Kala MacDonald’s Yoga Story
LA-based yoga coach and teacher Kala MacDonald has mastered the ability of self-care but not by following the trends of manifestation Tik-Toks and loosely researched self-help books. She instead has compartmentalized the hardships she’s undergone with her emotional intuitiveness to consistently pursue cognitive clarity, wellness, and an active voice in the wake of injustice spreading throughout our country. Her non-profit organization Yoga to Cope, though taking a backseat to other yogic endeavors, has helped raise awareness for mental health advocacy, implementing yoga as a lifestyle, and maintaining a mindset guided by positive thought and action.
Since 2018, Kala has hosted wellness retreats varying in location from her hometown of LA to the vast landscapes of Africa. Combining relaxing treatments with yoga-based practices and activities, Kala has curated an experience for fellow yogis to enjoy rather than hyper-fixating on the arbitrary term of “wellness” and what it can mean for several different people. Today, she’s taking on one challenge at a time, and utilizing her training and what she’s learned from other’s to propel herself and her career forward.
Q. What is your story? Talk about your early life and what experiences led you to where you are and what you do today?
I’m from Kansas City, Missouri. My parents were already divorced before I was born. I grew up between two households. I lived primarily with my mom. I have a younger brother Brenton on my mom’s side and a younger brother Jordan on my dad’s side who I saw every other weekend and during summers. I thrived in school. Looking back I wouldn’t say I really liked high school and even undergraduate but I was an overachiever, a teacher’s pet, always asking for extra credit and stuff like that. I decided to move away for college. I applied to Belmont in Nashville and got accepted into their honors program. I started out as a photography major. I spent one semester at Belmont and absolutely loved it but it was financially difficult to stay there so I ended up moving back to Missouri. I switched from photography to journalism, to health sciences and eventually graduated with whatever degree all my experiences had culminated in which was a bachelor’s in health science and general science.
At this point, I was engaged. We moved to Nashville and that’s where I was when I found out that my brother Jordan had been killed. My dad called me when I was at work one day, I was a nanny, and he told me that my brother had died. It was a very chaotic, maybe 36 hours where everything’s still under investigation and things kinda start seeping in. That was a really confusing, life changing point of time where I can’t even fully describe how formulative it was. It was just a lot of chaos, questioning and confusion. In those 36 hours I left work for the day, my fiance and I drove to Kansas City to be with my family and kind of figure everything out. I decided I was going to leave that relationship, leave the city and be closer to my family.
I had already been practicing yoga in undergrad but it was just like a workout. It was sort of me going to yoga during this period after my brother’s death. That time of exploration, curiosity, and travel after the three years after Jordan’s death landed me in my first teacher training in Bali. Bali is so stunningly beautiful, it’s insanely affordable and it’s so rich in the awakening of senses and the existence of the elements in your daily life. You’re really aware that you’re alive there. You might think India is where you want to learn yoga but Bali was the spot. It was probably because I love the movie Eat Pray Love(laughs) and she goes to Bali and studies meditation.
Based on its website, I found a teacher training that sounded very educationally minded and science-based. At this point, I would not recommend this program because of some personal issues and abuse of power but the education I got there was absolutely a 10/10. You leave ready to teach which is not always the case with teacher training. It was a full year of travel and exploration. I went on a trip to Nashville, a trip to Vegas and pretty much all over the U.S but South Korea and Bali were my international treks. In Bali, I decided to move to LA for no real reason. I was just like ‘why not’? I figured I could nanny while I figured out making yoga my job. My teacher training ended in September of that year so my plan was to move at the end of the holiday season and be in LA for New Years. But in October my other younger brother Brenton committed suicide.
It’s funny to talk about-I guess funny isn’t the right word but I’ve talked about it so much through my work, training, and Yoga to Cope and avenues where my story comes up and when I hear myself tell it now and it’s not that there’s not still emotionally attached to it but it’s almost like I’ve had to detach from how insane and heavy and crazy the whole story is to be able to tell it so frequently.
I still ended up moving to Los Angeles. I’ve been here for almost 6 years. I started as a nanny with an agency. I shifted into teaching yoga in my own weird way. I had never taught in a studio setting until this past year. I now teach one class a week at the Equinox in Hollywood. It’s a restorative yoga class. I stay in touch with a couple families that I nanny for but I don’t do it full time anymore. I’m now in my second year of a master’s degree. I’m considering a PhD after this in neuroscience to really validate the scale that I’ve developed to specifically address one client rather than a workout for everyone. I’d really like to validate [yoga] from a scientific point.
