Recently, I posted a photo of Rachel Brathen, AKA Yoga Girl, from a class I took with her in New York City, to my personal Instagram account. She "liked" the photo, and almost instantly, I got an onslaught of likes from tons of strangers all over the world who follow everything she does via the photo sharing app.
It's just one small example of the power of Instagram yogis, a select group of yoga instructors who, like Brathen, have made a career out of documenting their yoga practices, healthy lifestyles, and seemingly-endless vacations. She's joined by other social media yogis like Laura Kasperzak, who has one million followers, Masumi Goldman, who has 126,000 followers, or Talia Grace Peretz, who has 135,000 followers.
And many of them, just like the foodie celebrities of Instagram, are becoming stars off the app as well, landing book deals, making online yoga workouts, and being flown around the world to teach on the yoga festival and retreat circuit.
Take a look inside the gorgeous, sunny, ultra-flexible world of Instagram yoga to learn how the phenomenon started, what makes them stars, and the way they balance anti-consumerism with building a yoga brand.
Like most people, Aruba-based Brathen started her Instagram three years ago as a personal account, postings photos of her "dogs and food." But when she started practicing yoga more and teaching classes, her Instagram life reflected her new-found passion.
"I started getting serious about understanding yoga poses and physicality to help my students," she says. "I was also going through a rough time of my own, so I started sharing my emotions and meditating on that. That's when it really took off." The Yoga Girl account now grows by 2,000 followers every day. "It's still crazy to me," she laughs. "In Aruba there are only 100,000 people. My following is like 13 Arubas."
Scottsdale, Arizona-based Caitlin Turner, AKA Gypset Goddess, also started her account over two years ago like "your usual Instagram," but she immediately saw the potential for more.
"I saw all of these girls getting popular by doing yoga on Instagram," Turner says. "I thought, 'I'm cute, I'm strong, I travel to places with cool backdrops, I can do this!'" Now, she has over 220,000 followers, and the account grows by a few thousand every month.
Unlike many yoga celebrities who develop a cult-following through their transformative teachings and packed classes and then find themselves famous (like the Mandy Ingbers and Kathryn Budigs of the world), neither Brathen nor Turner have a regular teaching schedule. Yoga retreats and workshops take up most of their time, which, perhaps not coincidentally, is great for their Instagram backdrops (a gorgeous beach or mountain top trumps a white-walled studio any day). Brathen, for example, traveled for a total of 40 weeks last year, and teaches at a destination retreat almost every month.
But many Instagram yogis feel they can have the same effect on students as a great teacher in a small class, just on a much larger scale.
"I'm very personal on my Instagram, and I like to think of it more as a community than a following," Brathen explains. "It's a really beautiful thing, that online connection. I get people every day that tell me they really resonate with what I'm saying. I try to share not just the good stuff and the pretty pictures, but the low points and insecurities and things that I struggle with."
For instance, Brathen recently captioned a post detailing her struggles over the past year with her best friend dying in a car crash, her grandmother passing away, writing her first book, and her mother trying to commit suicide. 36,000 people "liked" it, empathizing and relating to her words.
"If I teach a yoga class, I have a positive impact on the 20 or 50 people who show up, but with Instagram, I am able to impact way more people than would be able to fit into a room," Turner says. "When you're teaching a class, it's mostly about the breathing and the poses, whereas online there's more freedom to talk about life, and be my most authentic."
Yoga celebrity as a business
Of course, on the topic of authenticity, Instagram yogis get criticized for promoting products on the same platform that they use for sharing yoga poses and spiritual messages.
Turner promotes different products on her account in addition to her retreats. "There's something to be said about how consumerism doesn't have a place in yoga," she says, "but we live in modern times and in a consuming world, it's to be expected. On the other hand, I would never promote something I wouldn't personally use myself."
Brathen, on the other hand, takes a strong stance against promoting products on her Instagram, making money instead through teaching at yoga retreats and her new book, Yoga Girl. Her ultimate goal isn't cash, she says, but increasing her impact.
"I could've made millions of dollars by now just by wearing yoga pants," she says. "I really want people to focus on my message. If I share a personal story and then say, 'FYI, buy these yoga pants,' it doesn't feel real to me.'" —Jamie McKillop
(Photos: Instagram.com/yoga_girl and Instagram.com/gypsetgoddess)
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