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- October 20, 2020
Take a deep breath, put your hands together and say namaste to Adriene Mishler, the queen of quarantine yoga.
Joe Wicks may have conquered the hearts of pent-up five-year-olds but, for midlife women, the 35-year-old instructor reigns supreme.
As thousands of us take up at-home classes to keep calm and exercise inflexible bodies, YouTube‘s biggest yoga guru (7.2 million subscribers including 1.1 million Brits) is among the 500 YouTube stars who have seen the biggest increases in their subscriber base over the past four weeks.
She favours a mind and body practice which has its roots in ancient Indian philosophy. But I‘d argue there are two things that have really got us hooked.
First, she advocates ‘yoga quickies‘—classes timed to last between five and 45 minutes. She believes a little daily yoga practice goes a long way and not many of us want those intimidating hour-long classes where we work up a sweat and try to master handstands.
Secondly, she offers sessions targeted at the mood swings many people are experiencing during lockdown. There‘s yoga for anxiety, or for when you‘re angry or suffering. There is also yoga for focus and productivity, relationships and gratitude. And even, controversially, yoga for weight loss.
‘It was always my dream to see yoga being practised as a normal thing in households, a tool that we could use — like opening a medicine cabinet,‘ says Adriene, who has gained a million more followers during lockdown. ‘It‘s unfortunate that it‘s happening under these circumstances, but I‘m seeing it now.‘
Adriene is talking to me via FaceTime from her home in Austin, Texas, where her yoga videos are filmed. She lives alone with her dog Benji, who features in her broadcasts and is humorously referred to as her ‘assistant‘.
‘I‘ve been at home for a long time and I‘m starting to feel this push-pull,‘ she says. ‘One minute I‘m celebrating being alone because it‘s a bit of a respite, and the next I have discomfort and the feeling of being lonely. I‘m trying to find the balance and centre in this.‘
She grew up in a theatrical family — her parents were actors — and Adriene believed she, too, was destined for a life in theatre or films. She would practice yoga as a warm-up during rehearsals for dance shows and amateur dramatics, but a class she took at the age of 17 was her lightbulb moment.
‘It was the first time I‘d done yoga just for me, with no ulterior motive,‘ she recalls. ‘I had this moment of pure joy. It was potent and I wanted everyone to feel this.‘
Adriene undertook the hundreds of hours it takes to become a yoga teacher and, as an actor, began what she calls ‘the grind of the starving middle-class artist‘.
‘It was a hand-to-mouth way of living,‘ she says. ‘I‘d get up and teach yoga, then do a drama class with children, then nanny.
‘I‘d go and pick children up from school and do homework and dinner and fold other people‘s laundry, then drive through traffic and go to rehearsal, then have a glass of wine with my mates to decompress. I‘d get up the next day and do it all again. I did that until I was 26.
‘On Saturdays I‘d teach children‘s yoga, and the next day I‘d work the check-in table for the adult yoga class so I could take it for free.
‘Even a few years into doing Yoga With Adriene on YouTube, I was still mopping floors in studios in exchange for free classes. That‘s a huge piece of this story, because I couldn‘t afford to do regular yoga classes, and I thought there were probably others who couldn‘t afford it as well.‘
Adriene, in a crumpled beige sweater with her hair tied back and no make-up, is talking to me from her home office and we both hear the pitter-patter of paws as Benji appears. I get a glimpse of a nose and two grey ears. ‘He‘s like: ‘I know you‘re talking about me,‘ ‘ laughs Adriene.
The five-year-old dog jumps up on the day bed behind Adriene, then changes his mind and saunters out. ‘I don‘t know what I did to deserve this friendship,‘ Adriene says.
She met her business partner Chris Sharpe on the set of a film, and they decided to set up Yoga With Adriene on YouTube, posting the first videos in 2012.
‘There wasn‘t much yoga online at that time, it was very much ‘the guru passes it to the people‘,‘ she says. ‘Going into this project, I had a fear of disrespecting yoga. I wanted my teachers to be proud of me.‘
Adriene undertook the hundreds of hours it takes to become a yoga teacher and, as an actor, began what she calls ‘the grind of the starving middle-class artist‘
For this reason, she says, the initial videos concentrated on single positions. ‘The first video I ever uploaded was Sukhasana, the seated, cross-legged pose. I do feel proud that that first video is entirely about learning to sit — which is relevant big-time now, all over the world.‘
A huge 16 per cent of her subscribers are British. She says they found her online and that she met others when she did yoga roadshows in Manchester and London in 2016 and 2018.
