July 23, 2015
The Telegraph, UK
Bad girl to Yoga Girl: How life changed for Instagram yoga sensation Rachel Brathen
Rachel Brathen has more than 1.5 million Instagram followers but her life hasn’t always been sun salutations at dawn on a Caribbean island. Photo: Ben Kane.
Instagram yoga sensation Rachel Brathen is, to an outsider at least, living the dream on the Caribbean island of Aruba with a handsome surfer husband, Dennis, and a super-healthy, outdoor existence. Her Yoga Girl Instagram account shows her, bikini-clad, doing handstands on a paddleboard in the sea or running down the beach at sunset with her dog, Ringo the Gringo (he has 86,000 Instagram followers of his own).
Yet for many of her 1.5 million followers, it’s not the glamorous and aspirational lifestyle that draws them in but the breathtakingly honest messages that accompany her pictures. Take this, for example, posted earlier this week beside a photograph of a signpost bearing the words “Epiphany, serendipity, glowing and grace”:
Within hours Yoga Girl’s post had received more than 30,000 likes. Why, though, would you share this kind of deeply personal information with strangers on social media?
I asked Rachel, 26, that very question when we spoke this week: she was preparing to fly to London to promote her book, Yoga Girl, which, with its mix of yoga know-how and healthy recipes, is already a New York Timesbestseller.
“People are looking for something genuine and I don’t hesitate to share the real stuff,” she says. “On social media everyone weighs 100lb, goes to the gym and is fulfilled. But no one’s life is like that really, not even a Victoria’s Secret model.”
Behind Rachel’s idyllic existence is, she insists, a girl with pain and insecurities, just like everyone else. As a teenager growing up in Stockholm, she agonised over her weight and fell off the rails in dramatic style. There were screaming rows with her parents, a drink driving offence, drugs, and a boyfriend who beat her up. “It could have been really bad,” she says.
At 18, her mother dispatched her on a week’s meditation course, an unusual choice, but exactly what Rachel needed. “In that week I realised there was something better out there than make-up and boys and alcohol,” she says.
For someone who shares the intimacies of her life three times a day on social media, Rachel comes across as surprisingly shy. She thinks hard before answering questions and at times her voice wavers, particularly when talking about her family.
Photo: Ben Kane
Her childhood was transient and unsettled, she says, with her parents divorcing when she was two. Her mother’s new lover died in a plane crash, and then both parents remarried and had two daughters each before divorcing again.
The meditation course that saved her had, she says, an instant calming effect. She later discovered yoga while travelling in Costa Rica. “Some people have that life changing epiphany with one yoga class but I didn’t,” she says. “It’s hard at first, you can’t do any of the poses or even breathe.”
As her interest grew, however, she found it relieved her chronic back pain and also strengthened her mentally. She met Dennis, who owns a surf shop, soon afterwards, on a family holiday to Aruba, and within days they were living together. Her parents supported the union from the start, even though she was just 21.
To occupy herself in her new life (she married Dennis in a Swedish castle last year), she qualified as a yoga teacher but it was quite by accident, she insists, that she became famous on Instagram. Her first post, a picture of her dog in 2012, got zero response. It was only when she began to share her (often negative) emotions that her popularity took off.
She attributes her success as a yoga teacher – her bi-montly retreats are always over-subscribed – to her vulnerability, something she shares with her classes. On Instagram last week she listed the yoga poses she’s currently struggling with, including camel, back bends and “Warrior 3”.
Photo: Matt Fricovsky
She understands the ”dangerous” responsibility that comes with being listened to by so many impressionable young people. She knows she can’t ”mess up”. Various companies ask her to endorse their products but she almost always refuses. “It’s all weight-loss stuff and detox teas that don’t work and suggest you’re not OK the way you are,” she says.
Every day she receives letters from young girls with eating disorders or depression. “I tell them that it’s normal; that I went through that stage, too, it’s not the end. I encourage them to get off the internet: dance, go for a run, whatever makes you feel good.”
Their letters have inspired her to create www.oneoeight.tv, an interactive online platform with tutorials from grief counsellors and eating disorder experts along with live-streamed yoga classes. It launches later this year and will be a place to direct her young followers.
Rachel’s mantra is to live life slowly, to meditate and to practice yoga “every damn day”. The yoga sequences in her book are designed to be as easy for a beginner to practice as possible. There is also a chapter on meditation and recipes for soups, salads and herbal teas.
Does she ever fall off the wagon? “All the time,” she laughs. “I was on a nine-week US book tour and had booked yoga teachers to come to my hotel rooms but after a week I gave up and went to bed.”
Staying in shape, she maintains, doesn’t have to mean a sweaty class. It could be stretching the parts of your body that ache, meditating or even just taking a bath. “It’s more important to practice self love,” she says.
And it’s fine to have a beer after work. Being healthy, in Rachel’s view, doesn’t have to mean avoiding wine or dessert.
“If you’re in a good place mentally you can do these things and you won’t feel guilty,” she says. “You will just get up the next morning and do yoga.”
• YOGA GIRL: Finding Happiness, Cultivating Balance and Living with Your Heart Wide Open by Rachel Brathen is published on 6 August (Yellow Kite, £16,99). To order your copy for £14.99 plus p & p call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
Start your day off right
• Don’t keep your phone in the bedroom – get an alarm clock if you need one. And the first thing you do in the morning should not include social media or e-mails!
• Drink hot water with lemon when you wake up to cleanse your system.
• Practise yoga before breakfast. Do 15 minutes of gentle stretching, some dynamic Sun Salutations, or simple meditation. Everything counts! Just give yourself time on the mat every day.
• Decide what time your active workday begins. Keep away from pointless on-screen scrolling during the first part of the day. Read a book. Make a beautiful breakfast. Spend time with your family.
• If you allow your mornings to be sacred, it will set the tone for the rest of your day.
How to do a Vinyasa
Come into tabletop with hands shoulder distance apart. Tuck your toes under and send your hips up and back, into Downward-Facing Dog. Relax the neck and engage the inner thighs.
Photo: Ben Kane
Shift your weight forward and make your way into Plank Pose. Line shoulders with the wrists, draw your lower ribs in toward the body, and elongate the tailbone toward the heels.
Photo: © Ben Kane
Deep breath in and shift your weight slightly farther forward, over the wrists. Exhale and bend your elbows to Chaturanga Dandasana. Shoulders line up with elbows and elbows with wrists.
Photo: Ben Kane
Inhale and actively press your toes to the back of the mat, lifting your heart into Upward-Facing Dog. Press the tops of the feet onto the mat and lift your thighs off the floor.
Photo: © Ben Kane
Tuck your toes, engage your core, and pull your hips up and back to Downward-Facing Dog.