Hop into something comfy and let’s get started!” This is how Adriene Mishler, YouTube’s biggest yoga guru, begins many of her videos. For those of us who are not spending our quarantine days writing an update of King Lear or attempting to follow along with Barry’s Bootcamp on Instagram, Mishler’s just-show-up approach to yoga is a comfort and a welcome distraction. In recent months, she has been described as “the patron saint of quarantine” (Paper magazine), “the most influential yoga teacher on the planet” (Refinery29), and “Our saviour” (a fan on Twitter).
Mishler was already huge before the pandemic – her channel, which has more than 7 million subscribers, is the first to pop up when you search for “yoga” on YouTube – but the lockdown has catapulted her to a new level of fame. Fans on social media recommend their favourite videos, post charcoal drawings of her and express their undying devotion to her for keeping them sane. One devotee even built a digital replica of her home studio in the video game Animal Crossing. There are countless memes about her, as well as ones about her dog, a blue heeler, or Australian cattle dog, named Benji, who frequently makes cameo appearances lounging beside the mat, or wandering into shot.
Working out at home in the time of coronavirus is fraught. Most of us don’t have much space to spare, let alone weights or props to replicate the gym (or a steam room or a woman arguing on her phone while jogging on a treadmill next to you). But even for those of us committed to being deeply unambitious during this period, exercise does eventually seem like a good idea, if not just to make up for all the pasta dinners and handfuls of milk chocolate – also to alleviate boredom, or sore backs from sitting cross-legged on the couch all day, or to introduce some movement beyond padding in slippers a few feet from the bedroom to a makeshift standing desk (a laptop propped up on a cupboard), or to give the illusion of some form of routine.
Even though every form of exercise, from pilates to ecstatic dance, is being offered in online workouts, and in many cases for free, yoga seems to have risen to the top. It doesn’t require any fancy accessories – you don’t even need a mat – and there’s a meditative aspect that helps with all of our extremely warranted anxiety.
Mishler has pitched herself as the perfect first step for yoga novices. Whatever ails you, Mishler seems to have a class for it. She has videos for back pain, vulnerability (an entirely seated practice with a lot of lying in the foetal position), anger (a lot of breathing exercises and child’s pose to calm down) and self-care (literally hugging yourself). There is yoga for runners (a seven-minute full body stretch for before or after a jog) and for those in the service industry (relief from being on one’s feet all day), and even yoga for writers (“focus the brain and body inward so you can perform, create and be your best”). Some of the classes can be done in bed.
Maybe what attracts so many people to Mishler is what she’s not: she isn’t threatening, has none of the holier-than-thou quality of someone who just came back from rigorous spiritual training, and nor is she stone-faced or humourless. On screen, Mishler, who is 35, comes across as sweet and wholesome, like the one popular girl in school who was actually kind. Her classes tend to be slow-placed, with clear instructions for absolute beginners and insight for more experienced students. She’s good at telling you how to avoid injury, which is important when there’s no teacher in the room to correct or guide you deeper into a pose. She can occasionally seem a little homespun – with her Texan “howdy” – or get a little spiritual and write on her website that “Yoga is really the art of waking up”.
Right now, while we are stuck – in our cramped apartments, our crowded living rooms, our sunless basement flats, our solitary terraces – yoga offers us a solution, an escape, a way to unwind. It doesn’t come larded with the kind of ambition that drives people to train for marathons or visit the gym several times a week to lose weight. Yoga is only interested in the present, an apt philosophy at a moment when the future is so uncertain. As a teacher, Mishler is not doing anything revolutionary, but she has struck a chord in these anxious times. By not doing too much, and not asking us to do too much, she’s become the woman of the hour.
These days Mishler receives so many requests that her press office sends automated emails apologising in advance if it takes a while to respond. But after I got through to her voicemail – which features her singing a song about leaving a message to the tune of the Chili’s “baby back ribs” jingle – Mishler called me back about a minute later, apologising for missing the call.
On the phone from her home in Austin, Texas, Mishler sounded exactly like she does in her videos: extremely friendly, sincere and polite. She thanked me for asking how her quarantine is going. “It’s best-case scenario,” she said. “My boyfriend lives eight minutes away. He’s the only person that I see, and he can work at his home and I can work here. A lot of people assume I must be golden … Oh come on, buddy!” – she broke off to yell at Benji the dog, who was barking in the background. Others are having a much harder time of it, she said, such as her friends who have kids, but she admitted to having occasional wobbles. “You have your own discombobulated moment each day where you feel like you’re in the Groundhog Day movie.”
