I often like to go on and on about the beautiful teachers I had the honor of studying with. Whenever I am given the chance, I show my friends videos of Mark and Joanne Darby, or tell them stories about a certain class that I can never forget because of how emotional or physically demanding it was. In Montreal, I asked for yoga and I instantly found the right practice, the right shala and the right teachers… for me. In Dubai, however, it took me a while. But that also led to developing a home practice (one that I am trying very hard to maintain and be disciplined about). I am truly blessed to have found great and passionate ashtangis in Dubai, and I continue to enjoy attending their classes when I feel the need to be part of a group practice.
However, I also seek inspiration elsewhere… the www. Facebook has been an especially helpful tool to find yoga teachers that live and teach all over the world. Bless you social networking. Today, I am pleased to share with you the story and lifestyle of a yoga teacher in Aruba that has been helpful, inspiring and uplifting. I became part of her Facebook page a couple of months ago, reading her daily updates on the different classes she’d teach, or checking out the photos she posts of herself and of things that inspire her. I wanted to get to know her more, and share her story with you. Yogis and yoginis, ladies and lads, I give you Q&A with the beautiful Rachel Brathen! Check out her Facebook page, you WILL be inspired.
1. Readers all over the world, and I, would love to know more about Rachel Brathen. Please tell us about yourself.
My name is Rachel, I am 23 years old and a traveling yogi. I am natively Swedish, but I left Sweden at the age of 18 and have been traveling the world ever since. I currently live in Aruba with my boyfriend and our three dogs (Quila, Laika, Sgt Pepper). I am the Yoga Director of a wellness resort here on the island; I teach yoga full time and I coordinate and organize retreats – both my own, and together with visiting teachers from all over the world.
2. When did you attend your first yoga class, and where? Describe your first experience to us.
Wow… My first yoga class was in Sweden, I was a teenager, 17 I think, and I tried it out at a local gym. I didn’t have that “wow-experience”, not at all. When I was 18 and travelled to Costa Rica, I took a class in a little surfer village in the rain forest, and it was nothing like any other class I ever took. I was in a beautiful time of my life, and I think my balanced sense of being helped bring my yoga practice to a whole other level. I was more interested in the spiritual part of it, than the physical. The physical part, the asana practice, came much later. Yoga was something that grew on me, little by little. It didn’t change my life overnight, but with time. I woke up one day and realized I couldn’t imagine a day without practicing.
3. Who and what are your influences in yoga and in life? Which yoga practice suits you best?
My biggest influences in life are my sisters and brothers. They are still young, and definitely who I miss the most. Children are so much closer to the present moment than we are, and that is so inspiring to me. They still remember what we have forgotten. In yoga, I never had one teacher. I never stayed in one place, I never studied with someone, and I never belonged to a strict style of yoga. I practice what I live, and I teach it all the same. I practice, and teach, from the heart, and the heart is ever-changing… My teaching has evolved a lot this past year. My students are my most important teachers, and always will be. I teach a Vinyasa Flow, but I love to incorporate different styles of yoga in my classes.
4. Do you believe there is only one style that suits each individual?
No. When I first discovered yoga, I started practicing Ashtanga. I love Ashtanga – I think it’s one of the best styles of yoga to practice if you want to start a home practice. It’s easy to take the primary series home, to practice on your own – you’ll know what to do. But I need freedom in my practice, freedom to add and remove whatever I feel like. If one day I feel like dancing on my mat, I will! If I want to incorporate fitness moves, pilates, restorative, acroyoga, you name it.. I will. I am in a handstand-phase right now, and some days my practice equals standing on my hands for 20 minutes, and that’s all I’ll do that day. Some days I need something restorative, and I’ll end up with my legs up the wall. And others, I end up with a “regular” practice. For me, freedom to practice whatever my body feels like is important. And I think it’s the same for everyone – you need to find what works for you. We’re not made to fit in a mold, and you need to try different things to figure out what works for you. In the end, what matters is that you practice, not how or what.
5. What is your favorite asana? If you have more than one, please do share.
Right now – Adho Mukha Vrksasana. I practice handstands everywhere, all the time. It’s the first thing I do when I get out of bed, and the last thing I do before going to sleep. I practice on the beach, in parking lots, in the grocery store, in class – I can’t stop! But it’s a phase, and it will pass. I can go a little crazy over one asana for a bit, have so much fun practicing and learning it, and then go back to normal. My favorite restorative pose is Viparita Karani (legs up the wall) – it’s the best thing for my back, and always winds me down after a long day. Other than that, I’m a big fan of plank pose. I love core work.
6. How did yoga change/impact your life?
Yoga healed my back. I have scoliosis and an externally rotated, elevated hip. Meaning:I’ve had a lot of pain, my whole life. Yoga fully transformed my back – it gave me strength to support me, and the flexibility to create space. I still get back aches from time to time, but it does not control my life anymore. Also, yoga taught me how to breathe. I have asthma, and breathing right was always a huge challenge for me. If you’re not breathing right, nothing works… Yoga keeps me present.
7. Have you suffered from any physical injuries? Did yoga help you through them? If so, how?
See above. I have some issues from birth, but also went through a pretty bad car crash when I was 16 that made everything worse. Almost every woman in my family has the same back problems, and many of them have had surgery to get rid of the pain. I didn’t want surgery, but thought there had to be a better way. Thanks to yoga, I don’t need it anymore.
