Living the Dream: Dogs + Yoga + Love

Living the Dream: Dogs + Yoga + Love
Living the Dream: Dogs + Yoga + Love
Rachel Brathen, aka Yoga Girl, is on a mission

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Get ready to be inspired. Rachel Brathen—yoga teacher, world traveller, rescuer of dogs—is the real deal. If you're looking for the courage to follow your dreams, read on to find out how one woman forged her own path to love, happiness, and crazy success.

There’s something about Rachel Brathen, aka Yoga Girl, a handle you’ll be familiar with if you happen to be one of the 1.4 million people that follow her on Instagram. The Aruba-based yoga practitioner and workshop leader is undeniably nothing short of a sensation, winning hearts not only with her message of love and self-acceptance (a recent post simply repeated “You are enough” over and over and over again) but also with her tremendous passion for dogs and her commitment to rescue.

One could chalk up her popularity to the beautiful, aspirational photos of handstands and other advanced yoga postures in far-flung tropical locations, or the inspirational posts in which she shares personal details of her enviable life. Yes, she’s gorgeous, in the most effortless and natural and appealing way. And yes, her life is the stuff of daydreams (more on that to follow), but it’s somehow more than the sum of all this that has won her a devoted following. The headlong mix of inspirational and aspirational have us dreaming of booking the next flight to Aruba. (By the way, if you go, Rachel will help you transport a rescue dog back!)

Hers is certainly a romantic story. Following a troubled childhood in Sweden and a stint as a young adult in Costa Rica, Rachel travels home to regroup and agrees to go on a family trip to Aruba. There she meets Dennis, a guy working at the local surf/skate shop, and the rest, as they say, is history. After spending just a couple days together, Rachel returns to Costa Rica to pack up her stuff and moves to Aruba. There, though at this point only self-taught, Rachel begins teaching yoga on the beach and sharing posts of poses and her life in Aruba via Instagram. She starts to build a following, but it’s not until she hits a rough patch in her relationship and begins sharing unfiltered meditations on how she is feeling and some of the trials and difficulties that she is experiencing that her following really takes off. Something about her openness regarding her struggles, combined with everything else, touches people, makes a connection, and she blows up. What follows is a magical, crazy trajectory of travels and workshops and book deals and media appearances and, being a girl after our own hearts, a rescue initiative named in memory of her dog Pepper.

We caught up with Rachel over Skype (rainy Vancouver connecting with sunny Aruba via spotty internet connection) and then again during her three-month-long North American book tour that saw her hit the east coast and the Pacific Northwest, with many, many stops in between. Along the way there were back-to-back sold out yoga workshops, a ton of hugs given… oh, and her book, Yoga Girl, named for her Instagram persona, hit the New York Times bestseller list.

Accompanying her on this whirlwind tour were her loves: Dennis, to whom she is now married, and Ringo the Gringo, her beloved Italian Greyhound who is one of the six dogs she currently shares her home in Aruba with.

“We really wanted a dog that was small enough to travel,” Rachel shares, estimating Ringo has now been to 30 countries. “We travel so much right now. He’s become our little anchor. Whenever he’s with us I never get homesick. I wanted an Italian Greyhound forever. They call them the Velcro dogs—they stick to you like Velcro.”

At her Vancouver workshop, which took place at the Commodore and was one of the two sold out workshops she did there that day, her fans gathered, yoga mats in tow. The line snaked around the block. Rachel was charming and radiant, greeting the assembled crowd, answering questions, and then leading everyone through a 90-minute practice, during which Ringo roamed the room freely, wandering among the 200-plus workshop participants and prompting laughter.

Rachel is well known for her love of animals so Ringo’s presence was not only expected but delighted in. In the wrap up Q-and-A, one woman asked Rachel about her dogs, a topic Rachel happily dove into, sharing that “Quila, my dog from Costa Rica, is Alex Dunphy,” likening her dog to the smart, slightly nerdy middle daughter in Modern Family, a comparison that drew laughter and nods of recognition. With six dogs at home (her and Dennis’ three—Ringo, Quila, and Laika—two visitors, and one rescued stray, Sammy, who is recuperating until he can be re-homed), it took her a while to answer the question.

“I started this foundation,” she said, speaking of Sgt. Pepper’s Friends, an initiative dedicated to using social media for animal rescue across the globe. “I want to save all dogs—no dog left behind—but then I would have no home, all rooms filled with dog poop, and my husband would divorce me,” she jokes. “You need balance.” They have implemented a two-week rule: Rachel can take in any dog, but they need to be re-homed in two weeks. With six dogs at present, there is necessity behind such an arrangement—mostly because it's imperative to make room to take more dogs in!

