Namaste away: Rangers bar yoga classes at cliffside San Diego park

For three years, Amy Baack has been teaching free yoga classes in the open air at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park in San Diego every week.

But last Wednesday, she arrived for her 6 p.m. class to find three park ranger trucks parked on the cliffs. Some of her students, who were visibly upset and crying, were talking to the rangers. Because of a new ordinance passed in March, the rangers said, community gatherings of four or more people that could be considered a business weren’t allowed at Sunset Cliffs anymore.

Baack had worked with park rangers in the past, who allowed her and other yoga teachers to hold donation-based classes as long as they included fewer than 50 people and didn't use any amplified sound.

"This is definitely not where I get my business," said Baack, who also offers private yoga and meditation classes for a fee. "This is more about community and creating that sense of collective here in San Diego because we get people from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds."

The ordinance specifies the parks where people can hold yoga and fitness classes, as well as other activities, if they get a permit, but Sunset Cliffs isn't one of them.

Jackie Kowalik also had to cancel the free class she's been teaching at Sunset Cliffs since 2017. Some of her students who weren't aware of the new ordinance still showed up last week, only to be met by park rangers.

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"This is about our community," she said. "I think a lot of people think this is two yoga teachers that are angry. You're taking away joy and comfort and a place for safe mental health being accessed without consulting the citizens."

Kowalik, who teaches paid classes at fitness studios, said she's heard of pickup soccer games and volleyball tournaments also being shut down. She and some of the other yoga instructors in the community are hoping they'll be able to apply for a permit to teach at Sunset Cliffs, and they have reached out to their clients and asked them to let the city know how the free, donation-based yoga classes have helped them out.

"I know these classes mean a lot to people," she said. "The stories people have been telling about pulling themselves out of depression, moms who bring their families and kids, broke college students and people who are unemployed who can't afford to take a class at a studio."

Caleb Olsen, a city spokesperson, said in an email that while a lot of people have expressed opposition to the ordinance online, there is also support from people who use the park, live in the area or are against "unpermitted commercial activity on City land."

Barbara Keiller, chair of the Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Council, said that there have been some concerns about the safety of those participating in yoga and fitness classes, especially in the cliff area. Because it's long, narrow and susceptible to erosion, she said, there is a risk of the ground giving way and people falling to their deaths.

Keiller said the classes leave less room in the parking lot and block part of the California Coastal Trail.

"We're realizing it's inappropriate to have 50 people on a narrow cliff edge, blocking the walkway for other people," she said.

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Keiller herself has participated in outdoor yoga classes and called the activity "very important."

"There are safe places for people to do that," she added.

Kowalik and the other instructors have spoken with a civil rights attorney and reached out to city officials, who have agreed to meet with them. In the meantime, Kowalik has rented a private venue for her Sunday class and said she will continue to do so out of her own pocket.

"I'm just trying to teach a yoga class that's for the community, I'm not trying to make waves," she added.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.