8. Why did you decide to leave your home country, Sweden, and move to Aruba?
I was always an explorer at heart. I love Sweden, but there is a part of me that wants to keep exploring the world. Sweden is cold, and dark, and sub-zero degrees and darkness don’t do so well with me. I need sunshine. I spent a few years in Costa Rica, and traveling from Central America to the states, before I ended up in Aruba. I love it here – I feel so at home; and I get to teach yoga full time. It’s hard to find that, a place that you love with an opportunity to make your passion part of your work. Aruba is amazing. Come visit, and you’ll see!
9. How did you come up with the idea of paddle board yoga? What is the sequence practiced during these sessions?
I did not invent this, but I’d never seen it before I started trying it out. My boyfriend is a surfer, and he sometimes takes our dogs longboarding. I always thought; “if you can get a dog and a 6”4 man on there, I should be able to do a downward dog on the water!”. I couldn’t. Regular surfboards don’t have that floatation, or the volume. So I went to one of the local surf centers here, and borrowed a paddle board. The paddle boards are made to be stood up on; they are long, thick and really wide. I only wanted to try it out, but before I knew it I had been practicing on the board for an hour and a half, and I had a whole audience on the beach cheering me on. It really fascinates people, paddle board yoga. So I took some friends out on the water, and within a week I started giving classes. Now I teach about 3-4 paddle board yoga classes a week. I take around 8 people out with me for each session (I would take more, but we don’t have enough boards!). We practice in waist-deep water; if you fall off (and trust me, you will), you just get right back up again. We start with basic poses, seated, working our way through table top and eventually up to standing. Standing poses are the trickiest ones – the closer to the board you are, the easier it is to find balance. Paddle board yoga classes are my favorite classes right now – we spend so much time laughing; it takes some the seriousness out of yoga, and I like that. Yoga is, and should be, fun!
10.How long have you been teaching for? What constructs a yoga class with Rachel from beginning to end? Tell us a little bit about your yoga classes.
I have been teaching for two years. I still feel like a beginner teacher; but I teach so much that in a way I feel like I’ve been doing this for decades. Right now I teach close to 20 hours a week – if you know someone interested in moving to Aruba, I’m looking for an assistant!
My classes are heart-centered, present moment-oriented and pretty high-paced. I focus a lot on the breath, and like to get a good balance between sweating your ass off, and calming down to connect. I put emotion in my teaching; it’s inevitable; I love it so much. Teaching for me is a way of meditating; I have to be so present that sometimes I can hardly even remember what I just taught. I just know, if I feel good, my students feel good. And the other way around.
11. If your students could take one thing out of yoga, what would you want that to be?
To stay present, and not get too caught up in the workings of the mind. To stay connected to the ever-present love that binds us all. To breathe. (that was three things, I know, but they all go hand-in-hand). Love is always the most important thing.
12. What is your life mantra?
Trust that life will always take you where you are supposed to be. This, too, shall pass.
13. Are you engaged in any other physical activities, besides asana practice? What other activities has yoga led you to?
I windsurf. I paddle board, through the paddle board yoga. I sometimes take my friends pool aerobics classes, they are super fun. But I am not really engaged in any other activity the way I am with yoga. I used to run, I don’t anymore I definitely never step foot in a gym. I like to spend time in the ocean. And I walk my dogs. 🙂
14. If you can describe yoga in one word, what would that be?
15. How long have you been a vegan for? Is it challenging/difficult?
For about five years. It’s never been difficult, before this year. Right now, it’s extremely difficult, even. Aruba is such a small island, and very few things grow here. Everything is imported, and we can’t get anything organic. There is no health food store on the island, no vegetarian restaurant…. I’m out of luck here. Since I teach so much, and work very varied hours (some nights I get home at 11pm), I do not have time to cook – I need something fast, and ready. So I am in a bit of a transition right now, introducing some new things in my diet… I’ve had some cheese, and I survived. But I know it’s not what my body needs, or even wants. I am looking to teach less next year, and hopefully then I’ll be able to cook more. Veganism is without doubt the one diet that has done wonders for me, and I don’t want to lose it.
16. Many people from different parts of the world associate religion with the practice of yoga. What are your thoughts on this?
People do that here too. I hear it all the time; “oh no, I can’t practice yoga – I’m catholic!”. Some people think that yoga is a religious thing; that you have to be a Hindu or a Buddhist. Yoga is not a religion; it’s a practice, and it goes together with whatever beliefs you already have. You can take Jesus on the mat with you! Increasing your connection to the present moment, moving your body with your breath, all of this can strengthen your bond with whatever God you believe in. Yoga is prayer, it’s devotion. Use it your own way – make it yours!
17. The people of Dubai are very hard working, driven and hungry for success, but they also like to relax during their time off and take care of themselves. The yoga community is growing – many more people are becoming interested in the practice and yoga lifestyle. What advice/tips would you give the residents of Dubai?
I think Dubai is much like Aruba – yoga is new here too, and what’s new is always a little bit scary at first. For yoga to grow as a community, it needs to be accessible to everyone. Meaning – try not to label it too much. You can practice yoga for the physical benefits and the physical benefits only, that’s ok. It doesn’t have to be all spirituality and meditation – those things usually come automatically later anyway. Or if meditation is what’s needed, yoga doesn’t have to be all asana either. Find out what the community needs, and work with that. Everybody wants to de-stress. Everybody wants to connect. Every person wants peace of mind. If yoga is new; make it fun, interesting, give donation based classes in the parks, start offering it in hotels, gyms, schools… With dedication and positive spirit, it will catch on. Whatever you do with love will prosper. So keep teaching, keep sharing, and do it all from the heart. I can’t wait to come visit one day!
Love and light,