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Rachel Brathen, also known as Yoga Girl, is beloved by her more than 1.3 million Instagram followers for her impressive poses, inspiring words, and refreshing honesty. The Swedish native, who now lives in Aruba and is the author of the new book "Yoga Girl," tells TODAY.com about the power of connecting with so many strangers and how the community she's found on social media has supported her through pain in her personal life.
When I started yoga, I was terrified. I couldn’t touch my toes; simple twists were really scary to me. I couldn’t backbend. It took me years and years to even find a practice where I felt comfortable moving, without hurting anything.
Teaching was never on my agenda, it just came my way. I started teaching friends and family, a little here and there. And when I moved to Aruba, I decided to try it full-time, and see if it would work.
[When teaching yoga took off] I was really almost killing myself, teaching in every corner of the world. Just teaching more and more people. I wanted to connect with everyone and say yes to everything. In the middle of all that, my appendix burst while I was on a flight. It was horrible. I was on my way to go teach a big retreat on another island in the Caribbean. And at the same time, my best friend had a car accident. So I woke up in the hospital and she had passed away, and I didn’t know.
Everything I shared online up until that point had been body-oriented, and pose-oriented. Lots of handstands in bikinis on the beach. It was what people wanted to see. And then that happened.
I realized, I can either lie and pretend that none of this is going on, or shut this down and leave, or I can just write and say what I’m feeling. And that’s what I did. It helped me tremendously. It was really a way for me to heal. But it’s also given everything a purpose now.
I lost 100,000 followers within the first few weeks—it was crazy. But I picked up so many as well. People were like, “Oh my God, what is happening?” and it resonated. They felt it. But all the people who wanted to see a girl in a bikini in a handstand—they were not interested in walking through this horrendous grief at all. So they left.
So much has happened this year. My dog passed away, and my grandma. It was like every three months there was another disaster.
People say social media is so full of hate and negativity, but I found so much love this year. People are really wise. I think you get what you give. I try to inspire and do my best. But sometimes I get emails from girls that say, “I’m sitting with a razor in the tub.” It’s insane. Somehow, their 15-year-old brains have resonated with what this yoga girl person is writing online—so much so that in that moment, they think, “I’m going to write her.” It’s big. It’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than doing poses on a yoga mat.
So many of us wake up and the phone is there, and we go to bed, and the phone is there. Who you choose to follow on social media, it becomes you. So if everything you follow is Victoria’s Secret models and pop stars and celebrities, of course you’re going to feel inadequate. No one ever shares that moment when you’re like, “I had the worst day at the office, I’m lying in my pajamas eating toast and watching ‘Desperate Housewives.’” No one shares that, but a lot of people have those days.
I find that when I share something that’s not always great, if it’s an insecurity or grief or sadness or a bad day, people look at that and say, “I feel that too.” It makes it OK to be human, and not have to be perfect and happy all of the time.
3 yoga poses to boost your energy—and your mood
A balancing pose like this is a quick fix for tiredness and a distracted mind.
“Tree pose is very grounding,” Brathen says. “Working our balance requires us to bring all of our focus and attention inward. And we get the blood pumping by reaching the arms up or bringing the hands to heart center.”
To modify this pose, try resting the sole of your foot against your ankle or calf instead of the inner thigh.
Wake up and get the blood flowing with side plank, which is good for circulation.
“It’s really strengthening for the side body and the side core, and it also requires a rooting down towards the Earth to lift up,” Brathen says. “And we have to activate our inner thighs and legs a lot.”
To modify this pose, drop your bottom knee to the mat. If you have problems with your wrists, you can also take the pose on your forearms.
Twists like this lunge variation are energizing—perfect for early mornings.
“It’s a really cleansing pose,” Brathen said. “You’re wringing out the spine a bit, which creates space between the vertebras. It gets that energy that sometimes gets stuck in the spine and can make us feel sluggish and tired.”