Having practiced traditional hatha yoga for the last 13 years, I headed off to Wanderlust Festival Colorado, accompanied by my lovely wife Sabrina, looking for people who are teaching from a unique perspective. Rachel Brathen, who is known to her almost 300K Instagram fans as yoga_girl, is one such person.
I first heard about Rachel when Sabrina ran over to me one evening last year, pointing at her phone, shouting something like, “LOOK! look at what she’s doing! I wanna do that!” There was Rachel, on what looked like a surf board, doing a forearm balance. And thus my interest in stand-up paddle board yoga, and @yoga_girl, began. Besides her amazing SUP inversion prowess, Rachel seems to have a natural ability to connect with students. I found her astounding physical ability, coupled with this capacity to touch the hearts of a young demographic of Yogis, truly inspirational.
Originally from Sweden, Rachel now lives in Aruba where she also holds yoga retreats. Much of her time is spent on the road with her fiance Dennis, and her pup Ringo. Despite her busy schedule, she seems to do everything she can to reach out and respond to her many fans and followers. She was gracious enough to make the time to talk with us at Wanderlust after our very first paddle board yoga class.
The Clymb: We understand you to be one of the SUP Yoga pioneers?
Rachel: I didn’t invent it. Sometimes people are like, “Oh my god you invented this cool thing.” I did not invent it. I also did not do it with anybody else before I tried it. It came to me around the same time that it was coming to a lot of people in the world. I had heard of the idea of doing poses on a board, but I had never met a teacher, or seen a class, or heard about someone that did it. So he [her fiance Dennis] was always surfing on a longboard with big dogs, and I thought if he can surf with a dog on a board, I should be able to do a down dog on a board [laughter].
So I tried once, we were out [with a surf board], I put my feet up and the board sank of course cause those boards weren’t made to float, they don’t have enough volume. There are surf shops on the island, and the first one got some [SUP] boards. I took one out, and I anchored it down to give it a try, and do a downward dog or whatever. And I ended up having a full 90-minute practice. There was a whole crowd of people on the beach staring [laughter] because it looks kind of crazy, and especially because this was three years ago when nobody was doing it, not like now where a lot more people know about it. But then people were like, “wow what is this?” And then coming back to shore people were like, “wow, do you teach classes in this?” So I said, “sure! I give classes in this” [laughter] And then like a week later I started to give the first classes.
So yeah, we didn’t have any teachers on the island or anything, I just did what felt natural, and then anchored stuff down. We use cement blocks, and big ropes in between the boards. And Aruba is so nice, and warm, and the people like to swim, they like to anchor the boards down themselves. It’s a bit colder here [Wanderlust Colorado], so we have everything set up for people when they show up.
The Clymb: One of my questions was if you had any doubts as to whether people would glom onto this idea, but it seems like the opposite was true, people came to you?
Rachel: Yeah! I didn’t have any doubts like that, no. And it doesn’t cost me a whole lot either, so there wasn’t a big investment for us to start. We just started doing it with maybe a class a month in the beginning. And then it got super popular to where in the high season I was teaching like 6,7,8 classes a week. And now I travel a lot, so a lot of it’s on the road. It’s not at home anymore.
The Clymb: You do seem to do a lot of traveling, how many weeks are you on the road this year?
Rachel: This year? like 52 [laughter] yeah, it’s way easier to count the weeks we are home than away. For example, for the rest of the year I know we have 3 weeks on shore, and those are retreat weeks. I teach retreats every week then. So yeah, it’s almost nothing.
The Clymb: How does that affect your personal practice?
Rachel: Uh, a lot. It’s hard. This morning was great, we got to practice, but it’s really hard on the road. It’s super stressful. I always have my mat with me, and sometimes I do yoga in the airport. And now we have this stressful schedule where everyday we are teaching in a different city like we did in California. And I pretty much have to wake up, and eat breakfast, and go. Drive maybe three hours to a different destination and teach, and then it’s 10 o’clock when we leave the studio. Then we are exhausted, and all we want to do is have a meal and go to sleep. There’s no space really to relax. It’s tough, but we do our best.
The Clymb: I’m sure there are a lot of folks out there who have not experienced SUP yoga before. What are some of the unique challenges that differ from practicing on dry land?
Rachel: Well because your whole base is moving, nothing is stable, it makes balance insanely challenging. And a lot of times people have a hard time centering themselves, finding where the center of the board is. Especially when we are doing a transition, they know from their practice, “just lift this leg up,” then they do it on the board without compensating for the weight shift, and they fall in. So you have to be much more mindful with what you do with your body then in regular practice. You can get away with bad alignment in some ways, but here, you do that, you fall. I like that it helps you center a bit more, but its super challenging. Then you have the wind and the waves, like in Aruba sometimes we have 30 knots of wind, and it’s in the ocean. This is a super easy location, except that the water’s cold. But with the poses, the stuff we do is pretty much the same.
