The Morning Call (Sunday)

Bringing yoga to everyone.

Can the YouTube celebrity Adriene Mishler help us learn to live better lives in front of the computer?

- By Molly Young

THE LAST STRANGER Adriene Mishler hugged before the pandemic was a woman who may or may not have sideswiped her car. It was Friday, the 13th of March, and Ms. Mishler, a YouTube yoga celebrity with more than eight million subscriber­s, was driving back to her house in Austin, Texas. It was exactly a week after the city canceled the annual South by Southwest festival. A female driver in a tan or gold sedan scraped the side of Ms. Mishler’s vehicle and, instead of pulling over like a decent person, raced off. The yoga guru gave chase.

“I was not going to chew them out,” Ms. Mishler said later, reflecting on the incident. “I didn’t give a [expletive] about exchanging insurance or anything — well, obviously I did.” But that wasn’t the point of catching the driver. The point was to have a conversati­on with that person about the importance of goodness and accountabi­lity at a time of global and local turbulence.

As Ms. Mishler pursued the driver, she plotted out the interactio­n in her head. She lost the car, then found it again as it turned into a parking lot outside a thrift store. She parked and got out to examine the other car, which had damage in a location that aligned with where the accident occurred. She followed the woman inside.

“Hi, I’m so sorry to bother you, and this is going to sound really weird, but did you just hit a car 15 or 20 minutes ago?”

The woman denied it. And as soon as she spoke, Ms. Mishler could tell this person wasn’t the perp; she had accidental­ly followed someone else driving a similar car into the parking lot. Ms. Mishler was mortified and apologized. As they parted, the woman stopped her and said that she loved doing Ms. Mishler’s yoga videos. This is something that has happened with increasing regularity as the videos have exploded in popularity. The two women embraced. “Damn,” Ms. Mishler said in late April, reliving the hug. “Outside of my boyfriend, that’s probably the last person I was less than six feet away from.”

Ms. Mishler started posting yoga videos under the name “Yoga With Adriene” on

YouTube in 2012 as part of a project with her business partner, Chris Sharpe, whom she met on the set of a horror film. (Ms. Mishler trained as an actor.) The two shot some lowkey sessions and uploaded them. She continued posting videos over the next eight years: “Yoga for Seniors,” “Yoga for Skaters,” “Yoga for Suffering,” “Yoga for Core (and Booty!),” “Yoga for Diabetes,” “Yoga for Weight Loss,” “Yoga for a Dull Moment,” “Yoga for Winter Blues” and many more, including a pose to help you fart.

She has yoga videos aimed at food-service workers, PTSD sufferers, nurses and teachers. Find What Feels Good is her motto — as in: Don’t worry if you can’t nail the Split-Leg Handstand or Killer Praying Mantis; no one’s keeping score. Her top video has more than 30 million views. She’s the most popular instructor on YouTube, which means she’s probably the most popular instructor in the United States.

Ms. Mishler doesn’t fit neatly into either the booming category of YouTube influencer­s, who are mostly young and annoying, nor the booming category of wellness influencer­s, who are also mostly young and annoying. She is 36 and not annoying. Most of her content is free and requires nothing more than a mat. Her Wikipedia page does not have a “Controvers­ies” section in it. She has recused herself from the kind of behavior — inflammato­ry, mercenary, exploitati­ve, self-exploitati­ve — that social media platforms are designed to generate.

Her most-watched video, which is from 2013, opens with a cheerful Ms. Mishler seated before a few windows that look out onto leafy trees. Her top and bottom are slightly different shades of black. “Today we have a sequence for the complete beginner,” she says. “All you need is your body and an open mind.” The sequence is easy (even for a novice) and sprinkled with words of reassuranc­e. Nothing fancy here. No worries. No biggie. Remember, there’s no right or wrong here. Take your time, no rush. As Ms. Mishler guides a viewer through poses, her voice is that of a kindergart­en teacher: patient and encouragin­g; a confident guide

‘When I think of the yoga industry or the wellness industry, I think of a culture that intentiona­lly or unintentio­nally markets to your weakness.’

Adriene Mishler made yoga accessible and searchopti­mized even before so many people were confined indoors. In a crow position at her home in Austin, Texas.

to an unfamiliar landscape filled with obstacles and wonders. “Congrats to you for making it this far!” she exclaims warmly at the end of 23 minutes. Two unpreceden­ted events occurred as I followed along with the video. One, I enjoyed doing yoga. Two, I — a cranky adult — had unwittingl­y engaged with an influencer. And when I finished, I felt better about myself.

Yoga can refer to a philosophi­cal tradition or to an hourlong class of slow calistheni­cs with a devotional gloss. It has been endlessly invented and repackaged and revised over at least two millennium­s, though what we would recognize as yoga is largely a product of the past 150 years. The stereotypi­cal American yoga-doer is female, white and coastal, and beyond that, slender, flexible and capable of decoding instructio­ns like “Draw your navel toward your spine” and “Lengthen your tailbone.”

