No Meditation Without Taxation

Meditation-leaf-croppedBy Nitaisundara dasa

On November 1st the Missouri Department of Revenue implemented a controversial policy that will add a 4 percent tax to all yoga classes. Yoga teachers and students are objecting on the grounds that their practice is a spiritual discipline and should therefore not be subjected to the financial process that regular commodities, or even exercises, are.

The initial notices of the upcoming tax were sent out by the Department of Revenue in mid-October, informing the 140 recipients that by November 1st they had to begin payment.

The state’s rationale is that there have been taxes for places of “amusement, entertainment, or recreation” in place for a long time, and according to them, yoga classes fall within these parameters. Of course many are attributing the action to the fact that Missouri, like the rest of the country,—and world— is in a less-than-desireable financial situation and therefore reaching out to collect funds wherever they might be able to make a case. To this accusation the Department of Revenue spokesperson, Ted Farnen, replied that the decision to add the tax to yoga classes “was based on the fact that we wanted to apply th[e] tax in a fair and even way.”

Not only do yogins find the notion unfair, but unconstitutional as well. Considering yoga a religious practice (although, ironically, I suspect that many would probably not want to call it such under other circumstances), practitioners claim that the new taxation is a violation of the First Amendment. Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism who became famous when he opened the U.S. Senate with the recitation of Sanskrit prayers, has spoken out in defense of yoga’s spiritual status, stating that yoga remains spiritual regardless of the “campus where it’s held.” This is a response to the state’s idea that because many yoga classes take place in fitness centers and other business places  that are not apparently spiritual, they can enforce the tax in those locations, as they have been doing with conventional fitness operations.

Perhaps the debate is more polarized than it really should be. I can’t say authoritatively, but I would venture to guess that a yoga class at Gold’s Gym might be a significantly different experience than a class at Kansas City’s Yoga Vedanta Shala. It would seem that there is large gray area between yoga as exercise and yoga as spiritual discipline, and significant numbers of people fall all along the spectrum. Ultimately, I suppose it boils down to motivation, an insight that does not offer much in terms of practical resolutions.

To Missouri’s credit, the Department of Revenue has stated that it will consider religious exemptions on a case-by-case basis. Of course, this is probably not too comforting to anyone who is committed to yoga as a spiritual practice, as one can only assume that Missouri government official’s ability to understand the deep philosophies of the East is minimal. And then there is the question if when a teacher or studio is granted exemption, will the taxes that they paid beginning on the 1st of November be refunded? Regardless, if the state is to continue as they are, one cannot expect much more than case-by-case assessments (except maybe adequate case-by-case assessments).

According to Farnen, the Missouri spokesperson, West Virginia and Ohio have already set the same sales taxes in place, although Ohio’s spokesperson pointed out that they tax gym and sports club memberships, not classes—probably a hairsplitting defense in most instances.

This is not the first attempt by the government to dip into the $6 billion yoga industry. There has been an ongoing attempt by the federal government to set instructor licensing standards that (surprise!) cost money to obtain. New York yoga advocates were recently able to stave off the federal regulators, but one can only wonder if the government’s attempts to claim a share will ever stop as long as yoga continues to be profitable.

As the controversy continues on and inevitably spreads to other regions, perhaps those who are truly dedicated to their yoga practice can attempt to capitalize on their experience and use the frustration that arises to reflect and put theory into practice. And those who do yoga without such commitment can capitalize on the situation by cultivating detachment—4 percent more detachment, to be exact.


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27 Responses to No Meditation Without Taxation

  1. I would have to agree that paid yoga classes have nothing to do with religion or worship of God, so I really can’t argue with the Government’s efforts to tax these businesses like every other business.
    The kind of “yoga” that is taught in these paid yoga classes is nothing more than physical fitness regimes and do not deserve the status of a religious establishment.
    This “yoga” taught in these centers is more about self-worship than God worship, so we can’t really call it religion.

    • A good number of my students are yoga teachers by profession and they teach their students about bhakti as well as hatha yoga.

      • I have taken yoga classes for relaxation and exercise (10$/hour average) but the meditation part of yoga has always clearly been something elusive in the trend. I was in a class where one day, at the end of class when the students wind down and relaxe lying supine on their mats on the floor, the trainer inadvertently played a cd with a soft rendering of Gaura Arati. Well, as the soft sound of kiba jaya jaya goracander aratiko sobha spread softly in the air I couldn’t check myself from starting chuckling in my corner. The trainer then came over and asked what I was “experiencing”. I told her I knew the meaning of that song and that it was actually much more conducive for dancing and jumping in joy than laying on the floor and emptying one’s mind (as she was guiding us to do). She then asked if I would share the meaning of the song with the class. I said, “sure”. She then asked those who so wished to sit up and hear what the song was saying. So I explaining that Gaura was a bengali saint of the middle ages believed to be an incarnation of Krishna, and that in those verses he was being worshiped in a ritual which described the ritual itself and the fact that it is meant for none other than the personality of God. I explained that the ritual has a crescendo in mood and in sumptuosity. Those who worship Gaura sing this song while offering items such as lamps of light, incense, flowers, etc, to a murti or picture of Gaura placed on a throne, recreating the original event when the saint was discovered to be none other than Krishna, or God himself. This realization usually makes the worshipers sway and dance out of ecstasy of love of Gaura, a personality who was simultaneously God and a teacher of love of God. Indeed, meditation can and eventually will be part of main stream yoga classes, paid for or not.

