The Reigning Queen of Pandemic Yoga

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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 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 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,” Mishler said a few weeks 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, and as 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. Mishler 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’s eyes grew big, which Mishler initially took for a sign of guilt. But the woman denied it. And as soon as she spoke, Mishler could tell this person wasn’t the perp; she had accidentally followed someone else driving a similar car into the parking lot. Mishler was mortified and apologized. As they parted, the woman stopped her and said that she loved doing 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,” 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.”

Credit...Eli Durst for The New York Times

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. (Mishler trained as an actor.) The two shot some low-key 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. Today — or not today, but in the recent past and hopefully in the future — she goes on international tours where she leads classes for thousands of people. She is an Adidas ambassador and runs an online shop where you can buy a T-shirt or a camping mug that says Find What Feels Good, which 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 America and arguably the most prominent yoga figure this country has seen since Ram Dass.

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. Unlike some of her mainstream YouTube influencer peers, she has not mocked suicide victims or appeared in blackface or consumed a Tide pod or faked a kidnapping for attention. 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. In an online world where everyone else seems turned up to 11, Mishler hovers at a room-temperature two or three.

Her most-watched video, which is from 2013, opens with a cheerful 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 Mishler guides a viewer through poses, her voice is that of a kindergarten teacher: patient and encouraging; a confident guide 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 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, 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 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 Mishler’s team, the first three months of the pandemic this year 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, 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.”

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, Mishler’s teaching space evaporated and she was forced into virtual entrepreneurship. The first “Yoga With Adriene” video is still up on 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, Mishler’s 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 Mishler 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.

Mishler’s director of operations told me that they turn down $250,000 to $500,000 a year in ads. 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, 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 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,” Mishler said, by way of example, “is very respectful, very polite.”

Credit...Eli Durst for The New York Times

On a Wednesday evening this spring, we had dinner together on Zoom, with 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 Mishler’s 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 Mishler sees it, the yoga is a means to an end.

What she meant, she went on, 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.” 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, 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. 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 on the phone, she began to cry softly. It was an odd moment. Floyd’s 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 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 — a level of empathy so forceful it almost seems like brain damage — that people love about her. It’s what allows her to speak to so many through laptop screens that are otherwise inert or oppressive. 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 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?”

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