on Instagram.
‘It exploded and all of a sudden there were these yoga girls everywhere and everything just looked so – not fake, but so perfect all the time.
‘Every girl is a skinny blonde in yoga pants, perfect-looking and beautifully made-up. That’s not what yoga looks like for most people.’
I point out that most of us don’t look much like Rachel either and would struggle with a one-handed handstand.
‘I like to share the path to those poses as well,’ she counters.
‘When I started I couldn’t touch my toes and was in so much back pain I was hospitalised at times. It takes time and patience.’
She stresses that her videos and classes cater more for beginners.
The watershed moment came in 2012, when she took pictures of her cellulite and her stomach and posted them on Instagram with the hashtag #loveyourbodyloveyoursoul in order to show parts of herself she was insecure about.
While she has a natural beauty and the body of an athlete, Rachel – a vegetarian with a fondness for pancakes and champagne cocktails – is far from thigh-gap thin.
‘I encouraged people, instead of sharing the perfect photo, to share the opposite – tell the world what you consider a flaw and why.
‘A lot of people started sharing their stuff. It was really liberating and community-building.’
She discovered that the more she shared ‘the real parts’ of herself, the more people responded and her following grew. It’s evidently a winning formula and brands such as Nike are courting her constantly.
She and Dennis turn down all endorsement requests – potentially worth many thousands of dollars.
‘It hasn’t felt genuine or real enough [yet]. I don’t want to push yoga pants down people’s throats,’ she says.
‘Right now we can make a living and have a good life just from the realness of having people come to class.’
Their current focus is on setting up a charity, running social projects with a yoga component.
‘Then we could do more [work with brands] with a higher purpose.’
Her reception in the U.S., where Yoga Girl has made The New York Times bestseller list, has been nothing short of rock-star rapturous.
Walkies, Aruba style. Rachel is recognised wherever she goes. Book signings take all day because fans – some of whom have flown in from other U.S. states – queue around the block
She is recognised wherever she goes. Book signings take all day because fans – some of whom have flown in from other U.S. states – queue around the block.
Her workshops are held in concert venues where more than 600 eager yogis crowd mat-to-mat.
There are cheers when she walks out on stage. But she bats away any inference that she thrives on the adulation.
‘Ringo is the first one out and usually people love him more than they love me.’
Many of her fans are young women and ‘lots of mothers and daughters’ but there are also a fair few men.
Rachel says that, for 25 per cent of people, it’s their first ever yoga class. She has hit on the Holy Grail of instructors – attracting newcomers to the mindful practice that is such a powerful antidote to the wired modern world. How has she done it?
‘My social media platform is pretty broad – a lot of travel, beach vibes, health and happiness and a lot of raw honesty in there – many people follow just to read what I write and are not into yoga at all.
‘Over time they become interested and try their first class. People say every day they got into yoga thanks to this Instagram account, which is amazing.’
As far as the yoga establishment is concerned, Rachel has sprung out of nowhere. She is prolific on social media, which is seen as at odds with spiritual practice.
She doesn’t namedrop her teachers and gurus – a favourite yogic pastime. And – cardinal sin – she has only been to India once, as a teenager, on holiday (‘I haven’t felt the need to go [again] yet’). Has she encountered any snobbery? She gives a snort of recognition.
Practising yoga in Aruba. ‘When I started I couldn’t touch my toes and was in so much back pain I was hospitalised at times. It takes time and patience,’ said Rachel
‘I have paid my dues,’ she says wearily. ‘Anyone who knows my story knows that.
‘I have been doing this for a long time, since way before Facebook or Instagram, and my teaching is not based on anything superficial. It’s just how I got my audience to grow.’
And grow it has. She now receives more than 500 messages a day.
‘I get emails with everything from “my wrists hurt in down dog” to “I’m sitting in the bathtub with a razor and don’t want to live.”’
She answers as best she can by uploading responses to frequently asked questions to YouTube.
A 16-year-old with an eating disorder has asked: ‘How did you get this perfect life and body and make everything fall into place? How can you love yourself if you are really ugly?’
Rachel is quick to encourage her, and others like her, not to listen to those self-destructive thought loops, to follow their passions, love themselves and ‘get off the internet and connect with real people’.
Is she worried that vulnerable girls think she has all the answers?
‘I know I’m not the answer,’ she says emphatically.
‘I’m not a therapist – I can’t just step in. I can inspire and motivate as much as I can, but I struggle with that.’
She is in the process of putting together a community of professionals to whom she can refer these cries for help.
She believes that just as yoga helped her, it can help other young women get back in tune with their bodies, ‘as opposed to seeing all these flaws and reasons why it should be better or thinner.
Practising yoga in Costa Rica. ‘My social media platform is pretty broad – a lot of travel, beach vibes, health and happiness and a lot of raw honesty in there,’ said Rachel
‘Just to get on the mat and breathe and move and see the potential and power that the body has, as opposed to only [focusing on] what it looks like.’
However, it’s clear from the catch in her throat that she feels their pain. Rachel’s parents split up when she was two and her mother, Margareta, fell in love with a Swedish fighter pilot, Stefan, who she planned to marry.
Their world was shattered when he was killed in a plane crash when Rachel was five.
‘His death was the defining moment in my life,’ she writes in her book.
‘My mother lost the love of her life; my little brother and I lost our stepdad.
‘The years that followed were extremely dark and difficult, and even though my mum did her best to take care of us, I had to grow up fast.’
Margareta was too fragile to respond to her daughter’s repeated question of ‘Where did he go?’
