The possibility has been brewing for a while, and as the yoga industry continues to expand, even Uncle Sam wants a cut. In Missouri, yoga studios are now required to pay sales tax on classes and services beginning November 1. This after the decision that yoga studios and classes fall under a state law mandating that places of "amusement, entertainment or recreation, games and athletic events" are subject to sales tax. Yoga teachers are riled by the fact that yoga classes fall under any of these categories, and are paying the taxes “under protest.”
This situation is sticky when it comes to the spiritual vs. non-sectarian debate that is forever raging in the yoga world. Teachers and studio owners in Missouri are disagreeing with the characterization of yoga as entertainment, amusement, or even athletic. Studio owner Cathleen Williams says, “Whoever categorized it doesn’t understand what yoga is.”
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While this is mostly likely the case, there is still an understanding that yoga studios are a business. While the teachers and or owners may have a strong understanding of yoga philosophy and ethics and even try to impart that understanding to their students, students may not be attending the classes for this reason. Many of the modern day yoga “experimenters” are simply looking for a good workout or a way to relieve stress, and are uninterested or even offended by the inclusion of yoga’s spiritual core in asana classes.
This law and this practice are far from black and white issues. Some asana classes are strictly physical and fall more under the category of a physical fitness or athletic events, while others work hard to bring the heart of the practice into the studio. In some asana classes, the practice of physical asanas is supplemental to the more spiritual aspects of the practice. So how do you generalize such a large range of experiences?
Hindu clergyman Rajan Zed emphasized that the Yoga is part of the six systems of Hindu philosophy whose practice is outlined in several major religious scriptures. "I still think it’s a spiritual practice, yoga," he said. "It doesn’t matter, the campus where it’s held.” But what does this distinction mean for all of the studios and teachers who work so hard to delineate the practice as separate from any religious affiliation?
Does this mean that in order to be correctly classified, western Yoga will finally have to “come out of the closet” and start to more fully embrace the aspects of religion that are contained within it, or undergo the complete antithesis and move toward a completely secular experience that is simply a physical practice without any spiritual basis?
Maybe the solution lies in the tendency to group spirituality with religion in the eyes of the state and federal government. Rather than morph our experience of Yoga into an either or category, maybe a whole new classification of business should be created to encompass spiritual practices and arts like yoga, meditation, tai chi, and even martial arts that has its own set of rules and regulations as deemed appropriate for its definition. After all, this practice is difficult to define in black and white terms as it has crossed cultural and religious boundaries, and exists as a gray area of understanding meant to elevate our own personal experience, however we choose to define it.
Should Yoga studios be subject to state sales tax laws? What do you think?