Rachel Brathen: Instagram’s “yoga_girl” Sensation Talks SUP Yoga

rachel_groupHav­ing 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: No


Rachel: Well maybe one-hand­ed hand­stands, but those are hard on dry land.

[more laugh­ter]

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.

Rachel: Yeah

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.