Zibby Owens: I am just so excited to be interviewing Rachel Brathen today. She's the founder and CEO of Yoga Girl and the author of the New York Times best-selling book also called Yoga Girl. She's an international yoga teacher, the founder of oneOeight.com, which is an online platform for yoga, meditation, and healing, and the cofounder of Island Yoga Studios in Aruba. She established Sgt. Pepper’s Foundation, an animal rescue foundation, and Yoga Girl Foundation benefitting women and children in need. She hosts the “From the Heart” podcast with over ten million downloads. Her latest memoir is To Love and Let Go: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Gratitude, which I loved. A Swedish native, she currently lives in Aruba with her husband Dennis and their daughter Lea Luna. I got to interview her live at the Simon & Schuster offices. I did an Instagram live. Here is our recording.
Welcome, Rachel. Thank you so much for being on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” This is such a treat for me. Thank you.
Rachel Brathen: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so excited to be here.
Zibby: Can you tell listeners what To Love and Let Go is about? Also, what inspired you to write it?
Rachel: To Love and Let Go essentially is about a year in my life where I had the most amazing things happen and the most terrible things happen at the same time. My best friend passed away really tragically in a car accident. She was supposed to be the bridesmaid in my wedding. Three months after that, I got married to my husband, which was a highlight, of course. Then my grandmother passed away. Then we lost our dog. Then my mom tried to commit suicide. This all happened in the scope of one single year. It was a really big journey for me. Already then, I knew I wanted to write these stories down because I had so many intricate moments of things that felt like divine intervention, little miracles that happened in those really dark times. I wanted to write about it. It’s taken me five years to actually complete the book.
Zibby: Five years is really not bad when you think about how much went on in just one year. It can take people a lifetime to get this kind of stuff down.
Rachel: You're right when you look at it like that.
Zibby: You were finishing Yoga Girl also.
Rachel: Yeah, at that same time. Yes, maybe it’s not so strange that it took me a little while.
Zibby: You've got to give yourself some credit. Yoga Girl became a best-selling book as well. That was less life story-ish. Tell me about the differences between the books.
Rachel: Yoga Girl is a pop-y colorful book. I tell my story. There's definitely some depth in there. There's also yoga sequences and recipes, a little bit more like a how-to to give people a doorway into the practice of yoga. It was a lighter book to write. It didn't take me very long to write it. I knew the story I wanted to tell. Then when I was finishing the American version of that book, all of these things happened that led to the second book. In a way, touring To Love and Let Go now, it’s this completion of a cycle somehow.
Zibby: I love what you said on Instagram about going back to Austin and where you were the first time you were there. Now you're back.
Rachel: We’re going to same bookstores or the same kind of events we had four years ago. People keep showing me photos of the photo we took then with the first book. Then they were in the same place with the second book. It’s nice to meet everyone.
Zibby: I have to say your book came into my life, I feel like, through divine intervention exactly when I needed it. I had lost my best friend on 9/11 when we were twenty-five years old. This time of year brings all of that back for me. Getting your book right then, I was in it, but I was with you and all of your loss. I got this book for a reason.
Rachel: I'm so sorry for your loss.
Zibby: It’s okay. Hearing all of the stuff you went through -- not to compare losses because everybody's experience is obviously so different. You gave me exactly what I needed when I needed it. I know you've been there for so many other people in that same way. Just a quick thank you. Then I’ll dive into all the things I want to ask.
Rachel: Thank you. I love the timing of things. I think that's always how books work, though.
Zibby: They find you.
Rachel: We get them when we’re supposed to receive them.
Zibby: That's so nice. A couple things I want to talk about in the book. You included a lot of scenes from different meditation retreats and yoga conferences and retreats where you have all these huge releases of emotion. They're really overpowering. The way you describe them is beautiful. You're right there with you. One time you said, “Every word that came out of my mouth came both as news to me -- I didn't know that I had been feeling that way -- and as something I knew as absolute truth.” You even commented on how crazy it is that usually we keep all of that anger inside. You said, “Letting it out isn't what's crazy. Holding it in is.” I wanted to hear more about that release. Also, do you have to go to a meditation retreat? How does the average person get that anger or those feelings out without have to take ayahuasca?