‘I did classes in an old boxing gym in London‘s Bethnal Green and we had another with about 2,400 people in Alexandra Palace,‘ she remembers.
‘I‘ve got a lot of friends in the UK and they say people like Yoga With Adriene because there‘s a bit of self-deprecating humour going on, like little silly jokes about creaky floors.‘
One reason for her success is that she seems so unpretentious. Having recently taken some of her classes, I can testify that she comes across as authoritative, with a calm presence. It feels like exercising with a friend because she is so warm.
With other virtual yoga classes, I‘ve tied myself in knots trying to look at the teacher and do the positions simultaneously. With Adriene I rarely had to look at the screen because you can achieve the poses mostly just by listening to her.
I like the ‘shopping list‘ aspect of her videos, too. During the current health crisis there are days when people feel OK and others when they feel anxious. There are classes to suit all our many moods.
She nods. ‘A lot of people think you have to do it one way — like ‘I‘m an ashtanga yogi‘ or ‘I only do vinyasa‘. But that, for me, has never made sense. We are not the same people from day to day spiritually, mentally and physically. That‘s why I love the mantra ‘find what feels good‘.
‘Everything isn‘t going to feel good all the time, but it‘s about your willingness to stay curious and be present with what you‘re feeling today.‘
Her yoga for beginners workout has 28 million views, so she seems to have found a way of teaching that people can relate to.
‘I wouldn‘t be at the place I am now if I hadn‘t done the studies and tried everything from bikram to binyasa,‘ she says, naming two yoga disciplines.
But, she adds: ‘I‘m influenced by an acting training called the Suzuki Method and its sister training called The Viewpoints.
‘It‘s about being present in one moment and allowing it to flow to the next and about breath control and voice, so there‘s a lot of crossover.‘
I was surprised to see that she broadcasts yoga videos for weight loss — a big claim. Intense styles of yoga help you burn the most calories, but restorative yoga is not especially physical and I would not expect to lose weight with it.
Her business partner suggested the weight-loss series to help the videos rise through search rankings, I discover.
‘I don‘t dread this question like I used to,‘ Adriene says. ‘I‘m grateful for the chance to speak.
‘I used to say to my team , ‘let‘s take this out as we‘re at the point where we don‘t need it. We‘ve got millions of subscribers‘.
‘But, looking at the numbers, the difference between a video that says ‘weight-loss‘ versus anything else is unbelievable. What it tells me is there are many people who want to lose weight and they‘re struggling. Maybe they could be supported more by the practice I‘m sharing.
‘If I were to remove those videos, all the people searching for yoga for weight loss are going to find videos that might not make them feel so supported. I‘ve seen those videos and I don‘t think they‘re healthy.‘
Her numbers in this area are staggering. There are 24 videos in the weight-loss series and the top four are her fat-burning workout (8.9 million), her total body workout (3.1 million), her health energy flow workout (3.3 million) and hips and abs (3.6 million).
‘I keep them up so people can find us and hear that it‘s OK to create some changes, but you have to know why. What‘s the point of losing weight or having toned muscles if you‘re still looking in the mirror and you don‘t love who you see?‘
These days, she makes money through advertising revenue on YouTube and has a growing number of subscribers who pay $9.99 a month (around £8), which helps subsidise her 600 free videos. She is also writing a book and developing a travel show.
When not working, she also sees her boyfriend regularly — lockdown rules in Texas are not as stringent as in other parts of the U.S. He built a software company, then sold it and is now a writer. They only met six months ago but she says happily: ‘He‘s a doll, I‘m very lucky.‘
For those of us without Adriene‘s years of practice (and flexibility) but perhaps hoping to make yoga a habit during lockdown, she is typically encouraging. You can even practise it in your pyjamas, Adriene points out — the hardest part of the practise is showing up.
‘I also think it‘s OK to have fun during these difficult times,‘ she says. ‘There‘s yoga for loneliness if you need it, but it‘s also OK to have fun on that mat or towel and to welcome the light moments. They can be really healing.‘