Mishler grew up in an arty family in Austin. As a teenager, she took acting classes, in which she learned about mind-body practices such as yoga. Later, while trying to make it as a professional actor – among her early roles was a cameo as “cute female student” in an episode of the TV show Friday Night Lights – she qualified as a yoga teacher and taught some classes. Her main frame of reference for exercising at home was Jane Fonda’s classic 1980s do-it-for-the-burn aerobics videos, along with Rodney Yee’s yoga DVDs, which featured a lot of instruction but not much fun.
The origins of Yoga With Adriene go back to the set of a horror movie, where she met an independent film-maker called Christopher Sharpe, who had helped create a popular YouTube channel starring his wife, the chef Hilah Johnson. Afterwards, Sharpe and Mishler stayed in touch, and in 2012, when Sharpe was looking for new YouTube projects, he asked Mishler if she wanted to start a yoga channel. In September that year, they began uploading videos.
“I had this inkling, if we all had an at-home yoga practice, it would change everything – it could become like a normal hygiene practice, or saying a prayer if you’re a spiritual person,” Mishler told me. “A daily practice that can be medicinal – you could roll out the mat if you’re stressed. That was a huge stretch in 2012, but I was so broke that I thought it was worth a try.”
Yoga studios and, really, gyms in general, can be intimidating places. There’s the fear of looking as if you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s easy to stand out by being the largest person in the room, or the only man in the yoga class, or the only woman lifting free weights, or the only person of colour, full stop. Plus, they’re expensive and they require commitment.
Mishler’s channel aimed to remove these stresses. One thing that made her videos appealing was that they weren’t filmed in a professional studio or in a fancy home, settings that were popular in older workout videos. By filming in a private space – Mishler did her workout in a living room – the videos felt more intimate and personal, tapping into the same qualities that were becoming popular in other YouTube genres, from singing covers of a song in a bedroom to cooking in regular home kitchens.
While the setting was clean and bright, it wasn’t aspirational, unlike the Rodney Yee videos, filmed on beaches with spectacular views or at the foot of snow-capped mountains. Mishler was just a nice-looking woman in a nice-enough room wearing a tank top and leggings that didn’t even match. It suited her, but it was also a deliberate decision – a strategy, even though she hates that word – to make her the yoga girl next door.
In this, Benji is a useful ally. He serves not just as a beloved pet, but as a muse and a beacon of calm as he sleeps on the sidelines. “He is a great tool for the storytelling. His presence just lends itself so well to not feeling like it’s a super-produced video,” she said, and as if he knew he was being referenced, Benji barked several times in the background. “Benji is a way to tear down the fourth wall without being pretentious. Maybe that’s too heavy of a word. We’re here together and he helps set the tone.”
As Mishler was crafting the channel’s tone, Sharpe was carefully studying how YouTube users search for yoga and other workouts, compiling lists of key terms and optimising the titles of the videos. Instead of just creating classes that might suit potential needs, they looked at Sharpe’s studies and tailored classes according to what people were searching for. This is why Mishler’s classes include Yoga for Back Pain, Yoga for Lower Back Pain, Yoga for Upper Back Pain, as well as Upper Back Love, and, of course, Lower Back Love.
The YouTube channel wasn’t an overnight hit. It took about two years of posting a new video each week to reach 200,000 subscribers, and that was the point at which it started to become commercially successful. Mishler’s videos aren’t heavily branded, but the website Social Blade, which tracks growth on YouTube, estimates that the channel could make as much as $188,500 per month on advertising revenue alone.
For hardcore fans looking to venture further into the Mishler universe, there is also a subscription service ($9.99 per month) called Find What Feels Good, in which the best-friend vibe is amped up even more, via exclusive classes, vlogs, meditations and blog posts. She also leads retreats, and holds large events for International Yoga Day each June. But this year, a retreat in Mexico City combining Spanish lessons and yoga – Mishler’s mother is Mexican – scheduled for May had to be cancelled, as did an upcoming event at the United Nations.
On 12 April, Mishler began her email newsletter with the following: “I am sending you some loving energy from my humble abode. It is Sunday. Just in case you need a reminder.” And then she included a poem, which, depending on your perspective, will be either painfully twee or gently comforting:
Today is another day in which we are blessed with the opportunity to rise,
To continue, and awaken.
To slowly nod with forgiveness,
Squint the eyes –
Just a bit,
I got this.
I attended a Californian high school that offered yoga as part of its physical education programme. At 16 I signed up for it – along with all the other misfits who weren’t enrolled in typical private-school sports such as lacrosse or field hockey – and learned crow pose and breathing techniques from a long-haired ageing hippie with a gentle demeanour. I liked it enough, but didn’t take yoga classes again until after university, when I found myself living down the street from a yoga studio.
