The Mister Rogers of YouTube Yoga
There is a unique quality to this day-by-day pandemic sadness, this quarantine depression that with the protests is edging into despair. I’m not referring to those adults who seemed, in the early, pre-protest days, to be inexplicably thriving. “I’ve never been so busy!” one friend, a computer consultant, giddily enthused. “With time zones from London to Tokyo to Denver, I’m on Zoom call after Zoom call!” Then there were the professional couples suddenly toiling in their backyard like farmers, growing lettuce so swollen that they could feed brontosauruses and posting explanatory video tours on Facebook: “For our rainwater. See? This is called a ‘swale.’”
Privileged to work from home, I’m luckier than most. That’s what my peers and I have kept murmuring: “We’re lucky.” But the words crumble in our mouths because, not being astronauts who have actually trained for this human-lab-rat experiment, our effort to keep things in perspective goes only so far. We have no goals, no purpose. Short of banging pans at night, we can’t help essential workers. We’re 60ish, so our street protests would be at odds with public health. And my two teens? Quarantined at their dad’s. One is home from college, while the other has been watching a once-magical senior year destroyed—the musical canceled days before opening, no prom, no graduation. High school’s one grim activity: “Come clean out your lockers.” Said my teen, “To hell with my stuff. Burn it.”
Meanwhile, my formerly natty partner, Charlie, has grown a scraggly mall-Santa beard as he sits in bed all day amid an ever-expanding litter box of newspapers. News alerts chime as he plots the course of the pandemic and its destruction on a hand-drawn wall map in the bedroom. It’s like getting a doctorate in the coronavirus from a deranged Civil War reenactor. Now protest cities are sprouting across another global map, as he sits on the phone arguing with several generations of family, the younger ones saying defund the police, the older ones saying defund your college tuitions. All is emotion, tears, a madhouse.
For my own sanity, even before this most recent turn, I needed an escape—but where? As I cast about for options, a girlfriend recommended that I try “Yoga With Adriene.” I’m not a yogic person by nature. With creaky hips and a monkey mind, I don’t have the patience. In fact, I’d just deleted another online yoga “opportunity” that required a $150, 12-pack commitment and featured an 8:30 p.m. class called “Sleep Like a Baby.” I definitely don’t have a problem sinking into unconsciousness by day’s end. (A rare grace note to our current existence is being able to wear a mask while filling your grocery cart with an embarrassing amount of alcohol.)
However, Yoga With Adriene turned out to have a very low bar for entry. It’s free and on YouTube. Among Adriene’s offerings is a 30-day beginners’ series called “Home.” It dropped—presciently—in January 2020. Was our yogini picking up some special global vibrations?
Yoga With Adriene is ridiculously easy to find—start typing yoga into YouTube’s search bar and pop! There’s our girl. That is perhaps because, as I’d eventually learn, Yoga With Adriene has been “discovered” by seemingly every American who is not doing something important during the pandemic, and perhaps a few who are.
Even before COVID-19 warped our world, Adriene was YouTube’s top yoga channel, with about 6 million subscribers. In the past two months, almost 1 million new people have signed up; there were 1.8 million views on April 13 alone.
“Home” begins comfortably with “Day 0: Welcome.” Fade up on a homey bachelorette loft bathed in Crate and Barrel’s golden midday light. To gently upswelling music, we see Adriene—a youthful, Clinique-fresh-faced brunette—gazing out her window, sipping her morning coffee. The music ends, and here is Adriene, in virginal braids, sitting on a pillow in a T-shirt and leggings, petting her napping dog, Benji. In a lilting alto, she suggests we slip into comfy clothing and offers that this series “is designed for us to come together, as we are. We may be coming to this program wanting to trim and tone the body—you will!” Then, more softly: “You may be coming to this program to heal something that’s been aching you. Maybe you will.”
We do three breaths together, and … namaste. That’s it. Six minutes has felt like three. I immediately click onto “Day 1: Recognize.” What I end up recognizing, while attempting a half-lotus and gazing down onto my prayer hands, is that my thighs are so pudgy, I’d popped a seam in my legging—quite a feat for fabric that’s ostensibly elastic. But by “Day 5: Soften,” I’ve forgiven myself and simply changed into larger, airier (pajama) pants. “Home” will turn out to be the double-espresso-with-8-ounces-of-whipped-cream-topped-with-bacon yoga, but I don’t know that yet.
Before COVID-19, I considered my writing and teaching schedule to be relatively sedentary, but almost three months of quarantine has blown the lid off something that a whole lot of 21st-century Americans have taken for granted: the incredibly high level of stimulation in our lives. I know now that I’m just a quivering, hormonal meat bag that had been glued together with twice-weekly trips to Equinox—and not just for the exercise, but for the psychological and sensory boost.
To make the popular Tuesday and Thursday 8:30 a.m. spin classes, you had to reserve a bike on your Equinox app 26 hours ahead of time, not 24. Accordingly, at 6:32 a.m on Mondays and Wednesdays, I’d watch as the ghostly circles representing bikes filled up. Twelve, 23, 34 … Scoring the last bike, I felt as doped up as Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France. The morning of, I’d drink coffee, inhale the newspaper, do the crossword (timed) and the KenKen (also timed), before jumping into my car and directing my steely focus toward nabbing one of the prime electric-car parking slots at the “studio.” (Electric cars, yes! We win at parking!) On our assigned saddles, we manic-depressive, middle-aged spinners (Lycra bike pants the color of venomous snakes, titanium water bottles) jostled elbows while whoop-whooping to Duran Duran: Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand!
Clearly, no such endorphins are released by a socially distanced walk around the block. Or by that cautious weekly visit to the grocery store, even if you do manage to nab a roll of paper towels.