The Clymb: Are they any poses you can’t do on a SUP board?
Rachel: Well maybe one-handed handstands, but those are hard on dry land.
Rachel: We do handstands now on the boards, and that has been the most challenging. Fore-arm balance, head-stands, that’s easy. I mean of course, that’s easy for me because I’ve been doing it. But they aren’t that hard to work through on a board if you’ve been doing them on dry land. But handstands are really hard because you have so little of your body connected to the board. And you have to move your hands on the water the whole time. But yeah, one-handed handstands, that’s the one. [laughs]
The Clymb: You’ve put a challenge out there! … So how long does it take to get out into the water and get set up?
Rachel: In Aruba, people come to the surf shop where we rent the boards… The boards are all prepared on the beach. I teach a two minute piece on how to paddle. We go in the water, and paddle up the coast, which is like a 5 minute paddle so that we can get away from the boats. And then because it’s shallow, people can get off of their own boards and stand, and then they can tie their own board down and get on the board. And that’s set up, the anchors are always in the water. That setup is less than 5 minutes… classes are usually an hour.
The Clymb: Do you have any advanced students? Or people you’ve taught to teach in Aruba?
Rachel: In the beginning there was a lot of hype, and we got a lot of locals that came every week just to go upside down. When the waters warm, it’s not that intimidating, you just learn how to fall off. It’s just water so you are not gonna hurt yourself. What’s scary on land is not scary on the water. So I got a lot of locals that just came for that. Now it’s more of a touristy thing. I know that here [in Colorado] people have a steady following where people do it every week and really enjoy it, but it’s expensive also, it’s not just like a $10 class or whatever you pay, you have to rent the board, the board is like $30, and then you have to add your yoga on top, so then it’s like $45–50 per class, you add that up twice a week … So it’s more like a fun thing you do once in a while with friends, or in Aruba it’s more like a touristy thing, people love to experience that, and enjoy the water, but it’s not like we have locals who come every week.
The Clymb: I am wondering if there have been any powerful moments that come to mind where you said to yourself, “wow, I don’t think that could have happened during a dry land yoga class?”
Rachel: That’s a hard one. Well, I’ve heard a lot of people say that best the savasana of their life was on the water. They finish the class and they are like “WOW!” [laughter] I have had people who come and visit, and they take a class every day for a week and they are just obsessed. Especially there [in Aruba] The water is turquoise blue, the beach is white, and all you see is the horizon of the sky, and it’s just gorgeous. And here to [in Colorado] you can have that experience but it’s different. It’s just two different classes, where one is hot, and the other is cold. I wouldn’t teach the same way here. For instance [in Aruba] I would encourage and teach people to fall and have fun, and once they fall they relax more, and they go for more difficult poses, but here people really want to hold on. We had one guy fall in today, and everything stops, and we all go, “oh are you ok?!” [laughs] The life guard is like, “What!?” [laughs] And that’s kind of it, it’s tough.
But then in savasana you open your eyes and it’s just sky and birds, and it’s just beautiful. The board almost rocks you to sleep, it’s a gorgeous thing. But that community that you get in a class every week where you can touch people, and align people, and help people up into stuff, it’s not the same on the water. It’s more like for your own experience. You don’t touch each other, because as you soon as you get on someone’s board to try and align them, they fall off.
The Clymb: It’s more intimacy with the water?
Rachel: Yeah, with nature, and yourself, and your breath.
The Clymb: So what would you say is more useful to begin SUP Yoga: SUP experience or yoga experience?
Rachel: [laughs] I don’t know, either?
The Clymb: It’s kind of its own beast it seems like, at least that was my experience. It felt like a whole new thing.
Rachel: It is! But in some ways yoga helps because you’ll have some idea of what I am talking about. Like what’s chataranga? What’s down dog? What is yoga? But, you don’t need it at all. I had really good paddle boarders that have done terribly, I’ve had insanely advanced yoga teachers do terribly in class, it’s more about your core sense of balance, and how much you can relax on the board. Because if you get really nervous on the board, and you cling to the board, and you are gonna fall. If you get in your head a lot, you are gonna have a bad experience and you are going to fall a lot. So it’s more about your ability to relax. So of course yoga experience helps, and paddle boarding experience helps, but it’s not like you need them.
The Clymb: So why Wanderlust Festival?
Rachel: I’m here with Boga the company I work with. They set up classes here, and I love Wanderlust, it’s super fun. I get to come and teach, and hang out.
The Clymb: Have you been here before?
Rachel: No, I’ve always wanted to go!
The Clymb: You’ve mentioned how there weren’t any teachers around when you started. Are there any people now who are doing it that you look to for inspiration?
