By Shelby Rowe Moyer | Photography by Hillary Schave
It’s not uncommon in the Western world for yoga to have been filtered down into a vehicle focused on fitness, says Kat Casey, owner of Mala Yoga. But the origins of the practice are truly a lifestyle that’s centered around mindfulness and community.
The word yoga, in Sanskrit, means “to unite.” And Seva — a Sanskrit term that translates to selfless service — is a core yogic tenant. So, when Casey opened Mala Yoga Center (formerly called Monona Yoga) in 2016, after careers in paralegal services and special education teaching, her mission was to offer a space where all people, regardless of ability, could heal and come together as a community.
From the beginning, Mala Yoga has partnered with other nonprofits and organizations to offer membership-free, trauma-sensitive classes for military members and veterans, as well as guided yoga sessions for people in addiction recovery.
Most recently, Casey began thinking about how Mala could draw more people in, so she started working with an equity
and inclusion specialist to revamp the website and introduce Mala’s new Allyship Fund scholarship. The scholarship provides free membership to people within the BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and differently-abled communities to lessen the barriers that might prevent people from practicing yoga. Casey also aims to hire at least three BIPOC yoga teachers in 2022, noting that teacher representation and visibility is a key part of making yoga more inclusive and approachable.
She’s also pursuing training with the Trini Foundation, which works with treatment centers, recovery programs and yoga studios to offer yoga classes to those in early recovery.
“Yoga is meant to be for all,” Casey says. “It can, in the Western world, very easily become an exclusive practice where it’s just a bunch of rich, white people. … We want to hold space for everyone — for all people to come in here and be their authentic selves.”
As 2022 unfolds, Casey plans to develop yoga retreats that include a mental health focus. She’s also working with a few collaborators to create a yoga teacher training program that will center within a social justice framework and will honor and respect the traditions and culture of yoga. This desire stems, in part, from Casey’s month-long trip to Mysuru, India in 2010 to study yoga with her cousin. It was a transformative experience, she says, learning the most traditional practice directly from the country where it began.
“Yoga is so much more than just doing poses,” she says. “We’re all born with an inner light. As we grow older and go into the world, we have experiences, and we build layers and layers and layers upon ourselves to protect ourselves from the world and others. Yoga peels those layers away to reveal your inner light.
It returns you to the source of who you are. You’re immersed in the present moment because of the practice.”
Casey wants to hold space for anyone and everyone to grow and heal. Though she’s already made an impact, time to reflect during the pandemic has opened her eyes to new ways she can unite and serve the greater community.