Shoreline Times, @Yoga Girl brings a bit of the Caribbean to Madison

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March 23, 2015

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@Yoga Girl brings a bit of the Caribbean to Madison

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MADISON >> A few years before Instagram, Rachel Brathen was 17 years old when she took her first yoga class on a family vacation in Thailand.

While she enjoyed it, little did the teen from Sweden know that the experience would one day lead her to become an international Instagram sensation @yoga girl with 1.2 million followers, and the subject of Esquire magazine’s “The Women We Love of Instagram…”

Nor did she imagine the momentous influence yoga would eventually have on her daily life and those of her devoted followers worldwide. A “huge blessing,” she might say now.

Those fans who are used to seeing Brathen on their phones doing stand up paddleboard yoga in a bikini on an azure sea, can meet her in person in Madison at R.J. Julia Booksellers at 7 p.m., March 26. Yoga Girl, now 26, will introduce her lushly photographed book, part memoir and part healthy living guide, on her “Happiness Tour” in the U.S. The book has been called a “Caribbean vacation” you can fit in a purse.

With close to 5,000 inspirational Instagram posts detailing her daily life, Yoga Girl travels the globe teaching yoga and leading retreats, in addition to teaching stand up paddleboard yoga in Aruba with her husband. It’s easy to see why the lissome, tanned blonde has garnered followers worldwide, with striking and inspirational photos taken in paradise and posted on Instagram.

But there is more. Her story advocates the importance of living a positive, healthy lifestyle marked by self-acceptance, love and balance. However, her journey to this end was a long, winding road of self-discovery and healing.

Speaking with Brathen on the telephone at her home in Aruba, her open and relaxed demeanor reflected the same positive energy found in her book. Her easy laughter bubbled up at times, and her confidence and wisdom seemed palpable (though miles away) as she frankly discussed her chaotic upbringing.

A native of Sweden, Brathen experienced a great deal of painful family upheaval and trauma starting at the age of 2 and resulting in a period of destructive teenage behavior fueled by drugs and alcohol, she said.

“I grew up with lots of divorce, death and drama. I’ve had a total of 11 sisters and brothers, five related by blood and another six come and go. It’s sort of a chaotic way of growing up.”

Brathen described part of that troublesome time in her book: “At high school graduation in Sweden, everybody was there in the grass signing one another’s graduation hats, hugging and singing. I sat in my friend’s old Volvo parked in the back of the parking lot, drinking vodka straight from the bottle and wishing for it all to be over.”

When asked what gave her the strength and courage to seek a more peaceful, happy life, she replied, “It was the contrast of never having that in my entire life. The second I realized that I wanted something else, I was immediately seeking that. A place of calm. I was missing it my whole life.”

What followed was the beginning of Brathen’s brave journey back to her true self, initiated by a stay at a therapeutic meditation retreat at 18 arranged by her mother.

“My mom could have thrown me out of the house. She could have let me clean up my own mess. She could have given up on me completely. But she didn’t.”

Brathen learned how to “quiet her mind” for the first time through meditation and finally worked through the issues of her painful past with therapeutic sessions leaving the retreat with a radically different perspective on her life and yearning for happiness, balance and peace.

After her stay at the retreat, Brathen traveled to Costa Rica with friends and became so taken with the exotic land that she decided to call it home. She described why she was so attracted to Costa Rica, “It’s a very spiritually awake country. There’s tons of yoga and meditation centers, and people are drawn there for that reason. I ended up immediately connecting with a huge amount of people who were on the same type of path. For me, it was more about connecting with people and realizing that I was not alone with the thoughts and ideas that I had about the world.”

She spent several years in Costa Rica where she lived a very simple life, rediscovered yoga, and found a true sense of happiness within herself.

But, it was during a family vacation to Aruba that she came face to face with her future. Brathen had gone to a shop to buy a surfboard where she met the love of her life, Dennis Schoneveld. After spending only five days together, she packed up her bags in Costa Rica and moved to Aruba where after four and a half years together, she and Schoneveld married.

In Aruba, Brathen focused on becoming a yoga instructor and went from teaching small yoga classes on the beach to working as an in-house yoga instructor at an island hotel. After two years, her schedule grew exponentially, offering classes such as restorative yoga, meditation and SUP yoga, (stand up paddleboard yoga), a sometimes acrobatic-appearing practice of yoga, of which Brathen is considered a pioneer. (Some of us would not try her moves on a mat!)

Brathen said that she’s really looking forward to meeting people on her book tour who don’t practice yoga yet and hopes to inspire people.

“Yoga is a very accessible tool to use every day to find that place of self-love. I think there are many ways of getting there, but I think that yoga is a healing, non-threatening way of entering that path. It can be a workout, and it makes you flexible and strong.

“People will come to me and want to do handstands which look cool, but when you get to the practice of yoga, you actually learn how to breathe and meditation is a huge part of that as well.”

Laughing, Brathen recalls some of the more unusual places she’s taught, “Wow, I’ve taught impromptu, spontaneous, random classes in airports, mountaintops, in snow, and in Africa. You don’t even need a mat anymore. You just need a smooth surface, a beach or a park. You can really practice anywhere. The only place I haven’t been yet to teach is Australia.”

Brathen always had a Facebook page that she used primarily to connect with her students in Aruba, and decided to add an Instagram account which, unbeknownst to her at the time, would make her an international internet star.

At first, Brathen posted little pieces of her life showing yoga on the beach, favorite foods and travels, but one day she used her page to share her feelings about a particularly difficult day, and the response she received was astonishing. People communicated by sharing their own experiences and feelings, and Brathen realized that she had truly connected with others seeking inspiration.

She found that as she shared more of her personal life, her Instagram following increased.

“To my followers, I hope that I offer something human and real. I find that social media is taking over everything now. Our phones are always with us, and I think it affects us more than we like to think. The youth are all on social media, and it affects how you feel about yourself and how you view the world.

“If everything is supermodels, pop stars and celebrities, and everything is so perfect all the time…it’s unattainable. I’m trying at least to be a contrast to that. Something more real that I can share. That it’s ok to share your weaknesses, your insecurities or that you’re happy, too. It’s ok to be human.” Brathen explained.

As she prepares for a two month tour of the U.S., which includes book signings and yoga workshops, Brathen reflected on why she wanted to share her story with the world.

“I wanted to share something more substantial. I’ve been lucky or unlucky, depending on how you look at it, to experience a lot of heavy things, and I’ve traveled the world since I was a teenager.

“I feel sometimes that social media can be so superficial, and I try my best to make it more in depth. To make it mean something more. Having a chance to write a book and actually tell my story…it was a huge blessing.”

For more information about Rachel Brathen follow her on Instagram, @yoga_girl or www.rachelbrathen.com To get books signed as there is a waiting list call R.J. Julia Booksellers at 203-245-3959.