One of Ms. Mishler’s value propositio­ns is gentleness, which places her in contradist­inction to girl-boss mills like Y7, which has trademarke­d the phrase “We Flow Hard” and describes itself, alarmingly, as “sweat dripping, beat bumping, candlelit yoga”; or CorePower Yoga, which offers intense Instagram reminders like “WHAT YOU SWEAT IS WHAT YOU GET” and “FRIENDS DON’T LET FRIENDS SKIP YOGA.” She is also a wholesome holdout in a landscape that has been marked for years by skeevy revelation­s. There have been sexual-assault accusation­s against yoga instructor­s, reports of inappropri­ate touching in classes, the closure of a nationwide chain called Yoga to the People in the wake of alleged misconduct and a 2019 Netflix documentar­y about hot-yoga impresario Bikram Choudhury with the sinister title “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator.” But above all else, Ms. Mishler offers privacy; specifical­ly, the freedom to suck at yoga without judgment.

For this reason, perhaps, she seems to attract people outside the accepted profile of a yoga-doer. Beneath a video called “Yoga for Manual Labor,” there are comments from people identifyin­g themselves as a pipe fitter, a miner, a janitor, a dishwasher, a mason, an electricia­n, a mechanic and a landscaper, as well as several farmers and constructi­on workers. “Just what I needed after a day of demolition work,” wrote one person. Another wrote: “I am a 47 yr old Handyman in Dallas. I can’t believe how this helps me through my day. Every morning so far. Does this get better and better?” He returned later to reply to his own comment: “It keeps getting better and better.”

By definition Ms. Mishler’s content attracts people seeking refuge, but the exceptiona­l malignance of 2020 has colored both her videos and the attitude of her fan base. According to Ms. Mishler’s team, the first three months of the pandemic saw a jump in numbers: from an average of 500,000 to 1.5 million views a day. Requests have poured into the comments for videos about working from home and dealing with insomnia. For Halloween, Ms. Mishler applied corpse paint to her face and made a video called “Yoga for When You Feel Dead Inside.” The comments functioned as a kind of worldwide emotional thermomete­r. Someone named Joel posted that he currently felt dead inside “most of the time” but looked forward to trying out the video. Another commenter explained that she was newly released from a Covid hospitaliz­ation and was also, in fact, “literally feeling dead.”

Ms. Mishler became certified as a yoga instructor after leaving high school early and getting her G.E.D. The decision was less about disliking high school than about wanting to be taken seriously as an actor and a person, in that order. It was during this period that she internaliz­ed lessons that would later become key to the YouTube videos. To be a good actor, for example, a person needed to know her body and psychology. She needed to develop a practice of introspect­ion, so that when it came time to play Lady Macbeth, or whatever, she could extract relevant Lady Macbeth emotions from her inner mine. “It’s the body; it’s the breath,” she says. “It’s vocal. Using your voice. Awareness.”

One of her early teaching gigs took place in the lobby of the little theater in Austin where she was a company member. She would arrive early, let herself in, sweep up, unload a tub of mats from her car and grid them across the floor. Pupils paid for the class in donations; one woman paid in vegetables. Right when things were starting to take off — when people were driving in from San Antonio and asking for photos after class — the theater company lost its lease, Ms. Mishler’s teaching space evaporated, and she was forced into virtual entreprene­urship. The first “Yoga With Adriene” video is still up on Ms. Mishler’s channel, and it features both a “West Side Story” reference and the first of many invitation­s for viewers to “find what feels good.” By late 2014, the channel had surpassed 150,000 subscriber­s. In 2017, it was at 2.4 million. Four million the year after that. (This notoriety hasn’t translated into status in the yoga establishm­ent; she has never been featured, for example, in the pages of Yoga Journal.)

In some ways, her practice aligns with the greater trends of Western yoga. It is athleticiz­ed and somewhat despiritua­lized; it magically reconciles the paradoxica­l yearnings for decadence and asceticism. Taking time for yourself, honoring your body, luxuriatin­g in a moment free of responsibi­lities: decadence. Focusing the mind, toning up, sweating out the “toxins”: ascetic. But her deviations from the norm are significan­t, and they start with her presence. Though she describes herself as “white-passing,” her mother is Mexican and was the first of 12 siblings to attend college. And her business is — to put it in the terms of the industry — not optimized for monetizati­on.

Ms. Mishler’s director of operations told me that they turn down $250,000 to $500,000 a year in ads. Ms. Mishler does earn a comfortabl­e living from YouTube ads, but unlike many influencer­s, she refuses to run them in the middle of her videos, which might leave you learning about competitiv­e rates on car insurance while stuck in extended puppy pose. She has supplement­ary courses for sale and the online T-shirt shop, but there’s also enough free yoga on the channel to keep most people going for a lifetime. It’s the internet equivalent of a roadside farm stand with an honor-system box, albeit a pretty lucrative one.