Q. When did you decide health and wellness practices were something you wanted to pursue?
It goes back to that period I sort of touched on where I had already been practicing yoga. I was taking yoga-based fitness classes like a hot yoga class. I still love hot yoga classes, and I know a little bit more now when I’m in them of what to maybe skip or adjust for myself. I continued to take those classes after my brother Jordan died. What I didn’t mention was I specifically rejected the idea of going to therapy and taking any medication. I had been on anti-anxiety medication in high school and basically once I got out of high school and the chaos, and drama, and stress that was senior year, being in all the groups and activities I was in and now being captain or president and getting ready for college. After all of that I decided I didn’t want to be on medication anymore and I didn’t wean myself off I just threw it in the trash, which you’re not supposed to do. When my brother died and medication was reintroduced as a way to cope I rejected it. I didn’t have the specific thought that fitness was gonna get me through this. It just happened to be the thing I noticed as I navigated those days, weeks, and months of losing him.
I had to take a look at what I was doing that was helping me right now. There was nothing else I could really point to other than ‘oh I’m going to yoga 5-6 times a week’. I developed this curiosity of like, ‘how is that working? Why is this working on me?’ Once you get a peak behind the curtain of how yoga works you start understanding the chemistry and psychology of it. You just realize that it actually is math and science-based. That was very cool to me and it was something that I latched onto as a tool. I don’t think that people realize that yoga is a fitness. I was wondering how I can teach them what it can be and what I can do. Not that nobody knows this. Sometimes I have to pull myself out of the bubble of scholars and yogis and realize that it doesn’t seem very profound to me but if I zoom out and think of like my friend Sarah. She doesn’t do yoga so anything I’m saying or anything in these classes I’m taking might be very profound to someone like her. Some of this would be profound to people who’ve never practiced yoga before.
Q. When did you realize that you could build a community around these practices and ideologies?
I hate to use this term but I’m going to. I’m a little anti-community when it comes to yoga in terms of what I was saying about classes and big festivals and big groups and putting practices up on the pedestal. I think there is a place for them though. Part of what was helpful for me in those early stages of grieving was sitting in a studio room, surrounded by people who were all going to do this yoga practice. So I didn’t feel alone and yet, you know when you go into studios and it says no talking or stay quiet once you enter the yoga studio? It was kind of nice that I didn’t have to interact with that community and just exist within it. Where I have landed with developing community are my retreats. They’re small groups of women’s retreats. I’ve dipped a toe in co-ed retreats but my primary focus is with women. It is nice to come together, to discuss, to catch up, to talk about yoga and to not talk about yoga.
Yoga is this whole life thing it’s not just ‘so how’s your warrior 2 coming along’? It’s more of ‘how’s your relationship with your partner coming along? I know it was rocky last year when I saw you at this retreat’. There are a lot of big decisions that end up finally being made after these retreats. I get a lot of feedback from women saying I finally decided to leave this relationship that I knew I needed to leave but I just hadn’t yet. I didn’t talk about or do anything specific with this person about their relationship but they got the clarity through the practices and just a general break of being in a new place with new people. Yoga allowed them to do that, and that community space allowed them to do that.
Q. Talk about Yoga to Cope
Yoga to Cope is definitely on the backburner right now. It still exists but I’m not sure if I want to pick it back up or if I want to officially dissolve it. Essentially I started it because of some of the things I’ve already said. Realizing how profound it is and adding to that is realizing that there is this whole lack of accessibility, inclusivity, the conversation between equality and equity. Just that whole conversation related to social justice and wellness. For example, I’m well aware that my retreats are not accessible to people because of the cost.
But they cost what they cost because of what they include and where they’re located. It’s not cheap to put those events on but I thought there should be an outlet where I can offer some of these things, the practices, the breathwork, the teachings, the insights, the break, even in something as simple as an Instagram story on our page. It might seem silly but it teaches you something in the background. [Yoga to Cope] was to plant seeds. I thought, how, through this non-profit can I plant seeds so that people might go explore farther on their own. But yeah it was really just to plant seeds and say that even if you’re going through hard things-the mission statement was related to grief, trauma, depression, anxiety and yoga can address these things.
Q. You’ve undergone numerous challenges over the past couple years. Talk about what you’ve done to continue to strive towards a positive mindset?
The last couple years I guess would be Covid times which continues to be very insightful and an opportunity for learning for anyone who has chosen to accept that. From a yogic perspective, we’re in like the fourth quadrant of a wheel that’s about to restart. We’re definitely in this phase of destruction. I’ll say, sometimes I read books and it’s talking about a political, chaotic landscape and there’s so much hate and divisiveness and I’ll flip to the back to see the publishing date and it’ll say like 1994. I’m like you could’ve told me these four sentences were written a year ago! We’re experiencing these problems maybe in more depth because we’ve had the time to look directly at them.
Because of the news and because of social media it’s absolutely so freaking constant. It’s really hard not to talk about it and I don’t think we should necessarily avoid talking about it but it’s just more interfacing than it was in the 90s. I wasn’t into politics 10 years ago and now I’m on dating apps and if someone’s like ‘oh I’m not really a political person’ then it’s a no for me.
Again I’m in the bubble but looking at it from my [yogic] sphere I don’t think people are really putting together, what does yoga and wellness and health and mindfulness have to do with being political and I think there’s a direct throughline. There’s this whole pillar of yoga philosophy and that’s Ahimsa which basically translates to non harming and that’s put into practice in many different ways. But if you take it at face value, “non-harming” I don’t want to harm these dogs napping around me on my bed, I don’t want to harm my friends, I don’t want to harm myself.