Rachel: Or do something wild and crazy. I think it’s strange that this is such an overlooked part of our lives, honestly. We are never really taught any sensible way to release any kind of emotion. Even for a lot of people, releasing intense joy or gratitude, people tell us we’re too much. We don't want to be too happy. We’re also not taught how to actually process emotions like fear or anger or sadness. We’re supposed to keep it together all the time. I can see it now as a parent, how hard it is to raise a child. I want to raise her in a way where she can feel her emotions and express how she feels and not put the lid on because it’s uncomfortable for me or in a social situation. It’s really hard. We turn into these adults. We have these smiles plastered on our face all day long. People ask, “How you doing?” “Fine.” We’re fine. Even when we’re not fine, we say we’re fine. The only way to heal through really intense moments of grief or despair or challenge is to feel the feelings that are there. We’re not taught how to do that. We escape. We self-medicate. We go around them. We pretend they're not there. Of course with time, we get depressed. We find ourselves in a huge life crisis. Whatever’s under the surface is going to bubble over eventually, or we get physically ill. It’s going to manifest somehow.
For me, I've had a lot of those big moments of, whether it’s been at a retreat or in ceremony or in a way where it’s orchestrated, where you feel safe, and then it’s easier to release those kinds of emotions. I try to have the practice of, every day, feeling my feelings somehow. This is what I try to teach people through the work that I do. That's what we do in my retreats and things like that too. When I'm feeling sad, what's my immediate gut reaction to that? For me, sadness usually shows up as anger. I get annoyed. Don't talk to me. Everybody's doing everything wrong. I blame. Then I have to get to a place where I can actually, what's here? I'm actually hurt by something. That's why I'm acting this way. What I need is a really good cry. I need to cry every day, which is a big realization, at least for me to have.
Whenever I get to that place where I feel overwhelmed by emotion, what I need is not to soldier on or push through, but some space alone or someone to talk to or someone to vent with or a physical moment of releasing that emotion, whatever it is, which can be a five-minute crazy dance party in my living room or beating the hell out of a pillow in my bed. I go to the ocean. I live in a secluded place. I can do this -- I go to the ocean and yell sometimes, some sort of physical release of that energy because you need it. You really need it. In New York where we are now, it’s so evident how many people need that kind of release. We don't really have the space to do it. It’s something life changing. It’s not accepted in our society to have a meltdown at the grocery store when we’re an adult.
Zibby: Although, I've wanted to.
Rachel: Right, but we don't.
Zibby: We have sunglasses or whatever.
Rachel: Then that energy has to go somewhere. Where does it go?
Zibby: Nowhere good. It’s good to keep in mind that it’s okay to let that out regularly. In fact, it’s imperative to do so.
Rachel: Yes, find our own ways.
Zibby: We don't hear that enough. That’s good to be the voice of that. This dovetails with what you said in the book. This is during this horrendous -- how do you even pronounce this? -- ayahuasca experience. Literally, I could feel the fictious spiders crawling up my skin the way you wrote it. You said, “What we resist persists, whether it’s pain, anxiety, fear, loss. Whatever emotions you feel, don't fight it. Experience it. Feel it all. Lean into it. Surrender to it. Breathe into it fully. Open your arms wide and welcome it all. Let go. It will lead you to the light.” I loved that passage. Tell me about that experience and how you got to that moment. Then you carry that through the rest of book. Whenever you go up against all these tough situations, you're like, “No, no. I'm going into the pain. I'm releasing. Then I can deal with it.”
Rachel: It wasn’t until now that I'm doing some press for the book that I realized that this ayahuasca chapter was a big deal. A lot of people are picking up on it. I hope I'm not selling it as something that's easy to do or easily accessible.
Zibby: Now I feel like a failure that I picked something so common. I try to find things that are not so common.
Rachel: No, because in the yoga community, it’s kind of common, not common, but in my community, a lot of people have done ayahuasca or know what it is. In the rest of world, it’s like, what is this insane hallucinogenic -- it’s totally crazy and totally insane. It’s not something that I recommend people seek out, especially if it’s not a trusted environment.