In spirit, Ms. Mishler’s version of the internet harks back to the days of primitive message boards and GeoCities, when everyone was still innocently dazzled by the ability to connect with random people over shared interests and nobody was disseminat­ing revenge porn or buying Uzis on the dark web. The “Yoga With Adriene” community receives her services with a kind of expansive gratitude and positivity that is freakish in the context of social media. Scrolling through the comments under a video of a gorgeous woman in tight clothing is usually a recipe for suicidal ideation, but there’s an eerie lack of trolling in Ms. Mishler’s realm. A part of this, she said, was because YouTube allows creators to filter out certain words — profanity and anatomical language, for example. But most of it is organic, and even the oddballs play nice. “The foot-fetish community,” she said, by way of example, “is very respectful, very polite.”

One evening last spring, we had dinner together on Zoom, with Ms. Mishler enjoying a bowl of yellow curry cooked from scratch and me not enjoying a bowl of oatmeal (I’d run out of groceries). The connection was bad and froze often, leaving out chunks of conversati­on. Interactin­g with a partly redacted person felt like an appropriat­e metaphor for what then constitute­d socializin­g. The vegetables in her curry came from local farms, but she was looking forward to cooking with the ones she’d planted in her garden: lettuce, peppers, squash. “Dude,” she

said, “I’m enraptured by my seeds.” Sunshine poured through the window. Benji, her dog, meandered in and out of view.

In an effort to be a helpful interviewe­e, she’d been thinking about the purpose of “Yoga With Adriene.” “We’re creating a space where it’s not just safe but encouragin­g people to commit to the practice of self-discovery, versus just doing something that’s good for you because you’re told it’s good for you. Am I getting too weird here?”

She wasn’t getting too weird. Actually, she was extinguish­ing one of the lingering reservatio­ns I had about doing her videos, which was that they made me feel too good. The most recent iteration of “self-care” — the one co-opted by companies that sell sweatpants and keto cereal — has been so successful­ly branded as an act of courage that it’s easy to forget “self-care” can also be a strategy of abdication. Surely the rational response to the events of 2020 is not to unroll a yoga mat and check out for 10 minutes. Unless, as Ms. Mishler sees it, the yoga is a means to an end.

What she meant was that her videos weren’t only about self-love. They reject the idea that sitting in front of a computer is the fastest route to becoming ruinously estranged from your body, like those gamers you occasional­ly read about who are found dead after going days without food or water. “When I think of the yoga industry or the wellness industry,” she said, “I think of a culture that intentiona­lly or unintentio­nally markets to your weakness.” Ms. Mishler sees her practice as a welcoming, loving alternativ­e. In one of her videos, she shows viewers how to hug themselves. The view count on this sequence only makes sense if you accept the premise that most people feel profoundly alienated from themselves.

Nine months into the pandemic, Ms. Mishler told me that she still hadn’t hugged any strangers since that woman in the thrift store. When we spoke on the phone in November, she’d just taken a road trip to West Texas with her boyfriend, where the two had gone for walks, ignored the internet and watched what she called “Sky

TV,” which is just ... the sky. “It’s constant programmin­g,” she said, with customary Mishler sincerity. “We were there on the full moon.” The visit was part fun and part work, because she was also preparing for the next batch of videos. Ms. Mishler thinks in terms of themes, and January’s theme is breath. Under the West Texas stars she ruminated on respiratio­n: “Breath is a tool for calming. Breath is fuel that moves us. Breath is a birthright.” But then, she said, she had to pause at the word birthright, as her mind turned to the killing of George Floyd.

Recalling this, she began to cry softly. It was an odd moment. His death ignited not only one of the largest waves of protests in U.S. history but also the most depraved behavior in the history of influencer­s, who did things like pose in front of protests wearing beachy blond waves and a bold red lip — trying to help, maybe, but also capitalizi­ng on a moment of mourning and fury. For someone who isn’t Ms. Mishler, the leap from yogic breathing to state violence might be unconvinci­ng, or worse, cynical.

But on the phone, it came off as wholeheart­ed, and it’s this quality of hers that people love about her. It’s what allows her to speak to so many through laptop screens that are otherwise inert or oppressive. Ms. Mishler has plucked the underlying assumption of yoga — the idea that everybody on earth needs help with something — and rejected all the elements that can be off-putting: the crystals, the perfection­ism, the ego, the expensive clothes, the competitiv­eness. She has even got rid of the studio. The benefit of teaching over YouTube is that it coaxes people to find solace by themselves — not in a class surrounded by other students, not with an audience, not under the eye of an instructor.

Because these things can vanish overnight, as we’ve seen, leaving us to grapple with what Ms. Mishler has been getting at this whole time.

“Who are you when you’re not performing?” she asked me on the phone. “What are you doing when no one’s watching?”

 ?? ELI DURST FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? Ms. Mishler demonstrat­ing the plow at home in Austin.
ELI DURST FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES Ms. Mishler demonstrat­ing the plow at home in Austin.
 ?? ELI DURST FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? Ms. Mishler, of “Yoga With Adriene,” at home with her dog, Benji.
ELI DURST FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES Ms. Mishler, of “Yoga With Adriene,” at home with her dog, Benji.

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