I have never been one to be easily impressed by “famous” yogis. When I stepped on a yoga mat for the first time, yoga was largely unknown to most people, and those few who had heard of it tended to think that it was some sort of esoteric mixture of body contorsions, incense-burning and OM-chanting. When I stepped on a yoga mat for the first time, the only “famous” yoga teachers were the old Indian masters and founders of the yogic lineages most modern-day yoga styles are based on. When I stepped on a yoga mat for the first time, a little Swedish girl named Rachel Brathen wasn’t even 10 years old.
I would hazard a guess that if you are a yoga practitioner and at least moderately active on social media you are definitely familiar with Rachel’s name. Back in the days when yoga-centered feeds were still something of a rarity on Instagram, her account @yoga_girl was one of the first ones to attract people’s attention. Rachel had taken up yoga and meditation when she was in her late teens and living in Central America after having left her home country of Sweden to explore the world. With her dazzling captures of inversions and armbalances on the beach with the turquoise ocean as a backdrop she soon gained immense popularity and an ever-growing community of followers. What made her stand out from all the other Instayogis were not her pictures, however, but the realness, unconcealed honesty and authenticity she conveyed in every post. She made it her personal mantra to never hold anything back or pretend to have the perfect beach yoga life. Instead she wrote openly about her struggles, fears and flaws, and about the hardships she experienced in her life, be it her mother’s drinking and suicide attempts or her best friend Andrea’s sudden death in a car accident.
Rachel’s yoga classes that she teaches all around the world are known to be huge events that attract the masses, with several hundreds of people coming to attend and practice with her. Most of them agree that her style of teaching is not centered around the physical part of yoga but all about the spirit of community, empowerment and promoting self-love.
So when, on a rainy, cold and unpleasant late-fall day, I read that Rachel would be holding “Magic in Motion“, a yoga event in her home-town of Stockholm, I was curious to find out if she really lives up to her reputation of being one of today’s most inspiring yoga teachers. What would a yoga class with social media’s most hyped superstar really feel like? Would it really be a “gathering on a soul level”, as the event description promised, or some sort of crazy fan convention?
All these questions were buzzing around in my head as my plane decended towards Arlanda airport on the Friday before the event. The workshop was set to begin late Saturday afternoon, so I had the whole morning to explore Stockholm’s picture-perfect city center. I strolled through cobblestone streets, marvelled at the colorful facades that literally looked like gingerbread houses, and had the most delicious fish soup for lunch in a little cafè in the Gamla Stan quarter. Early December was already really cold in Sweden, so when I walked back to my hotel to fetch my yoga mat my freezing fingers and toes couldn’t wait for the warming practice to begin.
Before I left home I had arranged to meet up with a girl I had connected with on Instagram in the weeks leading up to the event. I had never before met up with somebody I got to know only through social media, but Fanny, a yogi from Southern Sweden, seemed like a genuinely sweet person, and I thought it would be so much more fun to experience this event in nice company. When I arrived at the Stockholm Waterfront Congress I immediately spotted this beautiful girl among the crowds that were already queuing outside. She was the most stereotypic Swedish girl – pretty as a Nordic fairy with blonde hair and blue eyes and the brightest smile on her face. Fanny welcomed me with a big hug, and I instantly knew we were up for a fantastic time together. The waiting time until the event started gave us time to chat and exchange stories about our lives and what had brought us there, and when we entered the ample, glass-paned hall facing Stockholm’s cityline it felt as if we had known each other for years.
The view of hundreds of colorful yoga mats arranged side-by-side in the vast hall was simply breathtaking. People everywhere were chatting, laughing, hugging, and eagerly waiting for the practice to begin. An elevated podest decorated with hundreds of floating balloons was facing the rows of mats, and a huge screen was set up to its side that would allow even the people in the back rows to follow Rachel’s teaching. Upon looking more closely I saw that it showed sweet little welcome messages to each one of the people who had come to participate in the event. Welcome Ariana. Welcome Diane. Welcome Hedda. The names changed every couple of seconds, and whenever somebody spotted theirs you could hear excited shrieks from all corners. And after Julia, Jennifer, Karoline and four Katharinas the screen finally read “Welcome Katrin.”