In 2015, after I joined a studio in Manhattan, I would go to a yoga class every couple of days. This year I took the plunge, going from being a yoga student who attended class a few times a week to teaching a restorative yoga class once a week at a downtown studio called Sky Ting. I have never thought of myself as a natural teacher, but I loved it. Teaching was, frankly, kind of a power trip. I like being in charge, putting together a playlist, watching students tumble out of class in a relaxed afterglow. My classes were in the late afternoon on Thursdays. Friends came by, but so did people I didn’t know, and they started to come every week, which was thrilling: I knew what I was doing enough that people wanted more. I started in the second week of January, but was only able to teach for two months before business was suspended.
On a recent Sunday evening, I taught one class via Instagram from my sitting room. My yoga studio provided its teachers with notes on setting up, from how to best position our phones to tips on creating as inviting a space as possible in a tiny New York apartment (plants and natural light are good, dirty floors and clutter are best avoided). I tend not to speak a lot during my classes. It’s a conscious choice based on years of wishing that I could zone out and not have to hear a teacher chattering along. But a lot of silence while demonstrating poses alone in front of a screen just translates to dead air, which feels awkward, so I found myself making commentary to fill up the silence. My class, like Mishler’s, was treated to a spontaneous appearance by my bulldog, Joan, when she wandered over to investigate what I was doing. I missed touching my students, running a hand down their spine to encourage deeper relaxation or massaging their foreheads to relieve tension. But I also loved that anyone could join, and students could say hello or send a comment through the app. (That said, I could have done without the person who kept messaging me to say I should change my music.)
Because so many studios have taken their classes online, I’ve also got to tune into some of my favourite far-flung teachers and friends, from Portugal to Los Angeles. When I spoke to one of these teachers, Kyle Miller, about her experience of teaching on Zoom, she was near-rapturous. “Getting to see everyone, talk and hang out in the moments before and after class, getting to watch the students as they practise and teach right to them, it’s been incredible and unexpected,” she said. “It honestly feels like I’ve socialised. I ride a high after my streams!” Yoga teachers, it seems, are perhaps the world’s most gifted people when it comes to putting a positive spin on things.
Mishler is not really a superstar teacher like the types who headline Wanderlust – the global travelling yoga festival that is sort of like Coachella for the spiritually inclined, at which fans shell out around $200 to take massive yoga classes led by teachers talking rapturously about the need to be humble. Nor is Mishler an influencer in the current sense, posing for highly branded and sponsored photos with perfect hair. Her own Instagram is simple and relatively unflashy, featuring photos of the sky, grocery store flowers and, of course, Benji. She is careful not to sound too out-there or new age, and will often poke fun at something she says by using an exaggeratedly calm, smug-yoga-lady voice. Her online persona recalls a time when normal people could become famous on the internet for being good at being themselves – Justin Bieber before he became Justin Bieber.
Mishler acknowledges that she has made compromises to broaden her reach. She understands that she grew her audience based on a canny understanding of how to target her videos, but there is an awkward disconnect between the kind of yoga she wants to teach and what is most sought after on YouTube. Her most popular videos are, she said, “a tight race between anything that has ‘anxiety’ in the title and also the yoga for weight loss”. She feels weird about that, she says. “I do not teach yoga for weight loss, that’s not my end goal, but, you know, when that is in the title in the SEO, it attracts a lot more people than it would have otherwise,” she said, sounding a little defensive. “I know there is integrity in the content,” she said.
While the coronavirus pandemic has brought legions of new fans, it might also mean that, for the first time, Yoga With Adriene could have some real competition. Every yoga brand is trying to ride out this wave of isolation and come out with more followers at the other end. Local studios from all over the world are live-streaming from home so students can take classes with their favourite teachers, not just what’s free on YouTube. Big brands are also pushing their online classes, including Nike, Alo, Gaia, Sweaty Betty, CorePower, Lululemon and Yoga Journal. Meanwhile, on YouTube, there are now numerous videos that seem to borrow heavily from Yoga With Adriene’s formula: accessible classes performed in homey environments. New competitors include Yoga By Candace and Yoga With Tim. They both include their dogs.
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Whenever we are let out of our homes, my guess would be that yoga studios will have waiting lists. They’ll likely be different from before, operating at no more than a quarter of their usual capacity allowing students (who’ll bring their own mats) to keep two metres apart. But even with those compromises, it will probably feel better than practising one more day in front of a screen.
What seemed reassuring in quarantine might feel claustrophobic when we’re let out, and for Mishler, it’s possible that there might be a downside to being so closely associated with a strange and miserable time. While we all troop gratefully back to class, Mishler will still be taping herself at home, doing yoga to a camera in her sitting room, Benji by her side. But worrying too much about the future is not quite in the spirit of Yoga With Adriene, which is all about the here and now. As she writes on her website: “The process is the candy. Enjoy!”
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