Zibby: I do not think your book was an advertisement for this in any way. In fact, it was a run for the hills if this thing is even near you type of situation. Do not worry.
Rachel: [laughs] Good. I don't do drugs. Any mind-altering substance, I've always been super terrified of my whole life. Everyone else who was at this ceremony with me had experiences with psilocybin or LSD, mushrooms, those kinds of things. I didn't. I was a little, not naïve, but I didn't really know the extent of what I was getting into. I ended up having this life lesson that changed my life. I still experience the effects of that lesson. It was so palpable because I got to have this complete experience of all of my worst nightmares -- like an acid trip gone wrong, essentially -- all my worst nightmares happening at the same time with this realization that I am about to die. It wasn't this thought or a fear that maybe I'm going to die. It was this hundred percent truth that I am on the verge of death. There's no escaping it. I'm going to die. I'm not going to make it.
Somehow, that was too much. That energy was too much for my mind to cope with. I had this very physical experience of letting go. Why fight it? I'm going to die anyway. I'm not going to make it. Why fight? It was very physical. I can tap into that feeling still. The moment I did, everything changed. It was this huge shift from darkness to absolute light, this god-like experience I'd read about in all the sacred texts and that you hear about in yoga class or meditation or spiritual books, this oneness somehow. I remind myself of that all the time. I get reminded of that all the time when I'm in a place and I'm resisting. When things are really hard, I can't push my way through all of these things. They're here for a reason. The easier way to process this is to allow. It doesn't mean I have to stay in a shitty situation, but to accept where I am and then take action from there.
Zibby: I feel like I should just follow you around. You keep having this divine light shine on you and light up the water you are. You're like an angel. If I could just scooch behind you, I would be getting these rays of divinity or something.
Rachel: [laughs] I wish that was the case all the time.
Zibby: I feel like it should've been a subtitle of this book, something like The Light in Me. To go on another emotional track here, losing your friend Andrea -- I'm sorry to bring this up so callously in the midst of a thirty-minute interview. The first chapter of this book might be the best first chapter I've ever read. It was so dramatic. You didn't know what was coming, and your sickness at the same time and not knowing what was happening with you. I couldn't believe it. I stopped reading and told my husband, “Oh, my god, this first chapter. See you in two days. I'm reading the rest of this book right now.” Of course, I'm so sorry for your loss. You wrote about these emotions in such a raw, open way as if you were going through them now. I was wondering now that some time has passed, how you reflect back on that initial period of loss and grief and if you've managed to find -- obviously, a lot of good has come in that you've made a lot of spiritual progress. You've helped so many other people. What would you think are any positives that might have come out of such a horrendous situation?
Rachel: It’s such a hard question to answer. I am a big fan of the term or the cliché, to trust that life takes you where you're supposed to be. I share that a lot. I wrote that in my first book a lot. Then when I was moving through all of this intense grief and loss, that was the most insulting thing anyone could ever say. “Everything happens for a reason,” that's a really insulting thing to say to someone who just lost someone. I don't believe that death has to be purposeful, like it’s all for a reason. It took me somewhere. I believe more in the sense of finding some sort of purpose in loss. Would I take all of it back, any good things that have come from this, if I could have five more minutes with my best friend? Absolutely. Wouldn't even think about it.
The growth that happens from moving through those kinds of struggles, it shapes you in a way that I can sense in my bones. That was supposed to happen. That growth, I was supposed to learn these things. I was supposed to have my heart crack open in these ways. I was supposed to know how to touch this level of grief and sorrow so that I can speak on it and touch other people in that same way who are moving through similar things. That was supposed to happen. Did it have to happen by her dying in that way? Hopefully not. I'd like to believe that we’re meant to go through some sort of struggle. Then we get what we get. We've got to do what we can, live with that. It’s a hard concept. I really believe in the spiritual truth that we are where we are. It’s a hard part of grief, wanting to go back to something that isn't there anymore or wishing for something to be different or “That shouldn't have happened. She shouldn't have died.” I still think that's true. She shouldn't have died, but here we are. It’s this concept I still struggle with a lot.
