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What It's Like to Be a Rising Instagram Yoga Star

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Check out this girl's Instagram." My friend cues up @cbquality and hands his phone to me. I take a quick scan of her feed: images of a woman hitting impressive yoga poses, but in Air Maxes and horn rimmed glasses, no fussy açaí bowls or corny inspirational quotes in sight. Then I see her impressive follower count. How have 224,000 people stumbled upon Claire Fountain before I've even heard of her? And why is my dude friend one of them?

When I search 'Claire Fountain,' the first result — beyond her business domain — is from XXL, published this spring and focused on their ranking of her 'sexiest yoga poses.' Similar stories from The Telegraph and Huffington Post follow; all very male gaze, with no info on the brand she's building or where she sprang up from. With further Googling, Instagram stalking, and Snapchat following, I find a few things about Claire and her various hashtags-turned-empires (#TrillYoga and #BuiltandBendy, namely): She lives in New York, has a pitbull named Duke, does an impressive amount of strength training in addition to yoga, and just celebrated her 30th birthday.

Despite the volume of snaps and tweets, there's still so many blanks I'm curious to fill in. I decide the best way to get to know her, and how the hell she's amassed this giant, yet under-the-radar, following, is to spend the day with her.

9:30 am — Walking Duke

I meet Claire at her Upper West Side apartment on a Friday morning. Mornings always start with a dog walk, and we head west to the Hudson River Greenway. She's had Duke for most of his three years of life, initially taking him in as a foster parent when she moved to the city from a farm upstate. "I had the need to take care of something," she explains.

Back at her apartment, a cozy one-bedroom in a walkup building, Claire offers me a vegan protein bar. "They must like me," she says, fishing out my preferred flavor from a stack of boxes waist high. I recognize the packaging from her Snapchat; she regularly promotes the product with her 20% off promo code.

Prompted by the protein bar, I ask if she's vegan. "I'm not, not right now, anyway," she says, explaining that she's gone through spells of eating vegan and vegetarian, but generally feels better with a little animal protein in her diet. "When I was 13 I asked my mom if I could just not eat meat," she recalls, "which is unheard of in Jackson, Mississippi." The hometown explains her slight drawl and warm, welcoming attitude. In a uniform of black, white, and gray, and with a confident stride, Claire fits New York City, but it's easy to see her Southern roots as soon as she cracks a smile.

We talk more about nutrition and food. She isn't a fan of labels or extremes; of not eating this or that, though she avoids dairy and rarely drinks. "People ask me what my macros are, I'm like, 'I have no idea,' or they ask what I eat on cheat day," she laughs. "Every day is a cheat day because I don't ever diet."

11:00 am — Gym-bound

As we make our way to Claire's gym, a low key New York Sports Clubs location in Manhattan, we start talking about yoga, naturally. She was introduced to the practice by her aunt visiting from California. "It was the late 1990s and she was doing all these yoga poses in our living room in Mississippi," she recalls.

She started practicing yoga herself as a means to treat anxiety and depression issues that cropped up in her mid-teens. "I didn't want to be medicated," she says, "I wanted to heal myself." Classes three times per week and a diet overhaul were part of her program. "When you first start to do yoga, it opens up a lot of things emotionally," she says, "and if you’re going through anxiety or depression it may feel worse sometimes before it feels better. I knew it was working for me when my breathing started to improve. My heart rate was more stable and I was able to calm myself down." Discovering yoga in 2000 was different than it is now. "I couldn't Google 'yoga,'" she says. "There was one yoga studio in Jackson, and you didn't have a choice of class style," she says. "I was the only person at my high school doing it."

A few years into her practice, she took a yoga class where the teacher drank a latte while instructing. The idea of being distracted by a beverage, much less something as frou-frou a latte, was appalling to her at the time. The experience knocked the lofty concept of yoga down off its pedestal — in a useful way. She realized that yoga doesn't have to be so precious or perfect, and she carries that moderate attitude into her current practice.

