San Diego tightens restrictions on outdoor yoga, fitness classes

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

Recent updates to the city code have allowed San Diego officials to crack down on classes that were never legal, a spokesperson said.

SAN DIEGO — Amy Baack has taught consistent outdoor yoga classes in San Diego for three years. 

Each donation-optional class drew dozens of people, many of them students or professionals who couldn’t afford yoga classes in studios. They served as a space for experiences many people view as core to San Diego: fitness, wellness, ocean views and community connection. 

But when Baack arrived to lead her Wednesday night class last week, she said she was greeted with three trucks, multiple Park Rangers, and the “devastating” information that she, and all other yoga instructors who teach there, could no longer offer classes at Sunset Cliffs.

“It was a very tragic day,” Baack said.

Recent updates to the city code – the same updates that prohibit beach bonfires and organized picnics – have allowed city officials to finally crack down on classes that were never legal to begin with, said Caleb Olsen, Public Information Officer for the City of San Diego.

The city’s restrictions, and permitting process, are rooted in safety and equal access to public parks, Olsen said. 

But yoga instructors and community members say the restrictions unfairly target a beloved, community-based activity in an expensive transplant city. They plan to fight for change.

“I don’t understand how the city doesn’t see that this is a gift to our community,” said instructor Jackie Kowalik. “It’s a gift to our citizens.”

City closes loophole

When San Diego officials updated city code to prohibit businesses from operating beach events, they also tightened language to explicitly list yoga classes as a “service” subject to the city’s rules on permitting for gatherings at public parks, regardless of whether the class is donation-based.

Before, the code was not clear on what constituted a service, so yoga instructors who offered donation-based classes could operate in a gray area, Olsen said.

Now, the city defines a “service” as “activities involving the performance of work for others, the rental of furniture or equipment for an activity or event, or the provision of intangible items to a group of four persons or more at the same time that cannot be returned once they are provided. Examples include massage, yoga, dog training, fitness classes, equipment rental, and staging for picnics, bonfires or other activities.”

The Parks and Recreation Department offers permits at certain parks, based on size and safety, Olsen said. The city does not offer permits for yoga or fitness classes at Sunset Cliffs. 

“Not only are the cliffs dangerous and known for their erosion and deaths and rescues that take place there, the park isn’t big enough to hold a service and have the park still open to other patrons,” Olsen said. 

In a statement, the city said: 

“The City of San Diego’s Municipal Code prohibits groups consisting of four or more people engaged in commercial recreational activities like yoga, fitness classes and dog training from gathering in parks without a permit and can only operate in certain designated areas. Picnics and other gatherings of 50 or more also require a permit in parks, beaches and bay. The applicable municipal code (SDMC 63.0102) has been in effect since 1993, and recent updates to the policy have clarified the activities for which necessary permitting applies.”

The updated code took effect March 29.

Yoga instructors push back

Several yoga instructors who teach independently at Sunset Cliffs have rallied together in hopes of convincing the city to work with them on a mutually beneficial solution. 

Baack said the Parks officials gave her a warning and told her next time she teaches at Sunset Cliffs, she would face a criminal offense. She said the park rangers were not able to tell her what exactly that would mean. 

“It’s just all been very confusing,” she said, “because they’ve given us not a lot of information.”

Olsen confirmed no fines have been issued. He was not sure how many chances instructors would be given if they continue to offer classes without a permit, but he said a citation would be the last resort.

The teachers hope they can convince the city to change its stance. 

They say they are willing to obtain a permit, but the city doesn’t currently make permits available for Sunset Cliffs.

They want to meet with Mayor Todd Gloria to figure out a solution. Baack is also talking with a lawyer and is considering filing a lawsuit with the goal of altering the city’s code. 

“It doesn’t apply to just yoga,” she said. “Really, it has implications of gatherings outside that I think we all cherish in San Diego.”

The instructors have other sources of income – Baack estimated at least 80% of attendees at her donation classes don’t donate. She views the classes as a passion project. 

“Teaching at the cliffs has really been more about creating a community and creating an experience of San Diego,” Baack said. “To me, doing yoga outdoors has always been, like, quintessential San Diego.” 

‘This is why I live here’

Kowalik, who has taught at Sunset Cliffs since 2017, said she always knew the classes meant a lot to people, but didn’t realize just how much people relied on them until faced with the prospect of them ending. 

People told Kowalik they looked forward to the classes amid difficult stretches of grief or unemployment. The classes helped people dealing with depression; Kowalik said at least one person told her the classes saved their life.

Many attendees were graduate students, teachers or healthcare workers who were looking for yoga’s mental health benefits but unable to afford classes at a studio.

Even the San Diego Tourism Authority has used photos of beach yoga at Sunset Cliffs and other waterfront locations to promote the city. “Discover inner peace and soak in the sunshine with yoga by the stunning waters of !” read a caption from the @visitsandiego account in January.

“There’s some things about the city that can be really negative: rent prices, housing prices, gas, you name it. I have a second when I’m teaching yoga, surrounded by people smiling at me, to stand back and be like, ‘This is why I live here. This is why I love this place,’” Kowalik said. “And I know from reading everybody’s messages that attends the classes, people in our community feel the exact same way.”

How to apply for a permit 

The city does not yet have an online listing of parks where people can apply for permits to host yoga and fitness classes. 

Guadalupe Parra, Public Information Clerk at the Parks & Recreation Department, told CBS 8 the department offers fitness and yoga permits throughout the city, and at the following areas in Mission Bay:

De AnzaPlayaTecolote Shores NorthTecolote Shores SouthBonita CoveSki Beach

The locations are available at certain hours set by the city, and permits are first come, first serve.

Permits cost:

About $5 per hour, per quarter, for gatherings under 50 peopleAround $213 per quarter for gatherings of more than 50 people.

For more information on permit applications, call or email the Parks and Recreation Department at 619-235-1169 or prpermitcenter@sandiego.gov

San Diego to crack down on businesses that set up bonfires, picnics, events on beach (March 26, 2024)

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.

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