The DC Yoga Tax: Is Yoga a Spiritual or a Physical Practice?

The debate over D.C.'s "yoga tax".

Last week Washington D.C. passed a 5.75% Sales and Use tax that has become quickly unpopular among yoginis in the city. This “yoga tax”, as it has been colloquially referred to, is a misnomer, as it doesn’t exclusively target yoga studios, but any “fitness club, fitness center, or gym the purpose of which is physical exercise”. This means that all membership dues, drop-in fees and multi-class passes as well as other services will be subject to the charge. The only way an organization can be exempt from taxes is if the provide religious, charitable, scientific or educational services and the profits must not go to an individual or private stakeholders. [wp_ad_camp_1]

The debate boils down to one fundamental question: is yoga a physical or a spiritual practice?

To a yoga practitioner, this question might even seem obvious, or even silly, as the answer can be both or neither. Yoga means union, union of the mind, body and spirit coming together as one. Yoga is a spiritual practice, as much as it is physical one. Yoga is neither only one nor the other, as the two cannot be separated.

The Yoga Alliance, a U.S. non-profit organization, released an official statement in opposition to the tax, arguing that “Washington D.C. does not tax essential health care services” such as doctor visits, medications and medical procedures and should “similarly exempt essential preventative health care services” such as yoga. Richard Karpel, president of the Yoga Alliance, argued that although the type of yoga practiced in many gyms may have little to do with its Hindu spiritualism roots, he says, the primary purpose of specialist yoga studios "is to integrate the mind, the body and the spirit". The physical benefits are just a side effect of the spiritual practice.

New York State would probably agree with Mr. Karpel, as it made its position clear on the matter when making a decision on a similar tax in 2012. The New York State Taxation and Finance Department ruled that the practice is not “true exercise”, but rather a spiritual practice like many others.

San Diego County went the other way in 2013 when faced with a different kind of decision also revolving around the question of how to define yoga as a practice. A family sued the district over its elementary school yoga program, arguing that it violated the separation of church and state. The district was able to continue with its yoga program, as the Judge ruled that yoga is religious “at its roots” but that the modern practice of yoga is secular and should be seen as “a distinctly American cultural phenomenon”. This is hard to argue with yoga having become a multi-billion dollar business, or with yoga studios advertising their “sweat classes” and celebrities touting their weight loss due to yoga.

The issue of defining yoga for us here in the West has not only proven to be an existential one, but a question whose answer can change laws and regulation and the scope in which yoga is practiced. Can schools teach yoga only as physical practice? Can yoga studios be exempt because of yoga’s spiritual essence? Should we even try to define yoga for ourselves? Can we still respect its easter roots and practice it the way we please?

What do you think?

For more information on the history and theory behind yoga, check out Yoga Travel Tree's article From the East to the West: The Evolution of Yoga, and Is Yoga a Religion? 


Image via: Fort George G. Meade Public Affairs Office