        • Were it not for my participation in hatha yoga classes, I probably could not sit cross-legged while chanting — at least not without experiencing distracting discomfort. As has been pointed out below, at least some degree of bodily preparedness for meditation is ideal. Do I go to such classes for philosophy or inspiration? No. But if a thoughtful student/teacher of Gaudiya Vaisnavism was instructing, I would be thrilled.

          I agree that some Gaudiyas have glibly cast aspersions on hatha yoga (and many other favorable things, for that matter). Vikram’s and Bhaktikanda’s perspectives to the contrary are both informed and insightful — and fortunately more commonplace these days.

          • Well said Gopala. The statements we find in the sastras or by various acaryas that seem to deprecate other paths like yoga are from the point of view of their dedication to bhakti and their conviction in its supremacy. The peopl making those statements have major standing in the realm of bhakti and the realization to exemplify their conviction; for them yogasanas are not needed as they can sit absorbed in japa all day and night. But for those who cannot do that to flippantly dismiss asana and pranayama practices as nonspiritual–when they would clearly benefit from such–belies a lack of integrated understanding. They’re basically just parroting the statements of others with realization without having it themselves.

    • GV is not a religion either, atleast I hope it is not.

    • Vikram Ramsoondur

      There was really no requirement for the quote marks, KB. I would jibe with you on the fact that bhakti-yoga is the highest form of yoga, but it is surely not the only one there is. The Vedic literatures are God’s manual to conditioned souls on how they should comport themselves in the material world, and they would not be complete if they did not include explanations pertinent to temporal existence. Admittedly, spiritually-inclined persons naturally assign greater weight to descriptions of ways enabling one to free oneself from material bondage.

      However, hatha-yoga is an integral part of traditional Hindu culture, with the health benefits of it being undeniable, if not incontrovertible. In and of itself, it may relate to the more transient aspects of life, but as someone who daily practises pranayama, I can vouch for the sense of calmness it instills in one’s being, in addition to aiding one achieve better, prolonged concentration, both of which are definitely conducive to japa and meditative reflection of superior quality. Hence, as is the case in so many other arenas, the advantages conferred by regular practice of hatha-yoga can be readily projected to bhakti-yoga. We simply need to open our minds to it.

      • Actually Sanatana Goswami suggests pranayama before mantra dhyana in his Hari-bhakti-vilasa.

        • Vikram Ramsoondur

          Thank you for this information, Maharaja. I was unaware of it. I am familiar with parts of the HBV, but have never got around to taking in the whole of it. But I guess that it is a thing I shall have to do at some point. This is thus one more project on my list of future must-dos.

        • That is interesting. A heard that before but I have never actually seen anyone present the actual quote from the text.
          I learned pranayama many years ago and have always felt it to be a great aid to concentration.

          • Vikram Ramsoondur

            There are in fact not one, but three, references to pranayama in the Hari-bhakti-vilasa. These are verses 422, 423 and 500 of the text. Check it out, if you have a copy of the work.

          • Vikram Ramsoondur

            Of the 8th Vilasa, to be precise.

  2. I don’t think governmental motivations for getting their piece of the pie is the issue; they do that with everything. If one wants to do business then taxes are involved; there’s not much one can do about that. In that sense I don’t see how yoga classes are any different from selling religious articles for worship. As far as I know yoga studios are businesses not churches–they offer a service to the community and accept money for it. Just because a person considers those classes the place of their spiritual practice doesn’t change the fact that money has been exchanged for what is going on there. After all, it’s not a donation to a nonprofit.

    It also seems to me that if yoga classes are to be taxed then other similar practices like chi gong and martial arts should be as well (and maybe already are, I don’t know).

  3. Great article Nitai! It is very sad that the government sees yoga as a taxable commodity. I can see a tax on a gym class but a tax on a class at a yoga center. How horrible! I think that the space between church and state needs to wider so that it can encompass a a larger group of practices and individuals.

  4. KB’s reaction is typical in that it reflects the reality of our community. We are advocates of bhakti-yoga but have no clue of the yoga part of the equation. Much is lost because fo this. Meditation or smaranam does indeed require bodily discipline which involves posture (remember “sit properly”?), proper breathing, and even diet, among other things. The machine-gun style of chanting on beads while promenading back and forth is not in accord with traditional meditative yoga. Perhaps in our branch of the tradition we make too strongly the case for shunning the body; sort like throwing the baby out with the bath water. The body should be used for meditation. So we devotees need to be better educated on the yoga aspect of bhakti-yoga, for our own good.