Zibby: I also thought it was so powerful, the part when you were in the retreat after your dog had passed away. You were overcome by remorse and wishing you could've done something to help. I can't remember her name. I can't remember who was working with you on it. She said something like, “Would you have done everything you could to save your dog?”
Rachel: Shuba [sp].
Zibby: You couldn't. You couldn't have saved him. You would have, but you did everything you could. It’s just another way of looking at it. I didn't say that very well. You know what I'm saying.
Rachel: I remember because of course I knew that. If I could've saved him, would I have saved him? Of course. Sometimes we have to hear things in this moment where we’re actually open to receiving it, which is why I think when we move through loss, we can have a hundred people tell us all the nice things. We can read all the nice books. Then we’re just not ready to actually listen. For some of us, that's a lifetime of not being able to feel safe enough to open up into a place where we can actually use the pain in a way. My mom is a great example of that. She lost her fiancé when she was twenty-five. She spent fifteen years not thinking about it, not talking about it, not processing it. It was this chapter we tore out of our lives. Then her healing process started. Then it was like it happened yesterday. That time doesn't matter at all. Timing and feeling safe and having the resources and the support to actually hold our hands as we move through these things because we can't do it alone.
Zibby: I have to say, I started getting a little worried about you. You were having such intense panic attacks in this book. You were having times you thought you were going to die and trying to call somebody like, “I can't breathe.” I could feel you trying to gasp for air with these horrific panic attacks. I just wanted to make sure you got some sort of treatment for that, or you're seeing somebody to talk about it, or you have some medication or something. [laughter] I'm worried you're going to walk down the street and have another panic attack. Do you feel like you have it under control?
Rachel: I never felt that way in my life, actually.
Zibby: It was just then?
Rachel: It was just then. I'm really grateful I had the experience. In my trainings and retreats and groups that I do, I see so many people who suffer from anxiety and anxiety attacks and panic attacks. It’s like teaching yoga. Any physical ailments you've had are the greatest resource you have. It’s not until you've had intense back pain that you actually know how to teach someone who's moving through intense back pain, similarly with guiding someone through something emotional like that. I would have people come to class, “I suffer from panic attacks.” I would go, “Oh,” but I didn't understand what that meant until I had one. It was this, oh, my god, I'm about to die, death is imminent now, and then realizing that didn't originate from this physical place inside of me. It wasn't just my throat closing up. It’s this grief being overwhelmed by too much emotion.
It’s not something that was reoccurring. It was just during this time in my life where, I can see now, where I didn't have an outlet to talk about it. I wasn't sharing. I wasn't speaking. I wasn't seeing a therapist. I was like, everything's great now. I've moved now. I hadn’t. The best way through for anyone who suffers is to make sure that we have the outlet to speak about it, that we don't keep these things to ourselves. Everything that we keep in the dark, it grows. Then it becomes this unbearable thing until we shine a light on it. Then it’s like, oh, I'm not alone in this. I can manage it. We have to speak about it all the time.
Zibby: Another thing I found really interesting in your book is that you have all these followers. You have two million Instagram followers. Everywhere you go people are reaching out and hugging you. You talk about the mixed feelings you had, especially at the beginning of basically, fame. Everywhere, especially in certain communities where you went, people wanted to touch you. You're like the Dalai Lama or something walking among these people.
Rachel: Oh, god. [laughs]
Zibby: No, seriously. The way you describe it, even on Instagram when you showed the line of people wrapped around just waiting and saying how you hugged five hundred people, that has to take a lot out of you as a person. How do you take care of yourself? I know you have all these meditation and yoga and all these healthy things you do. What do you do at the end of a long day when you're exhausted by some event like the other day at your reading? How do you get through the day-to-day?
Rachel: Someone just asked me that in a book event.
Zibby: Oh, no! Another question someone asked you! I will ask you an original question.
Rachel: There was hundreds of people there. Then, “You're going to hug all of us.” At the end of this day, “What's the secret?” I felt like she's waiting for me to give her this Sanskrit mantra that I do or the specific meditation. I drink a lot of wine. [laughs]
Zibby: Good. I don't want a mantra. I want to know the brand of chocolate that you eat to cope. That is what I'm looking for here.
