A woman who runs a free mental health yoga program says she might soon be forced to scrap it after the council told her it would now be classified as a commercial event due to its soaring popularity, and therefore attract a $400 fee per session.
Eliza Hilmer said Feel Good Flows, a wellness program that runs on Melbourne's St Kilda beach, first started during the pandemic to help people get outdoors and better manage their mental health during lockdowns. She said the gatherings, of which there are two per week, are free for anyone to join and is an offer many people have take up, with donations being optional.
In operation since 2020, Hilmer's program has soared in popularity in the years since, starting with just a handful of attendees back then, to now regularly attracting between 50 to 80 people per session. While the size of the group has increased, she maintains the gatherings are still completely free to participate in and run without commercial sponsors, partners, infrastructure or signage.
She supplies hot beverages and a musician at each session, Hilmer said, explaining the "expenses" she has are covered by the donations.
Free health service faces cancellation
Hilmer said many of those attending rely on the program just to help them get through the week, and, if the City of Port Phillip Council goes ahead with the new fees, she'll be forced to cancel it. She said the gatherings bring countless new people to the area, who subsequently visit local cafés and shops, and is of huge benefit to locals due to the positive mental and physical health impacts.
"I play by the rules as much as I can," Hilmer told Yahoo News Australia, explaining that she was first asked to pay for a personal trainer permit for the sessions by the council. "So I did that, and I got all of my insurance up to date, my first aid and all of that jazz.
"We've been operating as an outdoor gathering for mental health practices more than anything, and it's been really incredible. We've had no problems from the council, we're in a position that I specifically chose that would have the lowest pedestrian traffic — it's a spot right out of the way.
"If you're walking past, there's a chalkboard that says grab a mat and join us — no questions asked. This is public land, this is for the public. If you want to enjoy the beach, meditate, breathe, move with us, go for it."
Yoga coach asked to fork out $10k by council
Earlier this year, Hilmer says she was contacted by the council again and this time was asked to either cap her gatherings at 15 people or fork out $400 per session, equating to thousands per month, which she wouldn't be able to afford.
"And I'd need to pay it three months in advance," she explained. "So I need to pay for three months worth of events...I'd have to pay 10 grand.
"This is a free community gathering for the people of St Kilda who have been doing this for four years. It will immediately have 15 people, what do I say to the 16th person, when they arrive?"
Now Hilmer is faced with cancelling the program entirely, because she says capping it at 15 would mean rejecting "many vulnerable people" who rely on the service, and that "isn't an option".
She said the program has become a safe space where new friends meet and old friends gather, and that she believes council sees an opportunity to monetise it, due to its growth, which "is a shame because it's taken four years for the group to be this size".
Hilmer hopes council will back Feel Good Flows
Hilmer said she still believes "council can be the solution" and her goal is "to get them to sponsor us to see the value in what we do". "I don't want to fight with them," she said, adding that a meeting has been organised with the local mayor, Heather Cunsolo, to discuss the matter further.
"[Many attendees] can't afford to go to the studio where I have to charge them $35 to come for a yoga class. They can't afford to have a private one-on-one with me. This is the demographic that needs this practice the most. So that's why I have developed this and it's become a victim of its own success."
Yahoo News Australia has contacted the City of Port Phillip Council for comment. A petition to save the program has so far attracted almost 800 signatures.
Mayor weighs in
Port Phillip Council Mayor Heather Cunsolo said the program "needs to adhere to its license".
"It’s fantastic to see the growth of Feel Good Flows and we’re delighted to see so many people encouraged to take part in yoga sessions with such a St Kilda vibe," she told Yahoo News Australia.
"However, the business needs to adhere to its Personal Training Licence in line with other commercial businesses at our beach destinations to ensure our popular public spaces remain available, safe and enjoyable for everyone. I have been told Feel Good Flows has been operating on St Kilda Beach outside of its licence by hosting events with more than 100 people.
"There have been no changes to the Personal Training Licence with other businesses operating along the foreshore paying a licence fee ($331 per year) for the use of public open space and adhering to the 15 person limit per session."
Cunsolo said it "would be unfair for one commercial business" to operate outside of its licence when similar businesses "on the foreshore are following the rules."
"These rules also prevent multiple commercial businesses from occupying large portions of public open space at the expense of other beach-goers," she continued.
"An alternative solution was presented to Feel Good Flows to apply for an event permit to support the delivery of larger scale events. Reports of a $10,000 payment are inaccurate as we do not issue these types of permits to large commercial groups on an ongoing basis. These permits are $400 each with businesses able to apply for a maximum of four events per year. The cost for the four events would be $1,600."
Do you have a story tip? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.