I really want to emphasize that this is a pillar of yoga tradition. It’s basically saying that yoga is not being quiet or zen and peaceful and happy it actually means being combative when you see injustice. Combative could mean voting against things that are harmful or it could mean going out and protesting and raising your voice on behalf of individuals or yourself in the name of health and wellness for all.
Part of me taking care of myself did involve me choosing to get a divorce which has been coming up on a year and half since we’ve separated. I’m someone who’s always onto the next thing and always wanting to bounce and jump around and it was hard for me to live in that relationship which was and had to be by nature very stationary because of his goals. Instead of trying to fight him on what makes him happy it just made more sense to be separate.
Luckily, as mature adults can do, we’ve continued to find a place where we can maintain a healthy relationship that has just evolved in a sort of alchemy way into a friendship. It’s as complicated as any relationship is post break up, especially divorce, but I think we’ve done a decent job navigating. It’s ongoing as is everything. I think I have a really interesting and unique perspective on death and that’s the death of relationships too. Losing friends, Losing lovers, losing my brothers or family members I just look at it in an interesting way. It’s all through this yogi lens where you zoom out to the big picture. You have to ask, am I enjoying this? If I’m not, maybe I need to enter a different place.
Q. You host several retreats that center around wellness, healing, and relaxation. What is your and your attendees experience on these retreats?
Well, my experience is different than theirs by design. I’m not there to necessarily relax. So for me, I get done with those retreats and-I’m gonna make a comparison, like a tarot reader who sees 5 people in a row is just drained of energy. It’s not that they don’t enjoy doing tarot readings but it’s just a lot of energy output. That’s how I feel after a retreat. I just led one in France and then I went to London for two nights to visit a friend. I didn’t leave the person’s house the whole two days I was there. I wanted to do a London day while [my friend] was at work during the day but I was just so tired all I wanted to do was sit and watch Netflix(laughs).
My experience is I enjoy it so much and a lot of people come back to different places in the world to join me, which is such an honor. It makes me feel like I’m on the right track.
I get the sense from the people who’ve attended based on their feedback that they luckily have a very different experience which is enjoying it and also feeling refreshed. I think at the beginning because I’ve been hosting retreats since 2018-it was very focused on clean, detoxification, relaxation, yoga, and workshop classes twice a day. I think I’ve really started shifting into something a little more realistic. Maybe I’d say I’ve shifted the focus more from wellness to enjoyment.
I’m shifting away from the word wellness because I think it’s very convoluted and overused these days. I just want you to come and enjoy yourself, enjoy the other people, enjoy what I have planned for us and I think that creates that sense of wellness, refreshment, and clarity. I think I’ve found a way to create a retreat experience that’s more authentic to a person’s life where they’re not going back and getting whiplash from going to retreat life back to real life. Everything is taken care of from the moment they land wherever they’ve come to visit me, ground transport is provided, the food is provided, the wine is provided, the activities are provided, the daily movement by me and the spa treatment it’s all just there for them. It’s all optional so they can take what they want.
Q. How does being in LA broaden your career and your reach to your audience? Does it inhibit it at all?
Social media makes it very easy to be where you want to be and do what you want to do from there. A lot of jobs are remote these days. I think because of the internet these days I don’t find LA to be problematic in terms of being in touch with who I want to stay in touch with. My job is very remote. My classes are remote which is great. I said that I was drawn to LA for no particular reason but I’ve stayed for many reasons. It’s such a beautiful place to be. I mean we’re in a heatwave right now, but I generally love the weather. I love the temperament of the people here. There’s a constant health-mindedness that I love.
There are two wine shops near my house that sell all biodynamic and organic wines. I couldn’t get that in Missouri. I love the landscape. You’ve got beaches, you’ve got mountains, you’ve got the desert and you have everything in between. People complain about the traffic but again we live in this increasingly remote world where I get to choose when I’m gonna drive and I get to choose if I’m going to be in those high-traffic times and very often I’m not. The stereotype of fakeness and Hollywood I mean Hollywood specifically, but I really should highlight that people think LA is full of fake people with fake boobs and whatever but you can find that wherever. That’s not special about Los Angeles. It’s such a big place. You can find your people here.
Q. What’s next down the road for you?
I took a year leave of absence while I was navigating the divorce, and moving and kind of restarting life as a single person. I’m finishing my master’s degree now and I should graduate this Spring! I’m actively building a teacher training. There’s a big gaping hole in yoga education and standardization and what’s being offered. There’s also a big hole in accessibility and equity in terms of how do you shift from a big group setting where you pay $20 for a class to more privatized individual sessions without these astronomical rates that you would charge for a luxury item. I think, longer term I have a huge interest in writing books. I think you could see those on the horizon for me in the future and I really just love the retreats so much. It’s a really unique way to travel and meet people and do the things I love to do. I hope I can do even more of them alongside the academic goals.