Rachel: I have friends now who teach it, but it’s not like they are my teachers. At least of the people I know, I have been doing it the longest… I have people ask me all the time, “are you certified to teach this?” [laughter] Two years ago this didn’t exist! There were like three people in the world doing it, who is gonna certify me? Now there are a lot of companies offering certifications, and that’s fine, of course you wanna be safe on the water, but it is not rocket science. If you are a yoga teacher, and you know how to swim, you should be able to put a class together. My good friend Jessica who is another teacher is great. She assists me a lot, she comes on tour with me a lot and helps with classes and things. My real teachers are not SUP teachers. They are yoga teachers.
The Clymb: In your travels this year, have there been any particularly cool and unique moments, not necessarily SUP or yoga related?
Rachel: In my travels? We’ve done a lot of really cool stuff this year. With the teaching we’ve had some really amazing stuff. We had a girl who came from Paris to LA for 10 hours just to take my class and then fly back.
The Clymb: WOW!
Rachel: It was overwhelming. We had a girl who drove 10 hours to take a class in another state. We’ve had people who are really dedicated to come. We’ve had some really emotional moments in class. And that’s been the highlight I think. People just super happy to practice and connect. And we’ve seen some amazing places and had some big classes. We got engaged in Hawaii [holds fiance Dennis’s hand], when we were there a month ago.
The Clymb: That seems pretty big?
Rachel: Kind of a highlight [laughs] so yeah, it’s been a lot.
The Clymb: Where have you enjoyed teaching the most?
Rachel: It’s really more about who comes to the class than the place. We’ve had some amazing spots that have been like wow! but the classes were tough to get through. Maui was fun, Pismo beach was fun, we had like a Beverly Hills rooftop hotel yoga in LA which was kind of neat. You saw the whole city, and it was open air and really cool. There’s been some cool places, but it’s always the students that I remember, not the place.
The Clymb: So I’m interested in what some of these emotional moments were?
Rachel: [laughs] So we had like 300 emails a day, I’m not exaggerating, and half of it is personal stuff telling me their whole life story. And sometimes I will scroll and scroll, and I can never reach the end. And some are people with cancer, people with family members in jail, people who just lost someone, people with serious issues, a woman who just lost her son in a suicide, stuff like that, serious stuff. People that reach out for help, which for me is really hard to grasp, I’m 24 years old, I do my best to send some inspiration out via the outlets that I have, and then it really affects people beyond what I do. It’s like they connect with something that they feel is real.
We’ve had moments where I am in the lobby of a studio and greeting people, and a girl just breaks down crying in a pile on the floor, completely, like I can’t comfort her. She thinks she’s meeting this big person of a teacher, like people react when they see a celebrity. I just do Yoga, I don’t do anything else. I was talking to another girl who had similar experiences. She teaches meditation and also designs clothes, and in some parts of the world she is really known. And in Asia people just start crying when they see her because they have this image of who they think she is. But it’s not about me as a person, it’s about what they create around you, what they find from the words you speak. We’ve had a lot of those moments. Usually from girls and young people.
[Dennis says something to Rachel about Ludwig]
Rachel: [responding to Dennis] I think he means other’s emotional experiences.
The Clymb: We are interested in Ludwig
Rachel: I of course have had emotional moments, like teaching really big classes, and sometimes there is this insanely beautiful moment in savasana. I cry a lot during other people’s savasana [laughs] when I’m adjusting people. And then there was this class in San Francisco right before we left, and my little brother who I only see like once a year, and he was with [my dog] Ringo, and he has a huge 200 pound dog, I think a yellow lab, big dog, and they were all in a corner in savasana, all quiet, and I just burst into tears. It was like the most beautiful little corner of love. Yeah, there’s a lot of emotion all around and I love that. Especially here, I here all the time, “Oh my god I know you,” everybody knows Ringo. It’s hard to get how we got here, and like it means something to people. Yeah, I don’t know how to explain it.
The Clymb: It’s pretty clear that people connect with you on some level.
The Clymb: It’s kinda mysterious.
Rachel: Yeah it is. But it’s nice, it’s all good stuff. Like, we put out on Instagram, “we don’t have a place to stay tonight.” So we stayed on one dude’s boat one night. We get, “come hang out with us, we are gonna have a BBQ.” … and we just go for it, and my friend is like, “what if it’s a rape van somewhere,” but we haven’t had a single weird person… so far. There’s not been a single creep. And I think if you compare that to others with the same following, there’s a lot of creepy, stalker, rude, all kinds of weirdos out there. We don’t have any of that… so far [laughs]
The Clymb: Does it speak to the Yoga crowd?
Rachel: I think so, although there are some weird Yogis out there.
The Clymb: [laughs] Well, fair enough.
Rachel: But it speaks to me too. We have not had a weirded out moment yet.
The Clymb: Like you get what you put out there?
Rachel: I hope so. I really hope so. It’s fun.