The Biggest Breath You’ve Taken All Day: How Adriene Mishler Became Your New Best Friend

I don’t talk about it much, but I have a condition that results in fairly serious chronic pain. It’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and it will get progressively worse over time. The only things that really mitigate it are running, swimming, yoga, pilates.

When the pandemic started, our local YMCA was obviously closed. I haven’t been there in nine months. And so began the era of living in increasingly cramped-seeming quarters and venturing out only gingerly into the world, when necessary. Sitting at the kitchen table, “work from home”-ing alongside partners or roommates who were doing the same. Big time trouble for the spines of America.

My own back was getting so bad at a certain point in April that I did what I had resisted for a long time: I looked for yoga videos. The idea of doing yoga, or any kind of exercise, along with an instructional video seemed stale, artificial, and above all corny. I associated it with jazzercise and Olivia Newton John. Robotically going along with a video did not seem like it would work for me at all.

But I was desperate, so I typed “yoga” into YouTube and the first thing that came up was Yoga with Adriene. “Core Strength Ritual.” I gave it a shot; it turned out to be more like pilates to me. But I definitely felt 100 times better, and tried out more of her videos.

Yoga with Adriene was a revelation: the videos were short (generally 10-30 minutes), and the poses were not unreasonably complex or challenging. Even the most novice person can follow along, but someone with more yoga experience can get something out of them too, as she suggests modifications for people of greater or lesser flexibility or balance. She possesses an uncanny intuition about how people experience the practice in their bodies; she peppers her videos with advice (soften your jaw, feel where you might be tense in your shoulders) at the exact moment when you’re feeling it. More than anything, though, there’s the teacher’s persona: Adriene comes across as warm, down to earth, jokey, and empathetic, treating yoga as something we do together, even if we’re not literally together, rather than a daunting, esoteric practice reserved for the most skillful adepts.

Let’s be friends

Indeed, one of the most effective things that Adriene does is to act as if we’re all in a room together. She says “great!” “awesome work!” as you’re moving out of a pose; as ridiculous as it sounds, it really creates the subliminal feeling that she’s approving of your practice, and that you’re with other people too, because it taps into memories of being in a yoga studio at a real class. She talks about the “Yoga with Adriene community” (which, it turns out, is a real thing), and frequently mentions that thousands of people around the world are doing the same practice at the same time you do it.

All of this probably seems like incredibly mawkish baby stuff. But the Adriene persona has gripped a huge number of people in a fervent devotion since she started the channel in 2012. Somehow the combination of her screen presence, attitude, intonation, choice of poses and overall aesthetic captivates viewers and makes them feel like she’s actually their friend. This passage from a 2018 Guardian profile captures the Adriene fandom well:

“You just want to be her friend,” says Magdalena Krohn, a 32-year-old teacher and performance artist who is at the Ally Pally event, queueing for a cashew curry. Karen Bradley, a 56-year-old health visitor, has travelled from Sheffield to see Adriene. Fifty-year-old civil servant Julie Ashen says she is “not that brilliant with people”, but has nevertheless travelled from Swansea to see Adriene in this setting. You must love her, I say. “I do. She’s quite a phenomenon.”

When I tell friends I am meeting Adriene, they get a zealous look in their eyes: “I’m not hyperbolising when I say she changed my life,” more than one confesses – and I know they’re not, because she changed mine, too. Maybe it’s simplistic, but there is a lot to be said for being gently cajoled into focusing on the feeling of the soles of your feet on the yoga mat, when anxious thoughts have been jolting like runaway trains through your mind all day.

Fans such as these have created a huge community on Facebook. The free YouTube channel had 7.27 million subscribers by May 2020, though her business makes most of its revenue from a $10-a-month paid platform. Her followers are willing to pay, because they have a Deadhead-like sense of themselves as a group and have forged a thick web of lateral connections with each other online.

Obviously, I’m a fan. And just as obviously, Adriene is a role played by an actor. Adriene Mishler was pursuing an acting career in Austin before starting the channel, and this is another character she’s performing. Mishler is also a canny entrepreneur, but that’s fine with me. She’s provided something to people such as myself who really needed it. In a stressful and lonely time, it’s reassuring to hear a warm and caring voice, and certainly in my case, to spend some time managing bodily pain.

By now we have learned all too well how the Internet can be a great engine of disinformation and cruelty, but it still beckons people with a sweet promise of sociality. The Rabbit Hole podcast recently observed how QAnon has rapidly become a kind of social network, particularly in 2020, for true believers who found each other online and made friends — unhappy people who badly wanted someone to hang out with. The fact that it took a surreally bizarre and lurid conspiracy theory to make that happen is yet another unsettling chapter in the story of our times. But as this awful year draws to a close, with its parade of 4Chan Nazis, MAGA chuds and other assorted ghouls, it’s nice to be reminded that the Internet can still bring people together for something that’s positive and healthy.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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