Rachel Brathen wants to create a more peaceful and harmonious world, one yoga pose at a time. A native of Sweden, Rachel moved to Aruba with her husband in 2010, where she’s taught yoga full-time ever since.
Business started out slow, teaching a few students at a time. Then five students turned into 10, 10 turned into 20, then people beyond Rachel’s area started reaching out to her for more information. That’s when she established an online presence, and her brand took off.
Rachel has built an enormous worldwide following of yoga practitioners with her Yoga Girl website andblog. Her commitment to helping others get in touch with their authentic, inner selves — set against the backdrop of Aruba’s beaches — appeals to yoga enthusiasts of all skill levels. “I went from teaching 15 people on the beach to teaching hundreds of people in another country very, very quickly,” Rachel recalls. She offers online classes via her website and in-person classes at her Island Yoga studio in Noord, Aruba.
Over the years, she’s expanded her digital reach on social media, including YouTube and Instagram, where she has 2.1 million followers. She’s published two books, including the New York Times bestseller“Yoga Girl,” and she’s appeared on many magazine covers. She’s appeared on many magazine covers and hosts apodcast.
She also runs two nonprofits: Sgt Pepper’s Friends, an animal rescue foundation in Aruba, and Yoga Girl Foundation, benefitting women and children in need. “I'm so grateful that we have the Internet,” Rachel says. “It's wild to think of where we would be without it.”
In a recent interview, we caught up with Rachel to learn how she used the web to build her worldwide Yoga Girl community.
Tell us how you got started with yoga.
I’ve had a lot of pain my whole life — back pain from scoliosis and from three car accidents when I was young. I found meditation when I was 17. Shortly after that, someone asked me, "If you're practicing meditation, why aren't you doing yoga for back pain?" I thought yoga was for super-flexible people, or you had to be up at four in the morning to do it. So I was hesitant in the beginning. I was lucky to find an amazing teacher and a style that was super helpful for my pain. In a few years, I started teaching and changed it my whole life.
How did you transition from yoga in a physical setting to a digital one?
I'm on a tiny island in the Caribbean. My original idea was to have an online presence so that the people who live here could find me. Then almost right away, people who didn't live physically in my location started reaching out, asking questions and wondering about the practice or how to start a practice.
I entered the social media space as a newbie, with the idea of wanting to inspire, educate or invite people into the practice. But I had a lot of ups and downs, with a lot of trial and error. I realized early that what really inspires people isn't so much the perfect poses, or the most beautiful pictures, or the green juices and the sunshine, which I was sharing — but the real, genuine, authentic stories about the good and the challenging parts of life.
How do you identify what your audience might be interested in?
I keep in touch with my community through direct messaging and comments and emails. We have a community board on yogagirl.com, where people write in all day. So sometimes I can gauge that there's a topic bubbling up there. Oftentimes, it's the state of the world, which reflects the state of my inner world, which usually reflects how we all feel.
So if I don't know what to record that week for the podcast, I'll just go to my biggest struggle right now — that thing that's hard for me in my life. And it blows my mind every week, how many people say, "That's my exact issue. I'm feeling exactly like that." We have this idea that we are so separate, but we're not. We all feel the same things, and it's nice to have someone on the other end just touch on that and validate that it's OK to have those struggles, too.
Let’s get your thoughts on a few different types of yoga. What do you think of Ashtanga?
Ashtanga is one of the first styles of yoga that I found my way to. For people who thrive in structure, it's a wonderful practice. But for me, it's a little too disciplined to fit my day-to-day.
What's your take on hot yoga?
A good instructor knows not to push boundaries, but to guide people to really listen to their own bodies. It's wonderful to sweat, and I have no problem with that. We don't have to heat the studio here. We just close the doors, and it's hot yoga.
What about acroyoga, which combines yoga with acrobatics?
With acroyoga online, we see really advanced stuff, because it looks so beautiful, and everyone is always super flexible, super thin. It's always exotic, on a cliff or on the beach somewhere. But I think actually acroyoga can be a bonding experience between people, with your partner, as a couple or with friends. There's something really joyful and light about having that physical connection.
What do you think of paddleboard or stand-up paddleboard (SUP) yoga?
I love it. I really do. Taking a board out, anchoring somewhere and then just having my regular practice on the board or sitting in silence with my breath. There's something so special about nature, but it can also sound and feel a little bit gimmicky. It's not really the everyday yoga practice. It's really an adventure, and I think something that you probably would do on vacation.
Where can folks interested in signing up and subscribing find more information?
Yogagirl.com is a great place to start. We have our subscription platform there with yoga and meditation classes. And on Instagram, I'm at @yoga_girl