Just what is yoga? Arguments in D.C. tax case may inform us

We’ve covered the proposed expanded sales tax in Washington, D.C., which would broaden things to include health clubs and, by initial extension, yoga studios already.

Now, Yoga Alliance has added its voice to the debate, arguing both that the tax should not cover yoga studios (that offer yoga solely, if I understand it correctly) and that the way the debate has been playing out is pretty unfair to the yoga world.

Let’s tackle the latter of those arguments first.

The Washington City Paper has a letter the alliance wrote to city leaders. In it, the alliance pretty much blames the media for dubbing the proposal a “yoga tax” because, it argues, the author of the proposed tax never mentions yoga — and by some extended logic, yoga ought to be kept out of the mix as it was never intended to be part of the tax in the first place.

I have to say, I’m not quite buying that. When a politician talks about a “wellness tax” or says it will apply to “health clubs, etc.” I am pretty sure that politician has a wide range of health-related businesses in mind. Calling it, in fact, a “yoga tax” would have created a similar, even stronger, argument for gyms, Pilates studios, etc. “If you want to tax yoga, go ahead. Just leave us out of it.” Yoga may be exercise, but weight lifting definitely isn’t yoga. (Although the trend to add “yoga” to every health craze hurts that argument.)

Plus, supporters of the tax could argue that yoga instructors still are providing a service, which is the real driving force behind the tax.

The second of the alliance’s arguments is more intriguing. My gut reaction when I saw the story was: It is going to go with the “yoga is religious” tactic. (And then we can imagine what that might mean for the yoga in schools lawsuit.) But, the alliance surprised: Yoga, it argues, is “a comprehensive system for well-being in every dimension of the human experience: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. The physical postures and breathing techniques are only a fraction of the overall discipline of Yoga.”

Pretty good, with a broad range of benefits, even if there is the “spiritual” wiggle room for other lawsuits we’re watching.

I don’t think it is ironclad, though. Where this argument seems headed, to me, is to a question of whether a gym or health club provides a similar complement of benefits. Where would “burning off some stress” on a bike or by lifting weights fall into that quartet of “human experience”? Mental? Emotional?

And before you toss “spiritual” out as a possibility, don’t forget Crossfit.

The alliance’s strongest argument is that it references New York State’s exclusion of yoga-only studios from a health club, gym or weight-control business tax. The problem is that — unless the tax got changed and I don’t see note of that — it doesn’t just target health clubs but other service providers, as well. If that remains the case, it probably is going to end up being more an issue of whether yoga instructors are providing a service, and not if yoga is more than exercise, that carries the day.

At the least, we do have a tidy definition of yoga.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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