Rachel isn’t the only yogi in the family; her dogs love the practice too. “All three of them they just absolutely love, love, love the mat,” she says. “During my practice Ringo just floats in and out and sometimes he gets tired and falls asleep under my Down Dog or he comes and lies on my belly in Savasana. Here every morning it’s the same thing. For the dogs it’s like their playtime. This is the moment I’m on the same level as them.”

Rachel even taught doga—that would be yoga with dogs—for a while. “In the beginning of the class everything is chaos, like it’s complete chaos. And the funny thing is, the more the owners start centering themselves, the calmer the dogs become. You can really see that reflection from the owner to the dog. And by the end of the class all the dogs are sleeping, every single one! It’s a fun thing to do at home, incorporating your dog. It’s a really nice experience to see how important our energy is and what it does to our dogs.”

As for energy, Rachel has posted extensively about coping with her own grief, both when she lost her best friend last year, and when her dog Pepper passed away unexpectedly. “I think, for people who aren’t dog owners, they will never understand,” she says from experience. “You can only talk about the grief of losing your pet to another dog owner who really gets it. Other people… I got some weird comments, like ‘it’s not like he was your child or your baby,’ you know, comparing it to the loss of a child, but for me it really, really was. He really was our little baby. He was only four years old. It was way, way, way too soon for him to go. It was such an unexpected thing… he didn’t show a single sign that he was sick and then within three days he just died. And for me, I lost my best friend earlier that same year. I’ve come to realize now that Sgt. Pepper's death within that big grief of my friend dying was like another level of pain. Learning how to go in and sit with that pain and knowing that it’s not the absence of love, it’s the presence of love, just the absence of a physical being. If it wasn’t for all the love you felt you wouldn’t feel that pain.”

Like many of us, Rachel had to work through guilt, feeling that she should have known Pepper was sick, could have done something. Ultimately, though, she came to this realization: “They give us so much in such a short time and when they’ve got to go, they’ve got to go. It’s out of our control most of the time. So just take that love and channel it to something. You can make something good.”

Rachel certainly has: Sgt. Pepper’s Friends was born of grief.

“Sgt. Pepper was my and my husband’s first little baby, found in a trash can, literally, three weeks old, half alive,’ Rachel says. “When we lost Pepper, I knew I wanted to start an organization in his name. With all the social media traction we have, I figured it was a really good way to use this, especially for the island here where we live. There’s such a huge issue [with stray dogs].

Her success rate is mind-blowing. “Every single dog I’ve posted so far has gotten a home in, like, a minute,” she says. “For every dog we’ve had an average of 50 to 100—in some instances 300—emails from people wanting to take the dog in. Which means there’s a huge amount of people out there that want a dog, that are willing to open up their homes but they just don’t have that bridge to find these dogs in need.”

She aims to be that bridge: “They follow me on Instagram and they see, ‘Oh my God, there’s this dog that needs a home, I’ll take it!’

With the Aruban shelter always overflowing and a dearth of homes locally, her strategy is to re-home dogs elsewhere. “We’ll have a dog and we make sure the dog is healthy and fit to travel and fit to find a home. The average cost to get a dog from here to the States is about $300 and that includes all the shots and the neutering and spaying and the crate and the flight—all of that. So what I want to do now is start raising some serious money so that we can do this—make the process quicker and do this every single day.”

To this end, they have had bracelets made that people are going to be able to buy, with all proceeds going to the organization. A website, sgtpeppersfriends.com, is in the works, but in the meantime supporters can follow @sgtpeppersfriends on Instagram or go to rachelbrathen.com for more info.

And if you’re looking for an excuse to take a vacation… “The hard part now is we need to find people to fly—the dog can’t fly alone," Rachel explains. “It’s a good place to come, have a little vacation, and then come home with a dog!”

And why not? As we dog people can attest, our dogs give us so much in return.

“My dogs are my biggest teachers,” Rachel laughs. “They are such present animals. I just love the simplicity of a dog’s life. They have warmth and love and some attention, and food and water, and everything is so great—not just good and okay but, like, amazing. As human beings, we’re so complex; we start drama and everything can become negative or such a big deal, but from the eyes of a dog, it’s really simple—it’s a good day, the sun is shining—and I think there are a lot of lessons in that.”

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