    • My point is that anyone can meditate at any time they choose without either paying a fee to some “teacher” or a tax to the Government.
      The title of the topic seems to insinuate that the Government is out to tax anyone who meditates. But, that is no so.
      What the Government wants is tax money on people who make their living teaching the mechanics of meditation and yoga by charging a fee for instruction.
      Clearly, the idea of charging a fee for spiritual instruction goes against every known religious faith in the world.
      Traditionally, advanced spiritualists would share their knowledge and blessings free of charge.
      This modern idea of charging a fee to teach one how to attain salvation goes against most everything western Christian society stands for.
      We shouldn’t hold our breath while we wait for the United States Government to accept the idea that salvation can be acquired for a nominal fee that is not taxable.

      • Teaching is a profession. Brahmins are teachers and make their livelihood through teaching others. While in ancient India the society was set up to provide for such brahmins, in the West today there is no such system. Thus yoga instructors need to work with the system they are part of and charge something. If this also means that they need to pay taxes, so be it. For that matter I am sure that most yoga teachers pay income tax on the money they earn. But that is not what the article is about. It is about the government charging people a tax for the yoga classes they take, a sales tax. There is no sales tax on food and other items, and no sales tax at all in Oregon and maybe elsewhere. Let the government tax meat or a good number of other vices before it taxes yoga.

  5. No matter if some sadhana is a “religion” or not, as soon as there is some fee charged for the class or the program it becomes taxable. Religion is not a product that can be packaged and sold tax free.
    If the Government goes after “yoga” centers that charge a fee, then I would say that they are quite right to do so.

    Some spiritual minded people choose not to abuse the tax exemption shelter of religious institution, but rather prefer to pay their taxes and contribute their fair share to the society that they get so much facility from. When religious members on the other hand cheat the society out of it’s due taxes, they are setting a very bad example and it ultimately comes to reflect on the sect and the religion and in fact turn many people aways.

    Nowadays many “gurus” are simply merchants involved in profiteering for the purpose of artificially building up a facade of greatness with facilities that have been acquired with the help of avoiding taxes.
    Somehow the notion that spirituality necessitates one become a tax-evading sect member has been quite popular in the last 40 years or so, but in reality this is a very poor example of how a person can live in modern society and still cultivate spirituality.

  6. To be more clear, this article is about the state charging people to learn how to practice yoga, which they could have taken an interest in out of spiritual concern.

  7. From what I have heard, the Brahmins in Vedic society never charged a fee but simply accepted whatever compensation they were offered which was sometimes nothing.
    So, an up front fee automatically violates the Vedic concept of Brahmins giving instruction and sometimes health care free of charge.
    In many cases the Brahmins even refused remuneration if in fact they were financially stable and not in need of any more funds.
    Brahmins only accepted donations if in fact they were in need of such funds. They never accumulated more than the basic bare necessities.
    Most Brahmins lived lives of avowed poverty.

    • I already addressed you point earlier:

      Teaching is a profession. Brahmins are teachers and make their livelihood through teaching others. While in ancient India the society was set up to provide for such brahmins, in the West today there is no such system. Thus yoga instructors need to work with the system they are part of and charge something.

      In other words in our society the teaching class is paid, not much but something. There is not much difference in this and not asking for financial remuneration in a society where it is expected to give payment by way of donation. Teachers often choose their profession not because it will be lucrative but because they have a calling to teach and a disposition to serve the society through education. Most yoga instructors barely get by, but they love what they do and see their remuneration more in terms of the satisfaction they get from doing something meaningful then in the money they are paid.

      But let’s stay focused on the article. Do you think you should have to pay the government to learn about yoga? That is what the state of Missouri thinks.

  8. Tripurari Maharaja:

    . Thus yoga instructors need to work with the system they are part of and charge something.

    I understand, but unfortunately, in the west, when you start charging for yoga lessons the Government will expect you to pay sales and income tax on the income.
    Ideally, spiritual instruction centers are best operated off of donations rather than charging fees.
    Why should yoga centers not have to pay taxes when the Pilates and other such fitness centers charge fees and sales tax as well?

    • Well spirituality aside I would argue that there are better things to tax people for than exercise, things that people could and should do without. Why tax exercise and not tax food? People pay enough for health care, why tax them for taking care of their own health?

      • Anyone can exercise without paying a tax. The tax is not on the exercise but on the instructions of the instructor and use of the facilities.
        I don’t think the Government is quite yet to the point of taxing people for exercising.
        We can’t expect the Government or the society to treat yoga centers that charge a fee any different than they treat gyms, Pilates and Martial Arts schools.
        Yoga centers without non-profit religious status can’t expect the same benefits as Churches, Mosques or Temples.
        Yoga instruction is still a luxury item in the eyes of the Government and will not enjoy the same status as food.

        • Personally I don’t think they should tax gyms, etc. either. Indeed, those who are conscientious enough to exercise regularly and systematically should get a tax break. Yes, anyone can exercise for free. That’s true. Anyone can also grow food and they probably should.

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