Solomon Montijo is a chill dude who wants to bring yoga to the people. It seems a lot of people want this, too.
For that reason, the 28-year-old Mount Pleasant resident behind the Dude Chilling Yoga Collective says he will seek ways to get a recreational permit through the park board and pay the required fees to hold yoga sessions in Guelph Park, known affectionately as Dude Chilling Park.
He knew it was only a matter of time until municipal red tape would tie him up.
“It’s hard to say I was shocked because I knew it would happen,” he said. “But I was sad.”
The collective started meeting for twice-daily yoga instruction in 2014, with Montijo leading many of the classes as well as developing a regular rotation of 10 to 12 instructors plus dozens more he says are ready to substitute when called upon.
The first time he learned about the municipal requirements was August last year when a park ranger interrupted a session to inform Montijo and the practitioners they couldn’t hold class without a permit.
“He basically laid out the law,” said Montijo, noting the city employee wasn’t aggressive or rude. “He said, ‘You will get fined if you teach here again.’”
The classes continued. “I just kept practising,” said Montijo, who moved to Vancouver from Los Angeles five years ago and lives a few blocks from the East Eighth Avenue park. He said he moved north for love and is now married.
The collective announced on Facebook May 20 that its morning class on Sunday, May 21 would be the last for the time being.
A recreation-use park board permit costs $15 an hour for non-commercial groups, meaning the collective would have to pay at least $210 a week or nearly $4,000 up front for twice-daily sessions, (which typically run longer than 60 minutes) through the summer until September.
Montijo said the cost had previously been prohibitive since there is no charge for classes, but he also acknowledged the $15-hourly fee is “not too expensive.”
He said the collective is considering several options, including an online fundraiser to make the payment. They may hold fewer classes to lower the overall cost. Either way, he said he wants to get a permit so yoga can continue at Dude Chilling Park.
Once classes started in earnest this spring, the collective received a formal warning from the city over email, written in a tone that was professional and positive, said Montijo.
“They are being really cool,” he said. “They’d like to have a meeting with us and discuss ways of raising money from other community organizations for us to be able to pay for the permits and continue practising. We’ll see how that goes. The other option is to run a fundraiser.”
The yoga sessions, which are predominantly had drawn as few as five people and as many as 40, which is rare, but they are most often attended by about 10 practitioners.
Yes, in our backyard
The Courier heard from numerous people in the neighbourhood who came to the defence of the yoga classes.
Business owner and new father Joel Arsenault said he would chip in to support a fundraiser so classes continue. He can see the park from his balcony and has dropped in a few times, adding there are other park users who are less quiet and courteous than the sun saluters.
Jennifer Chernecki, another neighbour and member of the Mount Pleasant Heritage Group, was critical the yoga practitioners were targeted when all kinds of users congregate in the park, which has tennis courts, a community garden, benches and two metal poles to accommodate a volleyball net. The collective, she said, is inclusive and has a general calming effect on the public space, which frequently hosts people imbibing in drugs and alcohol.
On Wednesday afternoon when the Courier dropped by, people read books and walked their dogs, a group of men and women drank from tall cans of beer as one strummed on a guitar and others kicked around a deflated soccer ball.
“The city targeted the most vulnerable group and the one they knew they could bully,” said Chernecki in an email to the Courier.
The artist said the yoga practitioners are “greatly needed” in a park full of public drinking, marijuana smoking and “general fiesta-ing." She also meets with friends to picnic and drink in the park, which is only a few blocks from some of the city's most popular micro-breweries near Main Street.
“They are a calming and family-oriented, inclusive people who were just the easiest target for the park board to try and make an example of," said Chernecki, who was one of eight people at a session May 20. “Meanwhile, there was easily over 100 hipsters drinking openly – with several teasingly making fun of the yoga – and gathering, some in groups larger than eight. I have seen over 20 dogs and 20 people together in the after-work dog meet-up on the other side as well.”
Cheryl Rossi lives two blocks Guelph Park and said she liked to attended the Sunday morning session and then hit the nearby farmers market.
“It was a lovely way to get outside, get exercise and connect with people in my community,” she said.
Fans of the busy park say it is rarely without its East Side flare.
“One time we relaxed to the sound of a couple having a domestic dispute, yelling at each other in the park, another time to the sound of sirens. Drinkers would sit on a bench and sometimes watch us as they visited," said Rossi, noting the yoga instructors would accept donations but did not ask for payment.
"Free yoga in the park provided the perfect reprieve from what I called my 'corner of despair,' otherwise known as the desk where I spent my days writing cover letters after I lost my job. It got me out of the house, around people and boosted my mood," she said.
She also complimented Jon West, a regular but not a practitioner, for the video he made because his autistic daughter adored and valued the yoga sessions.
“He did so because he wanted to give back to the collective for providing the classes that his autistic daughter loved. She went all the time. Free yoga in the park provided this young woman with the opportunity to be part of her community, doing something cool in the world that she could do independently from her family.
“I would be happy to sign a liability waiver, if that's the problem with the collective offering free yoga in the park."
West wrote a message to the collective that was posted on Facebook today.
“I owe your class everything,” began the father. “Honestly, it has been probably the most important thing [my daughter] has ever had in her life. The only thing that has been ‘hers,’ where she could go independently and be a capable part of the community as just her, which is tough for her at this age.
“She was so proud, and it was amazing seeing that. She literally stood on the sidewalk crying and screaming on Saturday when she found out it wasn't going to happen anymore, then cried at home most of the night.
"I've told her it can't be cancelled and will get [it] figured out.”