off the cuff:

Taxing yoga: exercise or spiritual practice?

posted by The Editors

Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported on a controversy that erupted over the decision by Missouri tax authorities to require yoga centers to collect and pay a sales tax on their classes. Yoga instructors have argued that they should be exempt from the tax “because the lessons include spiritual elements.” In this week’s off the cuff feature, we’ve invited a small handful of scholars to comment on the legal and cultural status of yoga and on the right of states to levy taxes on yoga centers.

Our respondents are:

Courtney Bender, Associate Professor of Religion Studies, Columbia University

Stuart R. Sarbacker, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Oregon State University

Isaac Weiner, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Georgia State University

Jay Wexler, Professor of Law, Boston University

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Courtney BenderCourtney Bender, Associate Professor of Religion, Columbia University

While the yoga teachers interviewed in the article are quite concerned that the state of Missouri considers yoga to be “entertainment” or “exercise” (unless, presumably, it takes place in a temple or a church), the category confusion surrounding yoga is nonetheless generative and valuable for those who teach it. The yoga teachers I met during a series of interviews I conducted in 2004 moved back and forth easily in spaces where they taught yoga as primarily exercise, primarily meditation, or primarily stress relief. These multiple capacities actually made it possible for yoga teachers to make a living. Likewise, it seems to me that they reveled to some degree in this possibility. They could argue that even if you didn’t “believe” in yoga it could help you.

Of course, not everyone thinks that this separation is possible—some teachers, and many outside observers, agree that it is not. But in this regard, yoga’s “spirituality” surfaces as a concern, or a danger. This Monday morning’s New York Post gives us a clear example. Several years ago New York City’s Department of Education contracted with an independent group to teach yoga and movement in dozens of elementary schools. When the Post got wind of this, it ran a story with a headline reading “‘Cult’ program in NYC schools.”  Even though the techniques described seemed innocuous (if not downright silly), the reported dredged up fears of yoga as a plan to infiltrate the schools and brainwash innocents (not surprisingly, the article links the “guru” to a sexual harassment case). Within several hours of the publication of the story the city suspended this program.

In the mid-1970′s, acupuncture was an unlicensed and unregulated health practice. In some states, it was illegal to practice acupuncture. Growing interest in alternative medicine prompted acupuncturists in several states worked together to establish regulation and licensing procedures. Now, acupuncturists go to school in accredited institutes. Acupuncture has changed: it is no longer taught through one-on-one apprenticeships, and it now integrates training in anatomy and Western medicine. But over a few decades, acupuncture became so “normal” that some insurance carriers now cover acupuncture treatment.

The story of acupuncture’s transformation resonates in interesting ways with Missouri’s decision to tax yoga studios. Taxing yoga as “fitness” or “entertainment” effectively means that yoga is no longer a spiritual or religious pursuit in the eyes of the state. It means that the “spiritual” and the “technical” parts of yoga can be effectively distinguished from whatever else it is. While this argument has hardly been exhausted, we nonetheless should not lose sight of the fact that many yoga teachers are already living out these divisions and distinctions and deploying them in their own practice. In this respect, we can’t overlook the possibility that taxing yoga might not be such a bad thing, at least for some teachers. Indeed, it might provide them with more legitimacy and financial security than they currently enjoy.

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Stuart R. SarbackerStuart R. Sarbacker, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Oregon State University

The Missouri Department of Revenue’s attempt to collect taxes from statewide yoga centers is the most recent in a series of events that have placed the contemporary practice of yoga at the center of tensions between the spiritual and the secular in the United States. This follows recent controversies that have arisen over state requirements for certification and training in yoga (such as in New York), and in connection with the attempts of Bikram Choudhury (think “hot yoga”) to establish legal and intellectual property control over his yoga system and its sequence of postures.

That there should be tension between the spiritual and material culture of yoga is not surprising, given its modern history. Modern yoga, especially the posture-driven variety that is popular in North America, is the product of a particular historical moment in which premodern forms of yoga (such as hathayoga) were merged with Indian traditions of martial arts and wrestling, European physical culturalist thought and callisthenic practices, Hindu universalism, and emerging ideas of “modern science.” The shift towards scientific and secular frameworks and the focus on the body (often through intense attention to the finest of alignments in posture, such as in the Iyengar system) broadened the appeal of yoga while often pushing its metaphysical moorings into the background. As a result of this, the contemporary yoga community in the United States represents a spectrum of traditions that extend from sectarian tradition-driven studios and ashrams to “free-floating” yoga courses offered at fitness centers such as Bally’s Total Fitness.

The fact that yoga brings together the exotic overtones of Indian spirituality with the more familiar exertions of Euro-American callisthenic and fitness traditions has certainly been a driving factor in the success of yoga in North America. It also points to the tensions at stake with respect to the issue of the taxation of yoga classes. At one end of the spectrum, there are yoga communities that are clearly rooted and situated within traditional Hindu, and in some cases Buddhist, or even Christian, frameworks; at the other end of the spectrum are communities whose members have little interest in, or knowledge of, the spiritual heritage of yoga. It would appear that the sensible approach in this situation would be one in which the context of practice is taken into consideration, in accordance with the types of standards that are applied to determining tax-exempt status for religious organizations. I do not doubt that some yoga organizations would fall solidly within the “religious organization” parameters, and others outside of it (yoga is big business too, after all). The tricky part would be in evaluating the spectrum in between, and determining where the “dividing lines” between secular and spiritual organizations are to be found, legally and philosophically.

