IT IS the stuff of fairy tales. Rachel Brathen, aka Yoga Girl, lives on a paradise island. She married the love of her life last year and is an Instagram sensation (@yoga_girl) with 1.4 million followers.
She’s speaking to Feelgood on Skype from her home in Aruba, a Caribbean island off the coast of Venezuela famed for its sunny weather, turquoise waters and white beaches.
Ask her what she can see from her window and she says the ocean. She’s on the wilder north coast, so the colour is darker than the usual picturesque azure-blue. And the landscape is wilder still, with cactus and desert.
All the same, it seems idyllic to anyone making the most of our Irish on-off summer.
The Swedish 26-year-old is just back from a nine-week tour of the States to publicise her new book, Yoga Girl, a New York Times bestseller which, she says, is about “finding happiness, cultivating balance and living with your heart wide open”.
Its pages are illustrated with sumptuous pictures of Rachel doing complicated yoga poses against a range of tropical backgrounds: a yogic version of the splits on the beach, a sort of ‘human pretzel’ pose by the water’s lapping edge, a backwards handstand against a palm tree.
The surroundings might be picture-perfect but Brathen practices yoga “every damn day”, as she puts it, to help her cope with the same messy struggles that every human experiences.
And she’s had a few.
Last year, for instance, was a roller-coaster of a year full of “high highs and low lows,” she says, listing them in no particular order.
“I got married (to Dutchman Dennis Schoneveld), one of my best friends passed away, my grandmother died, my dog (Sergeant Pepper) died, I travelled to about 25 countries.” As she had done in the past, she shared that raw emotion on Instagram. She lost about 100,000 followers but gained many more.
She thinks social media is populated with shiny, happy posts from beautiful, perfect people. We should be willing to share the down days, the insecurities and the messy unpleasantness of life too, she says.
She talks openly about the dark, difficult years of her early childhood and teenage years. Her parents divorced when she was a toddler. When she was just five, her pilot stepfather died in a plane crash and her mother attempted suicide.
An adult friend of the family told her that her stepdad had been rushing home to see her and her brother and she explains now how she felt responsible for his death.
The years that followed are a bit of blur. There was a lot of moving around — she had lived in 10 places by the time she was 12 — and when she hit her teens, she became really “cool” and started to drink, smoke and shoplift.
At 13, she was treated for alcohol poisoning in hospital and a spiral of destruction followed. She also became obsessed with her weight.
“I had moments when I wrote down everything I ate. I weighed myself — to the gram — twice a day and was really thin,” she says.
By the time she was 18, she had had enough and was open to her mother’s suggestion that she get help at a Swedish therapeutic meditation retreat.
“It was a huge eye-opener for me. I did a complete 360-degree spin. I had been carrying around this huge backpack of pain that I was never able to talk about it. I had about a year of feeling really sad but I realised that I didn’t have to live like this,” she says.
She took to meditation and would later start to practice yoga daily while travelling in Costa Rica. On a trip to Aruba, she met her future husband Dennis and, after five days, knew that he was ‘The One’. She moved to the Caribbean island in 2010 and started to teach yoga full-time.
It’s a journey few of us are likely to take, so how does Yoga Girl’s experience translate into the everyday? The key, she says, is to begin with what you already have. That might sound banal coming from a woman who can do Downward-Facing Dog on a paddle board but when Rachel Brathen started practising yoga seven years ago, she couldn’t even touch her toes.
She had scoliosis (curvature of the spine) and bad back pain, the legacy of two car accidents. Her practice did not come easily — it was the result of persistent hard work.
And while she’ll tell you that yoga keeps her back pain in check and has many proven scientific benefits, she’s not trying to sell a magic cure-all.
Yoga Girl — part memoir, part yoga manual — is not a book that promises to change your life.
As Brathen writes in the introduction: “The secret is, there is none. There is no grand recipe for a perfect life… I’m here to tell you that you are good enough the way you already are.”
There are many great lines in this hugely uplifting book, such as “Health and happiness are important. Not what your ass looks like in a pair of jeans.” Or this one: “A little bit of ice cream is not going to ruin your life. Guilt, however, could.”
And if you’re struggling with body image, read this: “A good body is every body… Who taught that we need to see a certain figure on a scale to be happy?”
There are lots of suggestions to help people who have already been on a yoga mat — but, more importantly, there are many more for those who have not.
“You don’t need to change anything about who you are to start a yoga practice,” writes Brathen.
Her flowing writing style —there was no ghost writer — and her flawless English are also impressive.
She speaks four languages fluently: Swedish, English, Spanish and Papiamento, the language spoken on Aruba.
Little wonder she has international appeal. Her classes and workshops often attract several hundred people. She doesn’t pretend to be a guru or to be imbued with wisdom, yet there is something remarkable about how she has touched so many lives with her blend of rigorous honesty and positive action.
On the outside, her life looks too good to be true, but she is open about her daily struggles. Grief remains a big issue and her next book will deal with the subject.
She will also launch an online platform for healing later in the year. On a recent trip to the States, she was deeply affected when a US psychologist told her that 81 percent of American 10-year-olds’ biggest fear is not death, or poverty, or violence but being fat.
Hundreds of people contact her daily, sharing problems and looking for solutions.
Rachel Brathen certainly doesn’t pretend to have all the answers — or even any of them — but she does cherish the community that has grown around her Instagram account.
“I really think that there is a huge need for something real. People are preoccupied with showing the ‘highlight reel’ where everyone is having the most amazing fun and everyone is fulfilled and happy. Sometimes you’re just watching Desperate Housewives eating toast.”
Yoga Girl by Rachel Brathen, €23.99, is published by Yellow Kite.
Set your roots. Build your foundation and let the adventure you have ahead of you grow from a place of stability.
Be patient with your body.
Even if you can’t see how your dream is going to come true, focus on the idea of it happening. You don’t need to know every step ahead of you to be able to move forward.
Don’t get stuck with labels. Eat what keeps your body and soul happy.
You are perfect the way you already are. Thinking we will be happier by changing our bodies is simply scratching at the surface. What lies beneath? What do you really need to be happy?
Concentrate on what your body does for you, not what it looks like.
Focusing on the things you perceive as flaws only magnifies them. See your own beauty.
Eat well and exercise for the right reasons. Love your body first, change it (if needed) later.
Health and happiness are important. Not what your ass looks like in a pair of jeans.
Do your best, it will always be enough.
Love your body. Love your soul.