By Tori Hahn
Yoga, the ancient Hindu practice of meditation to bring health and relaxation to the body, found resolution and validation in San Diego in an unsuspecting location: court.
Steve Hubbard, a Pacific Beach yoga instructor who goes by “Namasteve,” is for many San Diegans the face of donation-based oceanfront yoga — a class style in which participants are not obligated to pay but are encouraged to donate to the instructor.
The donation-based style of yoga earned local fame when Hubbard encountered a First Amendment issue with it in early 2014.
Hubbard’s oceanfront classes in Palisades Park stirred up mixed reactions among community members, who complained about the more than two hundred people who showed up to practice yoga Saturday and Sunday mornings.
“It was a municipal code that stated you can’t have over 49 people, and myself and my attorney disagreed,” Hubbard said. “[We] thought that the First Amendment guarantees that I can get up on my soap box and say something, [and] if people want to listen then they can.”
Hubbard said donation-based yoga exploded in San Diego after his win in court, and has since continued to rise.
The noncommittal style of yoga offers an option to those who can’t afford or don’t have access to traditional membership-based yoga studios. With monthly yoga studio membership fees reaching almost $140, yogis, as they are called, have started seeking out new outlets in which they can practice.
“For a college student on a budget, it’s really what you can manage,” said 22-year-old Quinn Nunes, a casual yoga practitioner. “You can try [donation-based yoga] out before you have a commitment; [with] other classes you [have to] pay up front or you have to pay a large sum of money, but this one — you can come to one class, try it out, see how you like it.”
Both practitioners and instructors stress the importance of donation-based yoga’s accessibility.
“In a studio, if you can find that, it’s going to cost you $20 or $25 per class, which, if you want to practice a lot of yoga, and you’re going class by class, it’s not very accessible to everybody,” Hubbard said. “So of course [with] donation-based yoga, you give what you can and it’s going to draw a lot of people.”
Hubbard’s classes follow the format of traditional yoga, whereas novel varieties of donation-based yoga continue to pop up in San Diego. One unique style, for example, is aerial yoga in which participants hang from cloth while practicing yoga-inspired movements and balancing techniques.
Leila Whitehead is the owner of Trilogy Sanctuary in La Jolla, a rooftop yoga studio that also offers donation-based classes.
Whitehead said she wanted to make the “fun and playful” aerial yoga classes accessible for those who can’t afford to pay the usual fee because of the positive changes it brings.
“I think … [teachers] want to be able to offer yoga to people, but they understand that having a set price doesn’t work for everybody,” Whitehead said. “Some people can feel really scared by it. It can bring up a lot of emotions and feelings for people … and all of those heightened senses, really, it makes it more powerful somehow.”
Another donation-based yoga platform called Yoga Out Loud introduces house music to the 5,000-year-old tradition. Sessions along the water in Mission Beach feature DJ Adam Davis playing deep house music while instructor Jordan Tyler recites classic yoga poses.
Tyler said people flock to donation-based classes because they are often the cheapest option that allow younger people to participate.
“Socioeconomically speaking, the rent is so high and the cost of living is so high [in San Diego] that [without] donation-based yoga for a lot of us, especially us in our 20s or in college … [we] don’t really have access any other way,” Tyler said. “And it’s [a] really important part of my practice, as a teacher, to bring that to the community.”
“We have an awesome outdoor environment too,” Tyler said. “I think that really gives us yogis specifically in San Diego so much opportunity to practice … We have so much time outside all times of year to be able to bring yoga any day, all day, to anyone.”
In the 2015 American Fitness Index report, San Diego ranked third most fit city in the U.S. The American College of Sports Medicine report compared the 50 largest metropolitan areas in diverse categories, including recreational facilities available to residents and community members’ personal health indicators.
The “built environment” indicators — statistics that account for parkland within a city — are what put San Diego on the map. Parks account for 23.5 percent of the land area in “America’s Finest City,” reaching almost 13 percent more than the nation’s target goal.
Additionally, San Diego boasts of almost double the target goal for acres of parkland per 1,000 acres with 36.2 acres.
Hubbard, a New York native, noted that the consistent sunny weather and health consciousness of San Diegans makes yoga a perfect fit for the region.
“You can get out on the beach 300 days a year and you’re not stuck in the house,” Hubbard said. “I think that has a lot to do with it.”
One thing yoga instructors agreed on is the healing yoga can bring.
Whitehead said her students have told her after practicing yoga they see changes in their physical bodies, their moods are elevated and they are generally happier.
Tyler said yoga helps her relieve stress and even improves her depression.
“Over time you start to learn that it’s such a safe space to open up and unwind, unfold the different layers of yourself and get in touch with your body and your brain at the same time,” Tyler said.