The hall gradually filled with people until there was almost no more space for additional mats. Everyone was excitedly watching the little podium in the front, waiting for Rachel to arrive. As she came on stage, all my worries that this would feel like some sort of strange celebrity meet & greet were blown away. Rachel didn’t exude any superstar demeanor at all. In contrast, she greeted the crowds with a huge smile and warm words of welcome and a little introduction as to what this evening would be all about. She was seven months pregnant with her baby daughter Lea Luna at that time, so she jokingly announced that she might need to have us rest in some long child’s poses during practice in case she had to go to the toilet in between. Her Italian greyhound dog Ringo (who seemed to be used to accompanying her for big yoga classes) was roaming the rows of mats and checking out the hall in the most relaxed manner, occasionally sniffing on people’s things and allowing them to cuddle him.
We started the practice with some mindful journaling and a beautiful sharing ritual. Rachel asked us to find a partner we had never met before and sit face to face with each other. She would give us a question as the topic of the sharing, and we would then have 5 minutes each to share our thoughts and feelings while the other person would just listen and hold space for whatever wanted to come out. I was familiar with this type of exercise and knew that it is a very effective way to remove barriers and to allow people to express themselves with complete freedom and without contraints.
The question Rachel gave us was: “What would you do if you weren’t fearful?“
I had never imagined that I would be able to tell my innermost thoughts to a total stranger, but the woman I found myself sitting opposite of made it so easy for me to step out of my comfort zone and share my feelings. Up to this day I have no idea what her name was or where she was from, but I will never forget her and the space she held for me to allow me to speak right from my heart. Knowing that every single person around us was sharing their most intimate hopes and dreams in this very same moment gave me goosebumps. I started to get an idea of what people meant when they spoke about the transformative power of Rachel’s classes…
The yoga practice that followed wasn’t one like any other I had experienced before. If people had expected handstands and scorpion poses they would have been disappointed. Rachel emphasized that this practice was for everyone, and the only thing she was asking from us was to listen to what our body told us and open our hearts to the collective energy all around us. The sequence she taught was beautiful, and each pose felt even more powerful because we all moved in perfect synchronized harmony. When we closed the practice with the longest ever savasana, with our arms spread out wide to the sides so we could even hold the hands of our neighbors, all the people in the room seemed to breathe as one.
We then did another open sharing about all the things that were on our mind after the practice. Many people took the opportunity to ask questions, share how they felt or just give some words of gratitude to Rachel. At the end, a girl in the back of the hall stood up, all eyes were on her. She told us that she had been looking forward to this evening for weeks, but then only a week ago her brother had been involved in a terrible accident and was in coma since then, and she asked everybody to pray for his recovery. When we opened our eyes again after collectively sending her brother all our good energy, another girl raised her voice and addressed the one who had spoken about her brother first. “I hadn’t planned to say anything at all, but now I would like to tell you just one thing. A year ago, I was in a coma, too. I didn’t know if and how I would ever recover again, but today I’m here with you all, moving, dancing, singing and laughing. Look at me now. Just like I did, I know your brother can get through this too.” Needless to say, the entire hall was moved to tears…
As everyone was rolling up their yoga mats after class, Fanny and I made our way to the after-party that was part of the VIP ticket we had opted for (YOLO, after all…). We treated ourselves to delicious veggie snacks and shared our impressions of the class. Fanny had enjoyed it just as much as I had, and agreed that the 1:1 sharing at the beginning had been the most transformative experience. When Rachel arrived with her husband Dennis and Ringo, we had the chance to chat a bit and thank her in person for the wonderful class. Despite the massive attention she’s getting, Rachel has this amazing gift of making everybody feel comfortable and at home even when she’s surrounded by hordes of people (which certainly would be stressful and even intimidating for most people but didn’t seem to make her uneasy even the tiniest bit). In contrast, she made sure to talk to, hug and take pictures with as many people as possible.
The final dance party was probably the most memorable part of the entire evening. We got shiny golden balloons with little lights inside which really created a magical atmosphere as we danced to a yoga-inspired choreography and music by a local DJane. Fanny and I had the time of our lives shaking and dancing our hearts out, and when we parted with a big hug a couple of hours later it felt like I was saying good-bye to a good friend.
As I walked home along Stockholm’s waterfront that night my heart was full to bursting and I just couldn’t stop smiling. The experience of this day had really been as special as everyone had said. And not because I had gotten to practice with one of the world’s most famous yoga teachers, but because I had laughed, flowed, breathed and danced with 800 people who had all opened their hearts and shared the same collective energy. Together we had truly created Magic in Motion.
Video © Alpine Tree Films