Rachel: The secret that I've found that really works for me is when I'm on, I'm on. I can walk that. I can go on tour. I can be on all day, all night, hug a thousand people, and really be there and not have to fake it. Then when I'm off, I turn off. That's when I struggle. For instance, on this tour, if we have an off day in between and then I meet someone accidentally, they're not going to get the best version of me because then I'm in this private space. I don't really want to talk to anybody. I want to go take a yoga class and not have someone next to me bring their phone out. Then I get pissy with people. [laughs] I have the contrast of knowing when to be on. I live on an island in the middle of nowhere. There's three houses on our road, no people around. That's how I rebalance. I get to be really off and not. It’s two totally different sides to my life. And then wine and the yoga. You do the yoga. You drink the wine. You eat the chocolate. You meditate. You feel your feelings, all of it, whatever works.
Zibby: You've built this whole community around your desire to help people and have people help each other, lift each other up, admit to our feelings, heal together. It’s really a beautiful thing that you're doing. On your website, you say it’s “A new lifestyle, movement, and brand to heal and change the world,” just to have minor, little goals here, and that “everyone can be a yoga girl.” Maybe this is an oxymoron. How can you be a yoga girl if you don't necessarily have time to do yoga classes? How can you tap into that if you don't have time to do the other stuff? I know I touched on this before, but this is what I'm really focused on. A lot of people don't have time to take yoga or even meditate or whatever but want to tap into the part of your community where we can help each other. How can we do that?
Rachel: When we expanded onto that platform, it was a really conscious choice that I made. I don't want to be at the center of all of this anymore. It’s really important for me that this is about community. We’re lifting each other up. The yoga practice, the physical poses we practice on the mat, that's just a tool. It’s a tool that's worked really well for me. It’s working for a lot of people. It doesn't have to be that every day we make our way to some fancy yoga studio and we pay thirty bucks to go take a ninety-minute yoga class. For many of us, it’s the five minutes we spend breathing while we just dropped our kid off at school or right before we go to bed. It’s making the active choice to sit in silence or journal or call up that friend. We’re all on that path searching for that kind of self-love. For me at least, the embodiment of being a yoga girl is that we’re searching together.
The clue to all of this or the glue that holds everything together is we have to heal ourselves first before we can really ever help anybody else. The moment we do, the moment we start filling our own cup, whether it’s through community, through friendship, through yoga, through family, all the tools that we have and the beautiful things that we have, we’re going to all of a sudden realize that we have so much. Then that can overflow. We can actually do something that's of service to the rest of the world. It can't just be me and my yoga and my green juice and my health, and that's the end of it. It has to be I'm healing something that needs to be healed here so that I can look up and around and see that there's a whole sea of people that need me. We all have something unique to give to the world. We’re never going to be actually able to give that to someone else if we’re still working through the pain that we have inside. That's what the Yoga Girl community is about. It’s filling our cup and then helping the world in different ways.
Zibby: From a time management perspective, you do so much in your life. You're leading yoga retreats and classes all over the world. You run yoga studios in Aruba. You have this Yoga Girl community. You have two nonprofits, one for animals, Sgt. Pepper’s Foundation, and one for women and children. You host “From the Heart” podcast, which was so good. You have a toddler who I fell in love with from the pictures. Oh, my gosh. When do you do everything? You don't have to go into the nitty-gritty. That's such a cliché question. How do you balance it all? From a time management perspective, what are your tricks? How do you fit it into a day?
Rachel: It’s similar to the idea that I have of on and off. I'm a very efficient person. Under pressure and a short amount of time, I can get a lot of things done. I'd rather have a really intense five-hour workday so that I can be really off and spend time with my daughter at the end of that, than philander around and do a little bit here and a little bit there. Then all of a sudden, I'm working all day long. It feels like it’s this never ending -- especially if you work with social media, there's a blurry line between work and personal. I don't really have a clear line there. The key to everything is having really good people around you. I have an amazing team. I delegate a shit ton. My goal every day is everything that I can delegate, I delegate. Then there are things that no one will ever be able to do. No one can teach my classes. No one can record my podcast. No one can record my books, take my photos, film the things, whatever it is. That's what I really focus on in a day. I used to think that I should do everything, and I should have my fingers in everything and control everything and make sure everything is up to what I what, but then realizing that there's other people who do those things better than I ever could. A little bit of letting go helps a lot.
