Spurred by her sister’s suicide, Kacee Must, the founder of Citizen Yoga, has dedicated her career to improving mental health through movement
By Gabriella Burman
Photography by Erin Kirkland
For the bereaved among us, there is a choice: To succumb to a world that has crumbled, or to find a way to live, and rebuild. For Kacee Must, the founder of Citizen Yoga, a group of four yoga studios spanning Metro Detroit and Ohio, establishing a place where everyone who enters feels visible has been her way to rebuild a sense of family after the devastating loss of her oldest sister, Miya, to suicide in 2007.
“You can’t prevent suicide 100 percent of the time, but I believe that if Miya had felt truly accepted — despite her mental health issues — if she had felt truly seen and heard, she may have made another choice,” says Must, 37, who’s the third of four daughters. “When a human being knows that another person truly sees and hears them, they will not feel they can disappear without anyone noticing.”
Established in 2013, Citizen Yoga offers classes with a focus on the alignment of body, mind, and intellect. Must’s mission is to empower people and improve mental wellness through movement, and ultimately to prevent suicide, as a way to honor her sister. In her view, yoga can be a tool to improve mental health, and its success hinges on people communing with one another in person. When individuals are forced to interact and socialize, she says, “We hold space for one another.”
Over the course of eight years, this mission has resonated with the public. Citizen Yoga has grown to include four locations — three in the Detroit area, and one in Cleveland — reaching more than 3,300 students per week. In addition to yoga classes, the studio offers Reiki, massage, and acupuncture services.
Must’s decision to open yoga studios followed a three-year sojourn in India after her sister’s death, where she studied ancient Indian philosophy and discovered a passion for teaching yoga. “To step back from it at any point would be to deny my spiritual connection to who I am — I feel I was born to teach.”
And teach she has, from leading daily classes to conducting instructor training to hosting the annual “Yoga in the Big House” event at the University of Michigan, which draws upwards of 1,000 practitioners each year for a fundraiser class in support of mental health-related causes. Along the way, Must has also coached those struggling with the fallout from divorce or fertility issues or who are grappling with feeling overwhelmed or alone. (Must says she knows her place as an advocate and not as a professional, and she has developed a network of mental health professionals to whom she can refer students.)
Last March, Must — along with the entire global community — faced a challenge of her own as the Covid-19 pandemic began to spread. “I knew something was coming,” she says, so she sprung into action with Alyssa Ciapala, Citizen Yoga’s chief operating officer. The pair began to film a series of classes and when the studios shut down completely later that month, Citizen Yoga pivoted to providing recorded and live classes via Zoom. Those classes are still going today, says Must, and reach about 2,000 followers per week.
In the ensuing months, Citizen Yoga started a Netflix-like subscription service and app offering a library of recorded mental health classes, therapy videos, podcasts, and weekly practical philosophy courses (topics have included “living unselfishly” and “seeking wholeness”). To date, there are about 500 app users; the company hopes to reach 1,000 by June.
According to Ciapala, Must’s response to the pandemic is in keeping with her strong work ethic. “No is never an answer for her, and things don’t have to be perfect in order to get them started. She will always find an alternate route to achieve her goal to keep students front and center. People are that important to her.”
Must, who resides in Royal Oak with her husband, will continue to cultivate Citizen Yoga’s online presence as the pandemic wanes, but she says that safe, in-person fitness classes — where people can rebuild their sense of security among those outside of their “pods” — are essential to the healing process. “All we can do is take one day at a time and have authentic, kind interactions with one another,” she says. “It’s the only way we can collectively heal from the anxiety of the last year.”
As always, she’s dedicated to moving forward amidst the “inevitability of sorrow” that stings us over the course of our lives. If this pandemic has taught us anything, she says, “it is that we are all in this together. I know I can’t bring Miya back. What I can do is honor her memory by holding onto my mission. It’s like a raft. When it’s well-built, it can withstand rough waters.”