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Isaac WeinerIsaac Weiner, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Georgia State University

This is not the first time that questions have been raised about the legal status of yoga, meditation, and other “spiritual” practices. For example, a famous 1977 case, Malnak v. Yogi, tested the constitutionality of a program that introduced Transcendental Meditation (TM) into New Jersey public school classrooms. At issue was not whether New Jersey was promoting TM, but whether TM practices, such as meditation, breathing exercises, and mantra recitation, constituted religion, legally.

It seems significant that Malnak was an Establishment Clause case, not a Free Exercise case or a case about tax exemptions. In other words, at issue was not whether practitioners of TM were entitled to special protections or privileges under the law, but instead whether TM was subject to special restrictions. Not surprisingly, perhaps, TM’s proponents asserted the secularity of their practices, describing them as scientific rather than spiritual. But federal district and circuit courts disagreed, ruling that TM indeed amounted to religion, legally. New Jersey’s promotion of these practices thus violated the Establishment Clause.

In the Malnak case, the courts assumed that they could readily identify religion “out there” in the world, objectively distinguishing it from non-religion. Yet to do so, they ignored the self-identifications of TM’s practitioners, who described their activities as secular, not religious. The courts implied that TM’s proponents were being disingenuous, strategically defining their practices as secular only so as not to be subject to the prohibitions of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. But one might say the same thing about the yoga practitioners in the recent Missouri case, accusing them of defining their practices as religious “only” for financial reasons, so that they can avoid paying onerous sales taxes.

Accusing these practitioners of disingenuousness or insincerity, however, buttresses the Malnak courts’ shared assumption that they could—in fact—coherently identify what was “really” religious and what was not for the purposes of law. But it seems to me that such definitional endeavors are always strategic, in part, and shaped by the particular concerns and motives of those doing the distinguishing. In these cases, U.S. law—and the particular position of “religion” under it—inevitably shaped the ways that practitioners understood the nature of their own practices. Whether they described their practices as religious was determined in large part by the context in which they were making such a determination. One might imagine the same yoga studios in Missouri, for example, objecting to their practices being described as religious should they be invited to run a class session in a local public school.

All of this is to say that offering tax exemptions for religious institutions or organizations inevitably entangles government and religion, rather than separating them. The Hindu chaplain quoted in the AP article suggests that taxing yoga studios might constitute “religious infringement.” But offering tax exemptions on the basis of religion also constitutes infringement, shaping how Americans interpret and present their own varied cultural practices. It requires courts (and legislators and tax regulators and …) to differentiate “real” religion from non-religion, precisely the sort of line-drawing exercise that the Establishment Clause was arguably intended to prevent. Perhaps the simplest thing might be to eliminate exemptions on the basis of religion altogether. Tax yoga studios, Hindu temples, and churches alike—or offer some better reason to justify their exemption beyond the mere fact that they might (or might not) be deemed “religious.”

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Jay WexlerJay Wexler, Professor of Law, Boston University

Are yoga classes religious, for legal purposes? I don’t know. It probably depends on the class. I’ve been in yoga classes that were filled with spirituality; in others, religion made no entrance. The former felt like being in temple; the latter, more like training for the Yoga Olympics. One thing to remember, though, is that the law is a double-edged sword when it comes to religion. What it grants to religion in the way of exemptions from general laws, like those involving taxation, it takes away in terms of government support, since the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits government sponsorship of religious practice. In other words, those who are seeking tax exemptions for yoga classes should be careful what they wish for. If yoga classes count as religion, then public schools, which might like the idea of offering a popular and stress-relieving form of physical recreation to students or faculty, may not offer them. If we decide that yoga centers are providing religious training, then the government may not support them financially, unless it supports all other similarly situated businesses in exactly the same way. If yoga is a religion, then the government may not encourage citizens to practice it. In a time when physical activity is on the decline, and obesity and other health problems are on the rise, we might want our public health commissions and our mayors and our public school teachers and who knows, maybe even our President, to be able to encourage us to partake in a little yoga from time to time. But this cannot happen if we decide yoga is a religion. I don’t know what the answer to the question is, but we should think carefully before pushing the government to decide either way.

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One Response to “Taxing yoga: exercise or spiritual practice?”

  1. avatar Trace Bonner says:

    I am amazed at the controversy, because there is currently no sales tax on gym memberships, hair salons and other such service oriented professions. Yoga may or may not be a spiritual practice depending on where you practice. It is still a practice that is based in service. The moment you start taxing Yoga classes, then all services need to be taxed; movie tickets, theatre, karate classes, spa services, doctor and dental visits…where does it end??

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