Zibby: It’s on theme with your title.
Rachel: [laughs] Very on theme.
Zibby: You could do a little time management pamphlet that goes along with the book. Give me a little credit in the acknowledgments. You can do that book next. Actually, speaking of next, are you doing another book? I know you're in the throes of this one. This was such a powerful, emotional book. You couldn't possible replicate something like this. What are your plans coming up?
Rachel: For future books, I have this dream now from meeting people who've finished the book and seeing people, how they reacted and responded to the book. I would love to do a handbook for people who are moving through the shittiest time of their life in a more digestible way, almost like a little how-to, not that it’s going to save anybody's life in that sense, but to have something when it comes to actual actionable things that I did to take me through, the exercises to feel your feelings, how to move the body, taking care of ourselves in that sense. That's just a little seed planted in my brain right now. We have an online platform, yogagirl.com, where I have a lot of new live videos, yoga and meditation classes also to help people move through challenging times. I'm focusing on that. Then eventually, I'm going to take a vacation. That's also next.
Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?
Rachel: I love that. We spend a lot of time focused on all the things that might not work out. At least that's what I see a lot, that little critical voice in the back of our heads that tells us, “No one’s going to like this book. No one’s going to pick this book up. You'll never get it published.” Sometimes that voice keeps us from even trying. As soon as we start writing, we make the decision, “I'm going to go for this.” It sets this universal law in place. We start to have energy drawn toward the thing we’re creating. Then all of a sudden, doors will open that we didn't see before we started. It’s the best piece of advice I could ever give. Just do the thing. Start. Write the book. Do the project. Start the business, whatever it is. Especially when it comes to writing, we have to write first. A lot of us feel like, “I have a book inside of me,” but then we don't actually get to the point of putting the wheels in the motion of actually writing it. Having a good intention, and then taking action, and then doing that every day.
Zibby: Did you carve out time every day? How did you do it? I know your husband Dennis gave you a notebook. You were sitting on a dock. It just flowed out of you. How did you incorporate that into...?
Rachel: The original deadline for this book was 2016, for the manuscript to be handed in. That happened, 2018 at some point. I am not the kind of person who writes a little bit every day. I wish I was. That discipline, “I'm going to write five hundred words every day,” then eventually you have a book. I'm more, “I have a deadline. Everybody's going to kill me. What the hell? Got to write this book,” and then squeeze it out. For this book, because I had my notebooks and I had things I'd shared on social media, my diaries, it was piecing all of that together. It was mostly hard because it was such emotional work. Every chapter, I was just bawling my eyes out and had to pause and come back with a fresh mind. That was part of why this took a really long time.
Zibby: If you could go back to the Envision music festival that you went to with Andrea before she passed away -- that was your last week of hardcore time together that you wrote about so amazingly well -- is there anything you would go back and tell yourself now having lived through all of this afterwards?
Rachel: I don't think we could have enjoyed that more. I couldn't have improved that experience. If anything, I would try to change the course of time somehow so that she wouldn't get in the car ten days later. I don't think I could have. It was the best, looking at it now. I was even thinking, am I romanticizing it because it happened? Sometimes we look at the relationship or the last moment we had as, it was so good, but I made it into something bigger than it was, but it wasn't. It was exactly that. It was amazing.
Zibby: The song that you had, “and the good things keep, coming, coming, coming.”
Rachel: I believe in the good things coming.
Zibby: I played it last night. I was typing up your questions.
Rachel: You did? Isn't he amazing?
Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Then I'm sending my husband the song. It was good. Now I feel like you've given me a soundtrack. You've given me tools. I have my little yoga manual. I can go off in this nicely packaged way. Thank you for everything you've given me and for the amazing experience of just reading this book and getting to share your life so openly and all your emotions and all your posts and letting the world in to help everybody else. It’s a really beautiful thing that you're doing.
Rachel: Thank you so much. Thanks for reading it.
Zibby: Thanks for taking the time for this.
Rachel: Thanks for having me. You're so lovely to talk to. Thank you.
Zibby: Thank you.