New Sales Tax Defines Yoga as "Physical Exercise"—and Yogis Fight Back

According to regulations of a new tax law in Washington, D.C., the yoga studio is pretty much like any other gym.
Hands in meditation, Yogis practice yoga together

Is the “purpose” of yoga physical exercise? Any true yogi would answer that question with a resounding “no,” but according to the regulations of a new tax law in Washington, D.C., the yoga studio is pretty much like any other gym.

The 5.75 percent sales tax, which has been dubbed the “yoga tax” and which went into effect in the nation’s capital on Oct. 1, lumps in yoga studios with health clubs according to the following definition: “Health-club means a fitness club, fitness center, or gym the purpose of which is physical exercise.”

“Yoga is first and foremost a spiritual practice."

D.C. yogis have been vocally protesting the tax, mainly because they say it completely misinterprets the “purpose” of yoga while at the same time discouraging health and wellness.

“Yoga is first and foremost a spiritual practice. It was developed thousands of years ago as a holistic approach for well-being, touching every aspect of our experience: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual,” argues Debra Perlson-Mishalove, Creative Director and founder of Flow Yoga Center in D.C. “Unless the D.C. Council intended to extend the reach of this tax beyond their definition of ‘a fitness club, fitness center, or gym the purpose of which is physical exercise,’ then yoga should not be included in this tax."

Could It Be an Opportunity?

Jasmine Chehrazi, founder of the Yoga District collective of yoga studios in the D.C. area and founder of Yoga Activist, a nonprofit outreach organization dedicated to improving accessibility and trauma sensitivity in yoga and mindfulness instruction, agrees that the tax misses the mark, but also sees it as an opportunity for yoga to remake its image.

“I really agree with the effort to educate the government and the mainstream about yoga’s true intention: it’s not just for exercise to make you look good in $120 yoga pants that you wear to the grocery store," she says. "Based on what I've been taught and experienced, the purpose is self-awareness, so that we see our true selves or true natures. It's a very personal thing."

Chehrazi says she was forced to raise the price of her classes from $11 to $11.35 (which with tax comes out to $12) because of the tax, and while she thinks it’s “really nice that the D.C. Council is trying to get a more balanced budget,” she’s not sure they are going about it the right way.

Perlson-Mishalove is not yet sure how the new tax will affect her studio and clients. But as a business owner, she receives tax breaks under the new law that she says she would happily give up. “I would gladly forgo these breaks if it meant my clients didn’t get an added tax on their class passes. It would be a shame to potentially put yoga out of reach for anyone."

Perlson-Mishalove says she and others involved in the debate are actually “very much for” taxes and social services. “What we are trying to bring to light is that disincentivizing wellness is bad policy,” she says, adding that she's grateful for other states like New York and Washington State that ultimately decided not to levy similar taxes on yoga studios.

It’s not too late to speak out against the “yoga tax.” The regulations are still in draft form, and the D.C. Council is still open to comments from the community.

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—Jennifer D’Angelo Friedman