12:00 pm —Yoga

Once we get to the gym, Claire settles into a quiet studio room, leaving the lights off. After pulling out a mat, she immediately cues up a playlist. "Usually gyms play Nickelback, and it's like my headphones can't get loud enough," she laughs. Music is a big component of what is compelling about her brand of yoga. "I teach in non-traditional spaces if I can, like art galleries or distressed studios. It takes the stigma away from [yoga] because space and energy is extremely powerful. Of course music is a big part of it; I don’t teach to traditional music. I played 'Milly Rock' in a class I led yesterday."

Creating balance between strength and flexibility is the core of Claire's fitness philosophy. "Muscle is how you can shape your body," she explains. "A desirable, strong shape is important not just from an aesthetic standpoint, but for how you do things — making you feel empowered for having a body that’s functional, not just nice to look at." Having these elements at balance is the crux of her work with athlete clients, too. She primarily works with NBA and NFL players — big, strong, often inflexible guys. "Their yoga is tailored to what their bodies are doing," she explains. "And that depends on whether they're in season or off season," she furthers. It's about building long-term stability in their bodies, she tells me. "If you're stabilized you're safer and you'll get through injuries better." There's a mental aspect at play, too: "Even if a guy never touches his toes, the mental focus and endurance and breathing work that you get from yoga is worth it."

1:30 pm — Juice meeting

Our next stop is downtown, at the Lulitonix outpost on Mulberry Street. Claire is an ambassador for the smoothie brand and she has a quick meeting with their marketing team. The food world is a familiar place for Claire. Before taking on fitness full-time, she worked in bakeries and as a food writer (she even had a pie recipe published in the New York Times in 2010).

"I forced myself into a food co-op when I was really young in Mississippi," she says, "like, 'Let me be your baker!' I liked the science behind it." She continued bakery jobs throughout college, while she pursued a psychology degree at Vassar. "I could do that in the mornings and do yoga at night," she explains. After college, she moved to Brooklyn and managed a juice bar. "Everything I've done has always had a component of wellness."

After a year in Brooklyn, Claire felt the pull to get back to nature. "Nature represents something very healing, and I think my first time living in the city was overwhelming." She became fixated on the idea of living on a farm and found one in upstate New York. "It was a strange time in my life," she recalls. "Being that isolated at 23 isn't for everybody. Solitude, as wonderful as it is, can be extremely detrimental. At 23 I was so introverted that it worked, but I wouldn't say it's the best for everyone."

3:00 pm — Down to business

In the afternoons, Claire sets up with her laptop in a coffee shop to handle the off-mat aspects of her business, from client training plans to site maintenance. We're at Joe and the Juice in Soho, which is swarming with Europeans. Everyone behind the counter knows Claire. "Look, I brought people this time!" she says to the handful of cute boys working the juicers. "I swear I have friends."

As we're talking, Claire's phone is buzzing with Snapchat DMs. "This guy sings to me," she smiles, showing a video of a man doing just that. "I get recognized a lot by Uber drivers," she says, "and in airports." Social media has, of course, been a huge part of growing and shaping her brand.

"Instagram was a big help," she admits. "I was able to see what people wanted; it's been an incredible way to reach people and be able to help them. It's strange to say this about yourself, but I think I projected something authentic and relatable to women. They can say, 'that body's like mine.'" Men noticed, too. "I never paid for any press, maybe some of the photos went viral, I don't know," she says, downplaying. I press harder. "Fabolous reposted me one time," she concedes. "I put his song in my video." A year into her account she says she had around 80,000 followers.

"Trill yoga started as a hashtag about two years ago," she explains. "Someone said that what I was doing was very different, it was like a guerilla yoga approach, and it should have a term," she says. "If you really break down what trill means," she says, kind of groaning over being formal about a slang word, "it's a combination of true and real. Yoga means a union, to get back to your most authentic self."

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