So now, in these strange, cramped, partly safe and partly not end times, there’s a caged energy that can turn into bouts of muted—or not so muted—panic. One morning, the resting rate of my hammering heart, typically about 74 beats a minute, registered 115, and that was on lavender-chamomile tea. Which is why I’ve become addicted to Adriene Mishler. She herself is a kind of drug. When I see her, I experience actual wavelets of serotonin.
I’ll admit that there are things about this yogini I might have found annoying pre-pandemic. She is young (35), white, skinny, and—yes—Texan. An only child and a theater kid, she’s as cheerfully anodyne as a summer-camp counselor. In downward dog, when our T-shirts fall forward over our chins, Adriene calls this, without irony, a “love cave.”
But who cares when I’m so in need of tender ministrations? Adriene is there anytime I need her, like a friendly pocket deity. I have only to flip open my laptop: “Hello, friend,” Adriene purrs. “Hello, my darlings.” And then, as opposed to issuing burdensome commands like “Warrior one!” “or “Tree pose—now,” she utters four magical words: “Let’s start sitting down,” or, even better, “Let’s start lying down.” (Even on mornings when I can barely get out of bed, entering Adriene’s world is like stepping into a warm bath, as if she were saying, “Let’s start with a gentle cry,” or “Let’s get a small—but not too small; choose what feels right—bowl of Häagen-Dazs.”)
It’s not that the yoga is always easy. Yes, on “Day 8: Gratitude,” we lay on the floor and hugged a pillow, and I’m ashamed to say I wept a little. (My girlfriend reported with unabashed enthusiasm: “I did Day 8 three times!”) But that had been preceded two days earlier by “Day 6: Ignite,” when we actually did a few sun salutations, planks, boat poses. This is the flow of “Home,” the slap and reward, slap and reward.
Part of the allure is Adriene’s voice, pitched slightly lower than you would expect. If it were an aromatherapy candle, it would be ylang-ylang eucalyptus with a light charcoal rasp, like an exfoliant. Adriene may be Elizabeth Holmes–ing it, but who I am to judge?
And then there’s the virtual mirroring. Instead of seeing your own lumpy self reflected back at you, you see only Adriene, lovely Adriene. And if you don’t feel like doing a low lunge today, just sit down, enjoy your coffee, and watch Adriene do it for you. Later, maybe, you’ll join her in down dog. Or just leave that to Benji, a dog so catatonic, I wonder if he is on medication. But again, whatever. He is our emotional-support animal, and I am calmed.
Yoga With Adriene’s origin story is fairly humble. In 2009, Mishler, an aspiring actor, befriended the director Chris Sharpe on the set of his low-budget horror movie, The Spider Babies (never released). Sharpe persuaded Mishler, who declined to be interviewed for this story, to pivot toward a YouTube yoga series. It ran weekly for almost two years before gaining any traction.
How to account for Yoga With Adriene’s subsequent success? For one thing, Sharpe and Mishler became masters of YouTube’s search-word algorithms—the breakout title being “Yoga for Weight Loss.” Tricky, because yoga doesn’t typically spur weight loss. But that’s a topic for another day. How about we all just drop into cow pose now?
In a 2019 South by Southwest talk called “Giving to Grow and Receive,” the two yoga entrepreneurs attributed the size of their following to the fact that 90 percent of the content is free—only a small subset of subscriptions comes with a fee. But the deceptively simple-looking videos are the magic. “Adriene is thoroughly professionally trained as an actor,” Sharpe told me on the phone. “So we did a few videos, and they were more actor-y and performance-y. I had to lose a lot of the bells and whistles that I thought would be cool. It was a matter of taking a lot of stuff away, to create this very small, intimate experience.
“I consider Mister Rogers one of the spirit guides of what we’re doing, from the production to everything else. Because the mic’s actually taped to her chest, sometimes, during those quiet moments, it actually picks up her heartbeat.” Aha! I realize Adriene is indeed Mister Rogers–like. With the soothing voice, the cozy living room, the comfortable togs, she exists in a small, glowing snow globe, out of time, where everything is always okay.
This, then, is the apex of online wellness for our moment—a production not from Oprah, Deepak Chopra, or some Pilates-touting supermodel, but from a couple of nice kids from Austin who channeled America’s favorite G-rated neighbor. Now that we’re cut off from our physical worlds, however chaotic, the voluntary slowing of our own heart rates is a lifeline.
“Breathe in a lotta love?” Adriene croons. Then: “Breathe out a lotta love.”
Normally I’d find all of this absurd. But steeped daily in stories of personal and global loss, nothing looks the same anymore. I’ve taken to sleeping on my back in Savasana—corpse pose—with a pillow on my chest, thinking: “Breathe in a lotta love?” (Forgive myself that I’ve failed to help so many.) “Breathe out a lotta love.” (Send hope that all who are suffering will find happier times.)
The small things often stand in for the large, and my ragged, bearded husband and I keep finding ourselves having circular arguments about food. His pandemic go-tos are bratwurst with sauerkraut and shrimp gumbo, which I can no longer bear. My culinary crutch is throwing chicken thighs into the Crock-Pot with “herbs” from my “garden,” whose planters I routinely run over with my car. One day, I was counting on some chicken for lunch but discovered that he’d fashioned it all into goopy enchiladas. Me (weepy): “Why?” Charlie: “I hate wasting food!” Me: “So use the yucky bratwurst from five days ago!”
But then, thinking of Adriene, who gently invites us to skip even child’s pose if we’re not feeling it, I heard myself saying: “God, we’re just so depressed right now. We don’t have to hit any marks at all. Let’s just give ourselves a hug.” Cornily, we did.