It was left to an adult, whom Rachel doesn’t remember, to explain that Stefan loved Rachel and her brother Ludvig so much that he was hurrying home to see them.
‘But he flew too fast and crashed his plane, so now he is in heaven and you have to be strong for your mother.’
The words scarred her deeply. She was looking for comfort but instead became convinced it was all her fault: ‘If it hadn’t been for me, he would still be here, and my mum wouldn’t be sad all the time.’
Rachel says she has only fragments of memories between the ages of five and ten.
‘Massive trauma is simply too much for our hearts to handle and the mind shuts down to protect us.’
Rachel leading a yoga class in Los Angeles. ‘I have been doing this for a long time, since way before Facebook or Instagram, and my teaching is not based on anything superficial,’ she said
In one fragment, she recalls hearing screaming and an ambulance at her sixth birthday party, then being whisked off to live with her father.
‘I remember going to see my mum in hospital, lots of crying and her hugging me so hard I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t find the suicide letters she left until much later.’
Both parents had remarried by the time Rachel was 12 and went on to have two more daughters each.
Life seemed more settled but divorce soon struck again on both sides. This time Rachel was angry and took it upon herself to be responsible for her sisters’ wellbeing as well as keeping an eye on her mother.
But when the pressure became too much she started ‘turning away from my family and towards other things. I couldn’t manage the chaos I felt within and at home, so I started creating more of it wherever I went.’
As teen rebellions go, Rachel’s derailment was pretty spectacular.
There was smoking, running away, shoplifting, drinking so much she was hospitalised at 13, drugs, a night in jail for drunk driving, getting a tattoo to spite her father, having a boyfriend who beat her, passing out drunk in the snow, telling her mother she hated her.
‘I was known as the go-to girl at school if you wanted to party. I was angry and insecure, doing all I could to draw attention to myself.’
What she doesn’t mention in the book, but told a Swedish TV interviewer, is that she also self-harmed and was obsessed with her weight.
At the age of 18 she’d had enough of herself, and so had her mother.
Twist and pout. ‘I was known as the go-to girl at school if you wanted to party. I was angry and insecure, doing all I could to draw attention to myself,’ she said
‘She could have thrown me out of the house and given up on me completely, but she didn’t.’
Instead, Margareta sent her daughter to a Swedish therapeutic meditation retreat based on the teachings of Indian mystic Osho.
After all, nothing else had worked and Margareta, who subsequently took on the spiritual name Shama, had been helped by it herself.
Astonishingly, Rachel didn’t run away.
‘It was a huge shock but faced with the reality of my situation – that I was really unhappy and on this horrible path towards goodness knows where – I realised immediately that this was not what I wanted my life to be.’
Integral to the retreat was confronting her past.
‘It changed my life for sure.’
She devoured spiritual books, meditated daily, turned her back on the path expected of her – a career in ‘something really big, like law or medicine’ – and got on a plane to Costa Rica, as far away as possible. This time in her life was pivotal.
‘It was a process, but a lot of it was dealing with my past. If your life is full of fear, judgment and preconceptions about yourself, the second you let go of all that, you realise there’s a lot of potential in [you].
‘For me it was about deciding to live the way I wanted as opposed to the way people expected me to.’
Was she running away?
‘In the beginning, probably. I believe that if you are struggling where you are, if your environment is not supportive of you, you have to physically remove yourself.
‘Now I can go back to Sweden and I’m totally fine, I can live there.’
Meditation and yoga have given Rachel the mental and emotional tools to manage her past, as well as the brickbats that life still throws.
Her mother’s suicide attempt last year took Rachel right back to her lost six-year-old self.
‘You know, when you think you are done with something, and you are absolutely not, the universe just has to remind you a little bit,’ she reflects with a wry smile.
It helped her to discover that three other girls on the yoga retreat she was leading at the time had gone through something similar recently and that she was not alone.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the thousands of miles between them, Rachel and Shama, who has recently divorced again, are ‘close friends’.
Has Rachel apologised for causing her mother so much grief as a teenager?
‘We have both apologised to each other,’ she says emphatically. ‘There are two sides to everything we have been through and we have moved on as a family.’
At Rachel’s wedding, Shama gave Rachel and Dennis necklaces in the shape of infinity symbols, fashioned out of her and Stefan’s engagement rings.
‘She gave a beautiful speech and said love can’t be lost, but it can be recycled. It’s been very healing for her to do that.’
Rachel is healing, too. When I ask what makes her feel secure she replies Dennis and her dogs – they have three, and also run an animal rehoming centre in Aruba, Sgt Pepper’s Friends.
Rachel practising paddleboard yoga: ‘Handstands are empowering,’ she says. ‘It’s about changing your perspective’
Her feet are firmly planted on the ground in a way that they never were during her childhood – even though she spends a lot of time standing on her hands.
They live a relatively simple life, eating healthily and trying not to break their rule of ‘no social media before 10am’.
Sometimes she wishes she’d never posted her personal pain for all the world to read.
‘I know I’m crazy sharing something human on such a superficial platform,’ she told her followers earlier this year.
‘Absolutely nuts sharing my beating heart with a world that only cares about the Kardashians, thigh gaps and discounted weight-loss teas.
‘Everyone tries so hard to show how perfect their lives are on Instagram and here I am telling 1.3 million people how I am not.
‘But then I remember… There are people who long for the relief of knowing that other people feel pain too, that not everyone is perfect, and not everything is as it seems.’
It couldn’t be a better description of Rachel herself. She is perfect for being imperfect and brave enough to share it.